A hard look at barking and how different behaviorists suggest solving barking problems
Your dog barks. And he doesn’t stop. He keeps barking and barking and barking.
If your dog barks so much that it gets on your nerves, you need help. And we’re happy to provide it. This Special Report will cover the many ways to control nuisance barking. In this report, we’ll help you analyze the different kinds of barks your dog makes. We’ll help you determine the situations in which the barking needs control. We’ll show you how to teach your dog to bark on command, and then to stop barking on command. We’ll look at techniques that dog behaviorists use to train dogs not to bark. And we’ll look at some of the different bark control devices on the market.
As you read this, it’s important to keep in mind that training a dog requires consistency in the commands you use and in the training schedule. Whichever techniques you choose to try, keep your commands consistent. And work on your training daily.
Why Dogs Bark
There are many reasons a dog barks. The most common reason is that they hear something, and are programmed to alert the family. That’s one way dogs communicate. But barking is your dog’s way to communicate other things, too. Your dog may be lonely or anxious because you have left and he thinks that you’ll never come back. (That’s called separation anxiety.) Your dog may want to get your attention. He may just be having so much fun that he barks for joy. He may bark because his favorite ball rolled under the bed and he’s frustrated that he can’t get it. Or he may be trying to tell you he can’t wait any longer for you to throw his favorite ball. He may be barking as an invitation to another dog, or he may just be barking because everyone else in the house or neighborhood is barking.
What kind of barking does your dog do? Which barking behaviors need to be controlled? Which are useful communication? Knowing the reason your dog barks can lead to a solution that works. Different situations call for different solutions. And different dogs need different training methods, as not all dogs learn the same way. So observe, listen to your dog, and tailor your solution to your own dog.
Frequently, nuisance barking occurs in response to a noise or intruder.
It can be tough to find a balance between just enough barking to alert you to a problem and nuisance level barking. Barking does serve an important purpose: protection against intruders entering your property. But from your dog’s point of view, the definition of “intruder” is probably quite broad.
He’ll include people (usually), but also other dogs, stray cats, squirrels, trucks (especially UPS trucks) – and sometimes thunder, the wind, and just about anything else that makes an unidentifed noise.
Your dog is barking to let you, the pack leader, know that someone is entering the property. And your dog expects you, as leader, to investigate, make a judgement, and deal with the intruder. That’s your job. All your dog has to do is warn the family.
For many dogs, barking is exciting, a thrilling addition to an otherwise boring day. At last, your dog is happy to do something productive. But dogs just don’t seem to know when to stop.
We want our dogs to bark to scare away a perceived threat, and to alert us about potential danger. One reason many people get a dog is for “protection.” But the barking drives us crazy.
The reality is, you can have it both ways. You can have your dog bark when you’re not home, or when you are home and want some extra protection.
Let’s take another look at the barking situation, and see what really happens, from the dog’s viewpoint.
Your dog hears something, and starts barking to alert you and to scare away whatever made the noise. You arrive on the scene, and in a loud, barking voice, yell at the dog to shut up. Does your dog stop barking? No. Why? Because he thinks you’re just joining in to help bark away the threat.
One of our favorite ways to teach your dog not to bark is to do the opposite: teach your dog to bark on command. Actually, barking, like swimming, is somewhat of a learned behavior. My dog, Chops, didn’t start swimming until I took her out to the lake and a friend showed her how. Likewise, she didn’t bark until she was several months old. We lived in a rural area, where there were no other dogs. She didn’t know about the fun of barking until we left her at the kennel as we embarked on a business trip. Our once-silent dog learned to bark with all the other dogs who lived at the kennel.
