The phone rang, and when I answered it, I could just work out the following desperate question amidst frantic barking:
“My dog (yap yap yap yap) barks (yap yap) a lot, how (yap yap yap) do I stop him? (Yap).”
Anyone in the professional behaviour counselling world will understand just how big a question this was. So, I asked “When does your dog bark?” the answer, “All the time!”
Well, it might feel like it is all the time but dogs generally don’t bark all the time, there is always a trigger or a reason; dogs usually don’t bark just for fun (although maybe some do at certain times).
To be able to answer this question it takes some considerable time to tease out the information. This is why barking issues are usually a behaviour counsellor’s domain. Dogs bark for a variety of reasons, it’s one means of communication for dogs, and in the profession, we call this “vocalisation”.
First rule out veterinary causes:
- Deaf dogs: Deaf dogs can tend to bark more. This is interesting really, because they presumably can’t hear, but the wiring in the brain is there for them to communicate vocally to perceived sounds. It is likely they are responding to vibrations. Some deaf dogs can sometimes bark MORE than hearing dogs. I don’t admit to knowing why this is but I presume it could be due to frustration, stress, fear. It might be that they are responding to vibrations that trigger the vocalisation response that hearing dogs might have realised was not a bark to be responded to, but something else, like a road drill.
- Dementia: As dogs age, some experience cognitive decline, e.g. dementia. One of the most common signs of this is barking for no apparent reason. Indeed, in these cases, there does not appear to be a trigger, they just bark without purpose, possibly because they feel confused and distressed.
- Incontinence: A dog might bark in request to go out if they need to toilet. This can increase with old age as some can become incontinent.
- Pain: Dogs can bark when they are in pain in order to bring about relief or to get an owner’s attention for help.
- Other sensory changes: Such as eye sight problems. If the dog can’t see so well, this can be confusing, which can cause the dog to bark.
Once veterinary matters have been ruled other reasons for barking can be explored:
The dog in the phone call was barking at his mum because she wasn’t giving him her full attention, she was talking to somebody else- me! By barking at her he got her to look at him so he found barking was an effective method of getting her attention. During the call she turned around and shouted ”Shut up”, but actually, even though it temporarily made her feel better, he was rewarded for barking with her attention and the barking continued. This attention barking behaviour will never disappear if it continues to be successful for the dog.
Again, dogs might bark because they need something; the dog might be shut in the garden and want to come in. The dog might need to go to the toilet. Perhaps elicited by a little frustration, this bark is insistent and will continue until the dog's need has been met. The barking is reinforced by the need being met so will be repeated the next time this need occurs. Sometimes we want to reinforce this and as long as we know what the dog means he is providing useful information for us to act on. The dog in the photo below is requesting for no further delay in receiving a treat - this bark is saying PLEASE HURRY UP!
Barking can be an outlet for frustration. For example, the dog sees a sandwich on the counter but can’t reach it. This might lead to the dog barking out of frustration, a bit like a human when we declare “Dammit” when we fail to achieve something we were trying to (in my case, un-jam the printer when my husband is not around to do this for me!).
Another place we might see frustration fairly frequently, is in dog training classes. A dog might bark in the direction of another dog because he wants to greet and is unable to do so. We often see an owner realise this and then release the lead so he can say “hello” to the dog next to him. Unfortunately, this actively reinforces the dog for barking and ensures barking will be repeated next time he wants to say "Hi." We can even see combinations of attention seeking, boredom and frustration in classes where the dog looks at the owner for some eye contact, but the owner is listening to an instructor. A combination of frustration and attention seeking leads the dog to bark, whereupon, the owner looks at him right away. This is an automatic response for us and terribly difficult to override. However, this does lead to barking being reinforced. This is why the use of quiet food delivery activity toys in dog training classes can be so helpful as it prevents boredom, helps dogs to focus on something other than other dogs or their owners’ attention resulting in calm dogs in a class.
