Behavior & Symptoms
The Talkative Canine
You read about dogs who bark to let their owners know the house is filling with carbon monoxide. Four-legged heroes! You thank your dog for barking when someone walks onto your property. But what about the dog who barks non-stop when you prepare his food? Or one who barks for 30 minutes when you have guests over? Or who can’t stop barking at the landscaper? Why can’t your dog learn when to bark, and when to be quiet?
If you live with a chatty canine and want your world to be quieter, how you deal with his barking depends on why he’s barking in the first place. There are different reasons why dogs bark. Some issues are more challenging to fix than others.
Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB, VetScoop contributor and co-author of From Fearful to Fear-Free: The Ultimate Guide for Fearful Dogs, explains, “Of course, it will vary depending on the dog and the environment. For example, a dog who barks for attention and lives on 10 acres of land can be more easily ignored by the pet parent than a dog who lives in a high rise with neighbors who will complain. In general, if the environment is the same, I would say that those behaviors which are rooted in fear, anxiety, and stress are more challenging than those that are not.”
As you look at why your dog is barking, avoid some common mistakes in trying to silence him. For example, yelling at your dog is not helpful. Some dogs will interpret this as you barking along with them. If your dog is barking out of fear, yelling at him isn’t going to make him less afraid.
Radosta recommends giving your dog better options. She counsels against “yelling or correcting the dog without telling the dog what they can do to be correct in that moment.” Instead, you could teach another behavior that is incompatible or one that allows your dog to cope better with the situation.
It’s also important to give your dog a consistent message. Don’t praise your dog for barking out the window and then yell at her when she’s outside walking on leash and barks at someone. This is just confusing to your dog.
If your ears are ringing from your dog’s barking and it’s enough to give you headaches, it may be tempting to reach for a bark collar promising a quick fix.
“If the dog has fear, anxiety, panic, conflict, or stress, suppressing the dog’s only way to communicate will make the problem worse in the long term,” Radosta cautions. “Finding that root cause or the reinforcement that perpetuates the behavior is required for the long-term fix. Physical punishers such as electric collars (shock) produce very potent corrections. The damage from that correction, and the learning that has occurred because of it, can’t be undone. Once a traumatic or painful memory is laid down in the brain, it isn’t easily forgotten and may not ever be forgotten based on some of the research in rodents. In other words, the damage that these collars do is not worth any perceived benefit.”
Let’s look at different types of barking we commonly see in pet dogs, along with tips on helping them learn to be quieter.
One day, Annie stood by the back door and barked, staring at you. You quickly walked to the door and let Annie outside, where she peed on the grass. You successfully saved your floor from an accident, but also taught Annie to bark when she wants to go outside. She may want to go outside to chase squirrels or dig in your garden. You don’t want to risk her peeing in the house, so every time she barks at the door, you let her out. Annie learns barking open doors.
You start preparing Annie’s food and she is so excited she starts barking. This is annoying, so you hurry up and give her dinner to shut her up. You just rewarded her for barking. She starts barking every time you prepare her food.
Annie loves playing fetch. You’re on the computer, and she brings you her favorite ratty tennis ball. You are busy, so you ignore her. She barks at you, nudging the ball closer to your shoe. You really want her to be quiet, so you throw the ball. You just rewarded the barking again. Annie starts barking at you until you throw the ball. Over, and over, and over, and over.
You’re having a conversation with your spouse, and no one is paying attention to Annie. This is not acceptable! She barks at you, and you immediately look at her and tell her to hush. You just rewarded her barking. It doesn’t matter if you yell at her or tell her to be quiet. What she wanted was attention, and you gave it to her.
Unfortunately, pet parents are often at the root of attention-seeking, or demand, barking. You don’t mean to teach your dog to bark at you all the time, but if you keep paying that behavior, it will continue. In order to fix it, first make sure it really is attention your dog wants, and she is not barking for other reasons, especially fear. If Annie just wants your attention or for you to do something for her, then you’ll need to change your habits in order to change hers. Start giving her lots of attention for being quiet. Instead of giving her dinner for barking, wait until she is quiet. Don’t throw the ball if she barks at you. Choose a better way for her to let you know she needs to eliminate outside, such as ringing a bell rather than barking.
If she barks, ignore her. Don’t yell at her, as this is not effective. Don’t stare at her. Wait until she is quiet and then give her the attention she wants.
