As dog lovers, we’ve all been there. One or more of our dogs gets a bee in their bonnet over something, and they just won’t stop barking about it! It’s disruptive, it’s annoying, it’s frustrating, it’s maddening. And it seems that the more you yell at your dog to stop, the more they bark.
Why is the Dog Barking?
The most important thing to remember here is that your dog is not a human who can just tell you what is disturbing, scaring, or exciting them. A bark is your dog’s primary way to communicate, verbally. When communicating with each other, dogs generally don’t resort to verbal exchanges, preferring instead to use body language and odors. We as humans have far less intuition when it comes to non-verbal communication. We like to use spoken and written word to get our point across. Dogs have adapted to this the best way they can- by “talking” back to us (but they can’t use our words, so they use their own!)
Your dog’s bark could be signaling any number of things. Owners who encourage verbal communication and study their dogs behavior can sometimes deduce their dog’s needs based on the kind of bark they’re using (much like mothers can deduce what their infant needs based on the kind of cry they’re using!) You don’t have to study your dog’s bark types, but at the very least, you should seek to understand why your dog is communicating in that way.
What Do Dogs Bark About?
Dogs will bark at anything and everything, but they’re never barking at nothing. You might not perceive that something is happening, but some of our dogs’ senses are much more acutely attuned than ours are. They can recognize the sound and smell a familiar or strange vehicle from a mile or more away and they can detect other animals inside and outside the home that we as humans will never know are there.
Their noses are at least 10,000 times more sensitive than ours are. Their hearing is at least two times better than ours is. However their eyesight is also not nearly as good as ours. This means that while they can hear and smell better than us, they can’t see as well, especially at a distance. For anyone who has struggled with their own personal eyesight, we know that this can be frustrating, especially when we don’t really know what’s happening beyond our field of view.
Breaking the Dog Barking Cycle
Reiterating a previous concept, handling a “barking problem” is all about understanding why our dog is communicating with a bark. You can mitigate the annoyance of dog barking by redirecting the behavior. This can be done by teaching an alternate desired behavior that can replace the bark.
Your dog will forever want to tell you when they don’t recognize a person, or they hear a strange noise, or see an object moving, or smell something new outside. They are the sentries, the sentinels, the protectors of the house. First, help your dog to better handle new and strange things by talking to a professional trainer. If the reactivity is ingrained and non-negotiable (read: your dog will just always be a reactive, nervous wreck) then rather than punishing the bark, teach them to do something else instead.
When strangers come over, teach them to “place” in a specific spot away from the windows and doors- this can be a piece of furniture, and dog bed, or a mat specific to dog training.
When they see or smell a strange animal outside, teach them to redirect their excitement to a favorite toy, whether that’s a firm chew toy or a soft stuffed one.
What if Dog Barking is Not Just in the Home?
If your dog goes bananas and barks at every person, car, or animal near you out in public, it’s time to go to a trainer. Work with the trainer to find out what your dog’s safety limits- Is that bark meant to ward off other living things because your dog is scared? Is that bark meant to intimidate other living beings because your dog is protective? Is that bark a precursor to an attack, because your dog is aggressive? These issues are multifaceted and too complicated to address in an article. For this kind of behavior, consulting a behavioral professional is essential for the safety of you, your dog, and everyone you might interact with.
Barking within the home under some circumstances may indicate separation anxiety. If your dog barks incessantly when sequestered to their kennel or a room that is away from you or another person or animal in the house, your dog may have separation anxiety. This bark is their communication of displeasure with the situation. Like a child screaming and crying in fear. Dogs can’t say “Mom, I’m scared, and I don’t want to be alone, please let me out.” If your dog has separation anxiety, it is vital to teach them that they are safe. This means making slow, positive introductions to confined spaces where they’ll be separated from their comfort zone. The “cry it out” method won’t work here. It may be beneficial to talk to a dog trainer about ways you can improve this transition.
How Not to Stop Your Dog’s Barking
Punishing barking behavior is ineffective and some popular methods are actually cruel. Many people sometimes resort to shouting to shush our dogs. Here’s the thing- as said above, barking is the dog’s verbal communication too. They don’t speak English, French, Cantonese, or any other language that we do. And in the inverse, we don’t speak dog. What happens when we yell at our dogs for barking is a whole lot of yelling back and forth, in a way that never crosses the language barrier.
Anti-barking devices are another popular way to address a dog’s vocalization. One such product group are Ultrasonic Dog Silencers. “It’s not cruel; it just emits an annoying sound back at them to make them stop.” They don’t work. And they don’t solve the root cause of the problem- which can be solved by taking an active role in managing the dog’s behavior.
Bark collars are another popular way to address barking. When the dog barks, the device detects vibration in the throat and reacts. Most bark collars have a “vibrate” function, and most owners fool themselves into believing their dog will get the point with the vibration. The unfortunate thing is that they don’t, and their barking usually escalates until they get the first in a graduated series of electrical shocks from the collar. If you want to put a bark collar on your dog, try wearing it yourself first. Resist the urge to talk for the entire the collar is on- you will surely fail, and eventually you’ll talk enough that you get a shock. It’s painful. A dog’s fur doesn’t cushion against it.
Why Dog Barking Punishment is Bad
Our human perception of dog barking is that it’s socially inappropriate. But we must remember that dogs have no concept of our man-made social expectations. When we punish them for exhibiting natural behavior, we’re creating an internal conflict- If I’m not supposed to bark… What am I supposed to do instead?
Punishing barking is also problematic, in that your dog doesn’t understand that they’re being punished for the bark. If you have a shock collar on your dog and they bark at a squirrel and get shocked, their perception is that they got shocked because there was a squirrel there. This can cause them to develop fear related adverse behaviors that end up being far worse than the initial problem of barking. If your dog is terrified of whatever they usually bark at, because they end up shocked every time they see it, they can react with fight or flight reflexes. If your dog fears a shock because of the car, or the stranger, or the critter, they might drop into a trembling mess, or they might decide it’s worth fending off their adversary with a bite.
As dog owners, it’s our responsibility to understand our dog’s behavior. We are, after all, stewards of their care, their sole providers, and the primary view they get of the world around them. When dogs exhibit behaviors we decide are unacceptable, we need to evaluate why we think those behaviors are unacceptable, and we need to decide how to help our dogs understand our expectations, without stifling their natural self-expression.
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