Barking For Attention
Does your dog bark while looking at you? He’s trying to get your attention. He can’t cry like a child, although he can tug on your sleeve. (Chops does that when she really needs to go out.) And, there’s always the cold nose trick. Chops and Katie each will stick a nose under my elbow while I’m typing, and lift up. They know it’s a quick way to get my attention. I’m a frm believer in listening to what your dogs want and need, and giving it to them. That way they can think for themselves, and tell you what they need. Chops, for example, may be out in the yard, along with Katie and the cats. If one of the cats wants to come in, Chops will go to the sliding glass door, look through it, and give one simple bark which happens to sound like my name (Ross). I know that it’s a signal to let her in.
Your dog may want dinner, or to play. It’s fine to give your dog what he asks for, as long as it’s not a request made with too much barking. And you must remain in control of the situation, commanding and leading the troops. Make him work (with a sit or a trick) for whatever it is he is requesting. If your dog wants attention, you can give it to him another way: in the form of a two minute intensive obedience drill. Do Sits, Stays, Downs, and anything else your dog knows. Downs are especially good, as it’s tougher to bark while lying down. Be sure to praise him for a job well done.
Barking in Cars
Some dogs get overstimulated or overexcited in cars. This can lead to incessant barking. If you have the problem, you know how distracting it can be. Usually the cause is either perceived territorial threats, or excitement associated with an adventure in a park. One of my dogs would always go ballistic when we turned a particular corner on the way to the beach. She knew that we were getting close to a time and a place for Frisbee®, floating Kong® toy retrieval, and swimming in the ocean.
British behaviorist Dr. Roger Mugford has a few suggestions. First, change the purpose of travel – don’t just drive to the park. Drive to boring places like multistory parking garages. Take the dog on a shopping excursion and make him sit in the car facing a wall (assuming the weather isn’t too hot). Frequently drive “nowhere” and then back home. Train your dog to stay low, where he can’t see out. The floor of the rear seat works well to turn your dog’s attention to things happening inside the car, rather than outside. Instead of using a car barrier to send the dog to the rear of the car, where it has its own little world and can misbehave without fear, try tethering the dog. Use a halter or head halter and a short leash. Or use a car harness, which can help calm the dog by keeping him confined. Another means of confinement is a dog crate, with a blanket thrown over top. And by exercising your dog before the car ride, the dog will sleep most of the way.
Dr. Mugford also notes that his failure rate with these techniques has dramatically decreased since he started using the ABS Bark Control Collar. (More on that later.)
Dogs don’t bark at the doorbell, they bark because they associate the doorbell with the arrival of people. Some work themselves into a frenzy until the guests actually get into the house.
Brian Kilcommons suggests keeping the dog on a leash, and then set up the situation. Praise your dog for alerting you, then take command and order him to “Stop it.” When your dog stops, praise him. If he doesn’t, give him a pop on the leash. When he stops, praise him. Then order him to do a “Down” and praise him some more. Practice this repeatedly for 10 minutes, with a friend ringing the bell. Giving him a food reward when he is quiet will help your dog make the connection between silence and something good to eat.
Carol Lea Benjamin suggests using the word “Enough” instead of “Stop it.” She says that once your dog knows to bark on command and to stop barking on command, you can put it to good use at the door. When the doorbell rings and your dog barks, praise him for alerting you, tell him enough, ask him to sit and praise him again. When you open the door, he should be sitting at your side, alert, but not barking.
Chain Reaction Barking
The sound of a dog barking in the neighborhood starts a chain reaction of dogs within earshot. One bark leads to another and another, until all of the dogs are barking – and most of them don’t know what they’re barking about! This chain reaction also happens in multi-dog families and kennel situations. One dog is often the instigator, with everyone else chiming in.
The instigator dog, then, is the most important one to work on. By retraining that one dog – or using a bark control collar on that dog – peace and quiet will prevail.
If your dog is bored and is barking for your attention, you can give it – with a string attached. Relieve the boredom by giving your dog something to do: a quick two minute obedience drill. Your dog needs to have his brain exercised as much as his body. Keep him occupied with walks, toys, bones, or another dog to play with. Give your dog daily play time, and frequent training sessions.
