Good Behavior – SHHHH!
After a long cold winter, the warmer weather is finally here! As soon as it is warm enough, my first reaction is “let’s open the windows!” It is wonderful to be able to let the fresh air in but sometimes noise, like the sounds of dogs barking, filters in as well. This is the time of year when people suddenly become aware of their dog’s barking. Either because the warm weather is providing more opportunities and things to bark at or because the neighbors are complaining. Either way, it is a problem.
It is a familiar request. “Can you please help me to stop my dog from barking?” Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as the question. There are many different ways to deal with unwanted barking but how you respond to it depends largely on why they are doing it in the first place.
Barking is a form of communication, and not all barks are the same. It is meant to relay information. Here is a variety of reasons that your dog may be barking.
The boredom bark – Dogs need mental stimulation and physical exercise just like they need food, water, and shelter. These things are not luxuries like they are for us, they are basic needs. A dog left unattended in the yard all day or even for an extended period will find things to do to occupy his mind. That can include a variety of taboo behaviors but
Barking is top on the list – Barking at passersby, barking at squirrels, barking because another dog barked, or simply boohooing his solitude results in unwanted noise. The same is true for dogs left in the house all day without much to think about. This type of barking can be helped by an enrichment program along with an exercise program that helps stimulate the dog.
The “I’m alone” bark Barking – and vocalizing (i.e., howling, whining) can be an indication that the dog is experiencing discomfort or anxiety at being left alone. Barking in itself doesn’t necessarily mean that the dog is experiencing separation anxiety but it can be an indication that something is amiss and should be evaluated further by a canine behavior specialist.
The “I’m scared” bark – Dogs often bark at things that make them nervous. It may be in an attempt to drive the scary thing away or as an attempt to let you know some ‘foreign monster-like thing’ has just appeared. Reprimanding this behavior or forcing the dog to ‘get over it’ can exacerbate the problem. Care must be taken to ensure that the dog feels safe as he learns to habituate gradually to the scary thing.
The attention bark – Barking is a great way for dogs to get attention from humans, even though it may not be our preferred method. Think of barking as your dog’s way of saying, “Hey! Here I am! Look at me!! Hey!” This is a hard one for most people because the natural reaction is to attend to the dog to determine the source of the problem. That is, after all, what Timmy did when Lassie barked, right? The problem is that for the dog, his barking worked in that it produced the desired effect, attention. This type of barking is best fixed by ignoring the dog completely until all is quiet.
The demand bark – Like certain people, some dogs can be demanding and are not shy about letting you know about it. “You aren’t fixing dinner fast enough! I want a cookie! Let me out! I want to say ‘Hi’! Pet me now!” Whatever the item demanded, the message is conveyed loudly. The best consequence to this type of barking is a complete removal of whatever the dog is demanding.
The frustration bark – The frustration bark occurs when the dog is prevented from getting something that he wants. It may occur from behind a fence, inside a car or house, or at the end of a leash. In any case, there is something that is restricting the dog and they let you know. Impulse control training is important to help the dog deal with frustrating situations and respond in an appropriate way.
The warning bark – This is the bark that is easiest for owners to accept. This bark lets everyone know that something is amiss. It can be comforting to know that our personal sentry is on duty and alerting us to potential danger. Certainly this is a good thing, except that what is perceived as a potential danger is subject to opinion and your dog’s idea of a threat may be different from yours. This type of barking shouldn’t be discouraged but with training it can be controlled with a “Thank you, now quiet!” cue. The “I like to bark because if feels good” bark. Some dogs bark just because.
Perhaps it feels good to them but it seems as if the barking is not producing anything that we can determine is externally rewarding for the dog. With no external reinforcement we can only guess that the reinforcement is intrinsic. Fixing this requires a focus on teaching the dog when barking is ok and when to be quiet. Harder than it sounds, training this requires a bit of skill.
Barks vary in pitch, repetitiveness, speed and intensity. Generally the lower the pitch the greater the threat. Although some astute owners can tell by the sound of the bark what their dog means; sometimes the reason is obscure. As you can imagine, with all these reasons for and types of barking, there is not a simple answer on how to fix it. Seeing a qualified behavior specialist can help you to define the cause of the barking and prepare a tailored training plan to regain the sounds of silence in your home.
ELISABETH CATALANO, MA, CPDT-KA, CDBC is the Director of Behavior and Training at The Coventry School, Inc. for Dogs and Their People. To reach Elisabeth Catalano call 410-381-1800, or visit www.thecoventryschool.com.