Distance eliciting/territorial barking:
Dogs may bark to make something go away. This barking is of a low pitch; other dogs/people recognise this and retreat further away. The warning bark is then rewarded as the other party moves away. So, barking can be territorial and its function is to keep other beings away from the dog. Many dogs practice barking all day (unbeknown to their owners) at dogs or people that pass their house. Inevitably these triggers disappear as they pass the house and then the dog stops barking as their job has been done. Often, without even knowing, dogs get a lot of practice at this when owners are out.The more it happens and gets reinforced, the more of a default behaviour it can become. When behaviours are performed frequently, our brains can develop short cuts for the behaviour, making them even more deep rooted into habits. Practice makes perfect.
Howling is a wolf behaviour and is known to draw members of the group back together. The howl is called and the other wolves join the group responding with howls. It is possible that this behaviour has been passed down to some dogs who can howl when left alone. The theory is that a dog would howl as, ethologically, it brings members back to the individual and may play a role in separation related issues in dogs. Even if a dog does not howl when left, barking can be done through frustration; eventually the owner returns so the barking gets reinforced. This shows the dog is not coping with separation and needs some help in adjusting to this. Sometimes howling can be done in response to a distant noise that triggers the dog to howl. My last dog used to howl whenever I sang (which was a bit unfortunate as I was in a band at the time!)
Dogs can bark when very excited. This tends to be of a higher pitch and can be quite continuous until the source of the excitement has gone out of sight. When playing games with our dogs, dogs can bark almost as if saying “Hurry up”. It is likely that frustration is also involved but dogs will often bark out of excitement when playing with their humans as well as when playing with some other dogs, or watching activities that are highly stimulating for them. This can be just like humans when we cheer at a football match.
Woo Woo barking:
Not all breeds do this but it is a known Dalmatian vocabulary. “Wooowooooooh”. It appears conversational and usually the dog is a bit excited. I have no idea of the purpose but I suspect it is enjoyable for them and a form of greeting. The whippet cross in this photo is woo wooing, you can see from the angle of the head and the puckering of the mouth that this is not a regular bark.
Dogs can bark because they are stressed and it helps to release tension. However, barking also CAUSES stress to humans. If a human is exposed to chronic barking in dogs it continually activates our autonomic nervous system and our endocrine system which can lead to stress. This is why nuisance barking can be so serious, and can have devastating effects on the mental health of those who live nearby, especially if this leads to sleep disruption. It is also one reason why I act on barking in classes, I find it emotionally wearing so I do everything within my power to solve barking issues in class.
Dogs can bark when greeting known people. This is usually a couple of barks that stop when the person greets them. These barks with be of medium or high pitch if the person is a known friendly person.
Your dog is telling you that something is going on that he is worried about. A quite distinctive rapid volley in sequences of 2 to 4 higher pitch barks that may be preceded by some cautious “ buff .. buff… buff” type barking. It is worth investigating this kind of bark as your dog thinks there might be an intruder. Of course, it could just be a fox in your garden. I have known of a very canny dog that used to do this to distract the other resident dog from the best seat in the house. As soon as that dog went to investigate his alarm call, the initiating dog nicked his seat and went to sleep!
Some dogs can bark on cue, and the dog in the picture has three different barks, the one shown in this was a protection bark. Note, not really an aggressive bark as the eyes are soft and the ears are up in anticipation of a click and treat. I have worked with some clients who taught their dog to bark but did not teach him to stop barking. This kind of bark is reinforced actively by a treat, toy or our attention.
Dogs that have little to occupy themselves will bark to alleviate boredom. Boredom barking often involves the same phrase at medium pitch repeated over and over at a medium speed with no urgency to it, "woof woof woof.........woof woof woof....... woof woof woof....." Imagine the small child saying "are we nearly there yet.... are we nearly there yet.... are we nearly there yet...? This is the easiest barking problem to solve as, quite simply, by providing a dog with increased exercise and mental stimulation or a bit of company, the barking should stop. But don't just go out and get another dog to solve this problem as your dog might not like another dog and you may end up with different problems.
If you have a barking dog, and need to resolve the problem, first we need to identify WHY your dog barks. Once we know this, we can develop strategies to help them to stop barking. Please don't just punish your dog for barking because barking is communication. We all know that bad things happen when communications break down! Accept that your dog is trying to tell you something and make it your job to translate what he is saying or ask for help from a qualified dog behaviourist.
I would like to thank the following people for kindly allowing me to use their photos:
Beth Sargeson, Sue Fryer, Shelley Heading, Wendy Jones, Claire Staines.