Another technique is to keep a leash on the dog inside the house. When he comes and barks at you, give him a correction with the leash as you tell him “Quiet.” Praise him when he quiets down. (This works even better when you have control over the mouth with a head halter like the Promise System, Easy Walker, or Halti. See the section on head halters for details.)
Barking When Alone / Separation Anxiety
If you were just a little kid, and your parents left you alone one night in a big, scary house, with strange noises all around, you’d be afraid. And you might have a horrible fear that your parents might never come home. You get more and more nervous. You start to cry and scream, “Please, come home. Don’t leave me here alone. I can’t take care of myself.” But nobody hears you. You keep it up until your parents return. Then you feel better. They’re back. The screaming worked. It brought your parents home.
Those are the feelings many dogs get when you leave the house and go to work. Whether it’s a child or a dog, it’s called separation anxiety. Many dogs get nervous when they’re owners leave. After ten minutes, the fear takes over and they start to bark. I had a neighbor whose dog would bark constantly – from the time he left in the morning, until he returned in the late afternoon. Since I worked out of the condo next door, I had to listen to the dog all day.
The one thing you never want to do is punish your dog’s fear. He’s afraid, and the last thing you want to do is make him feel bad for feeling scared. That can cause some even deeper psychological problems.
Often, the anxiety comes from an overabundance of love and dependence. Your dog has so tight a bond with you that he becomes insecure and panics when you leave. Other symptoms of this kind of panic include destructive chewing of shoes, toys, furniture (and even walls and moldings), or housebreaking accidents. (It’s hard to hold it in if you’re anxious and panicky.)
As Dr. Roger Mugford says, “… attachment or love is the most important motive for canine behavior. Get the love factor right and most other aspects of the relationship between man and dog fall correctly into place.” Dr. Mugford says that separation anxiety is a symptom of an attachment problem, a problem in the management of love. His studies show that two groups of dogs have the most attachment problems. The first is young mixed breed dogs,
particularly secondhand dogs who were abandoned and rescued from the shelter or rescue group.
As with many adopted children, abandonment is a theme which haunts them throughout their life. Afraid to be abandoned again, these dogs can become extremely nervous when left alone. Of the purebred dogs, Dr. Mugford says that Labrador Retrievers have many more separation problems than other dogs such as Golden Retrievers. Because they’re unfailingly loyal, these dogs may overdo it sometimes and be too attached. Other purebreds that have attachment problems tend to come from puppy farms, rather than breeders who allow the dogs to mature to the right stage, and give them love and attention throughout the process. Most attachment problems are outgrown by the age of two years.
Barking at Other Dogs
Barking at other dogs is a natural reaction. It can be an invitation to play, or it can be an invitation to fight for the territory on which they stand. The aggressive invitation is more often due to your dog’s not having met many other dogs in a socialized, structured situation (such as an obedience class).
According to dog trainer Jeanne Carlson, the best thing todo is to encourage your dog to be happy when meeting another dog. She says that the instant your dog sees another dog, even from a block away, you should talk happily to him and say “Look, there’s a pretty dog down the street.” Keep the leash slack and let him know you aren’t upset or tense.
If your dog starts to bark, snap the leash sharply a few times and use a spray bottle set on mist – as soon as he starts to bark. Verbally correct with a strong “Leave it! Quiet! No barking!” Then have him sit, and praise him. Talk happily while you do some calming massage on his neck, but be ready to correct him immediately if he resumes his barking. If he can’t sit still, do a quick obedience drill with plenty of heeling and sits. Keeping your dog busy means he must focus on you, not the other dog.
If your dog is on-leash and another dog approaches, Carlson suggests speaking happily to your dog, and standing out of the way with the leash slack. (The slack leash signals that you’re not worried.) Let the dogs sniff each other while you keep the leash from getting tangled.
Because barking at other dogs can be a prelude to a fight, Carlson says to have your male dog neutered to reduce his aggressive tendencies. Dr. Mugford says to use a bark control collar to interrupt the behavior before it escalates from bark to bite.