Frank is a nervous dog. When he hears a sudden, loud noise, he flinches and barks. Lots of little noises set him off, so much so that sometimes you can’t even figure out what he’s barking at. He is hesitant to approach people he doesn’t know. He’ll back away from them and bark. When he sees another dog, he lunges at them, barking. He looks really stiff, standing on his tiptoes. One day, you came home from jogging with your hoodie pulled up over your head. He freaked out when he saw you, barking ferociously, until you pulled the hoodie back and showed him it was you.
If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it can be hard to see Frank is afraid, especially since he’s so vocal. Some pet parents will say he’s “protective,” but he really only wants to protect himself. Often, a dog who barks, lunges, or growls is actually afraid.
“Sometimes fearful dogs learn that the best defense is a good offense,” Radosta explains. “Once certain body language signals are consistent with a feeling of safety or are reinforced by the environment, such as the person walking away, they will be offered again and again. I tell pet parents that regardless of the motivation, such as fear, stress, conflict, panic, frustration, or anxiety, this behavior is accompanied by a physiologic stress response and is unhealthy. It is damaging to the dog’s overall health and wellness. It isn’t within normal limits for dogs, and it isn’t a ‘training’ issue. Once the dog is lunging, growling, or snarling among other things, there is a stress and emotional component that must be addressed.”
For Fearful Frank, barking is a symptom of a bigger problem. The real root of his barking is fear. If you suspect your dog is fearful, please consult your veterinarian. Only work with experienced, reward-based professionals who understand the science behind helping Frank overcome his fear.
Some dogs are bred to be protective. Titan is a Great Pyrenees, and any time someone walks past his property he barks at them. His breed is a livestock guardian, bred to tell predators to stay away. Titan has never met a sheep in his life, and the closest predator he can perceive is the mailman. So he makes do with what he has.
Territorial barkers aren’t operating out of fear, like most dogs who bark at strangers. These dogs are being protective. This may be helpful to you, but it can also be problematic. Titan may not understand the difference between a trespasser and your grandma. People always want dogs to instinctively “know” bad guys from the good ones, but this is unrealistic. We’re not always great at it, so how can we expect our dogs to be better?
Titan would benefit from training. If you want him to sound the alarm, teach him specifically when to do so, such as when someone steps onto your property. If someone is just passing by, there’s no need for him to sound the alarm.
Note that while not all breeds are naturally territorial, some are also predisposed to barking. Herding breeds, for example, are meant to move livestock, often by barking.
Evan bounces and barks. When he’s happy, he tells the world about it. When you have visitors, he’s beside himself, all wiggly and barking and jumping all over everyone like a loveable maniac. His intentions are sweet, but the happier he gets, the more he talks about it.
Evan would benefit from training, and probably more exercise. If he has enough energy to run around like a riotous tornado, he may not be getting the amount of exercise he needs. Talk to your veterinarian about a suitable exercise routine. In the meantime, train Evan to do something else rather than bark and jump on your guests. You could teach him to run to a specific bed or rug (a “place” behavior) and stay there until he’s calmer. You could teach him to go get a toy. He may still bark, but it would be muffled!
Penny cannot play without barking. She’s great with other dogs and plays with them appropriately, but barks throughout her play dates. She’s currently training in agility and barks a running commentary the entire time she’s dashing through the course.
If Penny gets so overstimulated during playtime that she starts barking, give her frequent breaks to calm down, rewarding her for being quiet during them. When you’re training behaviors, make sure you only reward her doing them quietly, not when she’s barking.
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Questions for your Vet
- Ask for a physical examination and a baseline work up. Radosta explains, “Up to 83 percent of pets who present to veterinary behaviorists have systemic disease or pain that is undiagnosed. That is a big number. Don’t assume that your dog is completely well. He can’t talk to you, so you have to be proactive.” There may be a physical reason why your dog is barking so much.
- How much exercise is appropriate for my dog’s breed and age? Sometimes a bored dog will expend his energy in barking. All dogs need exercise, but how much will depend on your dog’s physical health, breed (or breed mix), and age. For example, an adolescent Weimaraner is going to need a lot more exercise than a geriatric Pug.
- If your dog is barking out of fear, would behavioral medications be helpful? Don’t be afraid of medication. When used in conjunction with behavior modification, it can be extremely effective in helping your dog work through his fear and become a more confident and therefore quieter canine. Your veterinarian can guide you on proper medications to help your fearful dog or can refer you to a veterinary behaviorist.
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