Bark management 101

barking-dog

By Jamie Migdal, CEO of FetchFind

Most dogs bark, and while barking can sometimes be a behavioral concern it is a natural part of doggy daily life. This is not to say that you shouldn’t worry about problem barking, or that nothing can be done to solve it. Training and management can help improve the behavior, but, unless you have a basenji, your dog may always bark.

While there are some dogs that just bark now and then, barking can become a problem when the dog barks too much, too loudly, or when the barking is accompanied by other undesirable behaviors.

Solving or troubleshooting your dog’s barking problem depends heavily on understanding just what type of barking your dog is doing. This can be done by observing the cause and characteristics of your dog’s barking.

In The Bark Stops Here, Terry Ryan groups barkers into six broad classifications:

Attention-seeking barkers: Characterized by a bark which is high in pitch and accompanied by pauses and moments when the dog looks around and listens for a response from anyone. ASBs are not picky about who they get attention from.

Territorial barkers: Characterized by a low-pitched, intense burst of barking. This kind of barking is usually startling and short lived. It is accompanied by a distinct body posture: the tail is up, the ears and the corners of the mouth are forward, the stance is tall and forward on toes, the hackles are up, and the nose is wrinkled. Territorial barkers initiate barking when a perceived threat enters into the dog’s imagined territory.  (Remember – the dog defines his territory, not you.)

Boredom barkers: Characterized by a flat boring bark with occasional howling directed at nothing. This kind of barking is repetitive in nature and is usually of medium pitch.

Fearful barkers: Characterized by sharp, high-pitched barking accompanied by a distinct body posture in which the dog’s tail is tucked between her legs, the hackles are up, the pupils are dilated, the nose is wrinkled, and the corners of the mouth are back. Barking is initiated by a perceived threat coming close to the dog. For the fearful barker, barking is designed to increase the distance between the threat and the dog. While the dog may step forward while barking, she will usually retreat as well.

Excitement barkers: Characterized by high-pitched barking, accompanied by a great deal of continuous movement, a wagging tail, and variable intensity.

Separation anxiety barkers: Characterized by high-pitched frantic barking, and accompanied by pacing, drooling, whining, scratching, chewing, and howling.

Problem solving devices and methods:

Training: a number of training options can provide help in the barking arena. You can work on “Watch me,” put barking and “Quiet” on cue (see below), and even work on certain calming signals.

Exercise: your dog might not have as much barking energy if she gets to run it off at the beach! Mental exercise is as effective as physical, so if you can’t get outside try some nosework or indoor games.

Medication: pharmaceutical intervention can be a powerful tool for helping dogs who are anxious or fearful barkers. In those cases, the barking is a symptom of something bigger, and when the bigger issue is addressed, the barking often decreases quite dramatically. If your regular vet isn’t trained in problem barking solutions, consult with a veterinary behaviorist. Look for someone who is a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists; they have the training and experience to find the best solution for the issues that are causing the barking in the first place.

Debarking: I have never recommended surgical debarking, and I never will. Many vets will refuse to perform the procedure, and it has been banned in several states and many European countries. In addition to being inhumane, debarking eliminates one of the dog’s primary methods of communication. If a dog can’t give you an effective warning bark, he’s more likely to go straight to the biting. Also, a debarked dog can still make plenty of noise; my collie, Whisper, was debarked by her previous owners, and she still barks all the time – it just sounds hoarse and painful.

A note about behavior correction collars:

Citronella bark collars: In some cases, a citronella bark collar can be a helpful tool, when used in conjunction with proper training. The CBC is designed to correct the dog for barking by administering a spray of citronella every time the dog barks. This can be effective because it works on four of the dog’s senses: she hears the spray, she sees it, she smells it, and she tastes it (and she doesn’t like it). It is immediate in its response so you won’t have to worry about your own timing.

This is a “last resort” option, and is not always the best solution, especially if your dog’s barking is related to issues of fear or anxiety. Keep in mind that citronella collars tend not to work consistently throughout the lifespan of the device, which means that the collar either won’t spray at all or will spray at random intervals. This will just confuse the dog, and may end up reinforcing other undesirable behaviors. It’s especially important to consult with a behaviorist when considering a CBC, both to be certain that you’ve exhausted all other options and to make sure that you have the right treatment plan in place.

Shock collars: Don’t be fooled by language that says the dog receives a “harmless electronic stimulus” from the collar. Shock collars hurt, and the likelihood that it will end up reinforcing other, more dangerous behaviors is pretty high. If your dog receives a shock every time he barks at someone walking into the house, he will quickly learn to associate pain with visitors, which can result in aggression towards humans.  There is no guarantee that pain is going to be a deterrent, either; some dogs have a higher pain tolerance than others, and their need to bark may override the pain inflicted by the collar. In some cases the constant shocks may make the barking worse.

How to teach “Quiet” by putting barking on cue:

Some dog owners find success in managing barking by training a pair of behaviors: Speak & Quiet. Here’s how!

  1. Initiate barking by using a controlled bark trigger, like the doorbell rung by your training partner or a knock at the door. You have to be able to control this trigger and make it happen a number of times. Remember, training dogs is repetitive!
  2. When your dog starts barking say, “Bark, yes, good bark!” or “Speak, yes, good speak!”
  3. Take a tasty & smelly treat and put it in front of your dog’s nose and say “Shhh” or “Quiet.” Do not give the treat if your dog continues to bark.
  4. Most dogs will stop barking to take the treat, and when he does this say, “Yes, good quiet!” and give the treat.
  5. Repeat!

Keep the individual sessions short (10-15 minutes), and schedule several sessions throughout the day. Once your dog has learned a good, solid “Quiet”, make sure you reinforce it regularly (two or three times a week). If a new barking trigger presents itself, start over with step 1.  You can find apps with sound effects like sirens, children’s voices, or other barking dogs to use as trigger noises.