Calming An Anxious, Overdependent Dog
Dr. Mugford suggests cooling down your relationship with an overdependent dog. Don’t respond to every call for attention. Ignore some of them. Don’t give in to every request to go out, to sleep on your lap, or to play. Keep him from being your shadow by closing doors behind you. Don’t allow him to sleep in your room at night, and if you do allow that, keep him off your bed.
When leaving the house, be nonchalant about it. Avoid your usual signals to the dog: put your keys in a different place, dress differently, leave through a different door. Keep the dog guessing about your leaving, and vary the length of time you are gone. You can use a tape recorder to determine how long your dog can tolerate your being gone before barking – then keep your time away to less than that time. Leave, and then come back as though you forgot something. Do five of these mock departures to every real departure at first, and work your way down to one mock departure for every two real ones. Keep your dog guessing!
Be sure that your dog has all of its needs taken care of before you go. Give him some extra exercise or play time, feed him and give him water. Let him roam the house when you are gone, and leave a radio on low. Leave a smelly piece of clothing on your bed so your dog can cuddle up for a comforting nap. (Destructive dogs should be confined to a plastic or wire crate, with proper crate training.)
Give your dog something to chew on such as a rope bone or a Kong® toy. These are quite safe and an outlet for nervous chewing. Consider, also, doggy day care, or a visit from a pet sitter as alternatives to being home alone, bored. When you return to find damage, don’t reprimand the dog. Your return should always be a joyful experience for both of you. Finally, Dr. Mugford suggests that if your dog suddenly starts to panic when left alone – after having been fne before – consider a medical problem as a likely cause. Dogs can worry about their own health – especially if it means violating previous housetraining. Check for a medical cause behind the panic.
Mordecai Siegel and Matthew Margolis suggest closing the blinds, shades or curtains when you go out. This cuts down on what your dog can see outside that can stimulate a barking session. If your dog starts barking when he hears the phone ring, unplug it or shut of the ringer. Put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door to keep people from ringing the doorbell and setting of the dog alarm. And try adjusting the lights in your house before you go out. Many dogs will become mellow in subdued lighting or darkness.
Speak/No Speak Training
Jacob Linn, a trainer for the Dog Training Club of St. Petersburg, Florida, suggests teaching your dog to bark on command. Then you can teach him not to bark on command.
Take a treat or a favorite toy, and hold it where your dog can see it. Say, “Speak.” You can even follow the command with your own bark. Pause and repeat the command, teasing your dog with the toy or treat until he barks. Praise him and give him his reward. Then, start over again. Do this five or six times in a row, two or three times a day. He’ll become very good at speaking. The next step is to teach him the opposite. When he starts barking and you want him to quiet down, give him the counter-command of “No Speak.” Say it firmly, but not too loudly. Remember, you don’t want him to think you’re joining in the barking.
To help your dog get the point, get a plastic lemon container of lemon juice. Squirt some of it in your dog’s mouth when you tell him “No Speak.” He’ll stop barking because he’ll be busy licking and swallowing – dogs don’t like the taste! Tell him what a good dog he is. He’s doing what you wanted: he stopped barking.
Remember – don’t ever give a command you can’t enforce. Unless you can be there to give the “No Speak” command and correct him with the lemon juice, if necessary, just let him bark out in the yard. Do this until he consistently obeys the “No Speak” command.
It’s also important to allow your dog to bark for a short time before you stop him. That way, he’ll learn that it’s okay to bark a little, but it’s not okay to continuously bark like crazy. When a stranger comes to your house, you want your dog to bark a little, then quiet down.
Speak / No Speak For Young Puppies
Dr. Roger Mugford suggests teaching your dog to Speak from his very first bark. It’s the easiest time to teach this lesson. When you hear his first bark, say “Speak!”, and then praise and reward him. Whenever you hear him bark for the next several weeks, say “Speak!”, praise him and give him a reward. After a few weeks, he will get the idea that when you say “Speak” he can bark and get rewarded. Because you are directing the barking process, your dog will be less likely to do it without your direction. Later, you can teach the “No Speak” part of the command.
Puppy Bark Prevention
You can teach your puppy just how much you appreciate quiet. This method can help avoid problem barking in later years. The key is not to pet a barking or whining puppy. While calming an upset puppy seems like a natural thing to do, it sends the message that barking is good, and barking gets petting and attention. Best bet: ignore the noise until your puppy stops. Then praise him. He’ll learn that you give attention when he stops barking. Note that it may take up to 10 minutes for him to stop, especially if he’s barking at you during crate training. (He really wants your attention!)
Brian Kilcommons has several suggestions for teaching a dog to be quiet. To silence a barking puppy, sneak up on him. Then slap the wall. The sudden surprise of the noise interrupts the barking. Repeat until he connects the sudden noise with his barking, and learns to stay quiet.
If that doesn’t work, try using a shake can – a soda can (rinsed, please) with two pennies inside. Shaking the can makes a noise that interrupts your dog’s all encompassing focus on barking. Again, make the noise by shaking the can out of sight. You want the puppy to think this is Mother Nature’s response, not yours.
If after three or four shakes your puppy is still barking, throw the shake can behind the dog to interrupt the barking behavior. Again, make sure the puppy doesn’t associate the can with you. Remember, one of the basic ideas behind dog training is to make your dog think that a correction is in response to his action – an automatic response, caused by the action and not caused by you. You can be the good guy in training if you praise your dog after a correction. This reinforces the lesson and makes being with you a safe place to be. But in the case of barking, the shake can should not be associated with you.
The best response to barking is not to yell, shake the dog or punish him. It’s to teach the dog what you want and reward him for good behavior.
Dr. Roger Mugford suggests removing payoffs to barking. If you constantly come back to reassure your barking dog, that may be just the factor that continues the unwanted behavior. For a territorial dog, the payoff may be the sight of people running away from the area. A dog who barks when it’s playtime may have learned that excited barking pays off in play. Change the rules and reverse the outcome of the barking so the payoff is different.
Dr. Mugford says that many times the barking dog is a bored dog. Enriching his lifestyle will make your dog happier and quieter. Add more stimulating and tiring activities to the dog’s life. Take him out to dog training, teach him to catch a Frisbee®, set up an obstacle course in the yard and teach him to jump through a tire. (There are classes and competitions in agility, which works with obstacles. It’s fun for you and your dog.) A poor substitute for human and animal interaction, but still an option, is to offer toys. Brian Kilcommons says, “No dog should be kept tied outside for long periods. It’s no place for a social animal like a dog. Bored and lonely dogs bark, dig, whine, pace and become aggressive when tied because they are miserable and have nothing better to do. They are also at the mercy of other dogs, children or adults. Bring the dog into your home, train him and make him a family member or give him to someone who will. Animals are not like toys to be picked up and put down at will. They are living breathing beings who need your constant interaction to be happy, healthy and sane.” We agree completely. If your dog is going to end up in the backyard chained to a doghouse, don’t get a dog. Train to eliminate the behaviors that make you want to put the dog farther and farther away from your house. Or turn the dog into a shelter so he can be killed or, possibly, given a more loving, caring home.
Head halters are a special kind of collar. They not only fit around the dog’s neck, but an additional loop of webbing fits over the dog’s nose. They work much like horse halters. When you have complete control over the animal’s head, you have control over the animal. A head halter can be used to control barking, too. Connect several feet of rope (if outdoors) or an 18 foot training lead (for use indoors) to the head halter. This should keep you far enough away from the dog so he thinks the correction is coming out of thin air. When he barks, pull on the rope or lead to turn the dog’s head away from the subject of the
barking, and to interrupt his intent focus on whatever is making him bark. Do this several times, always surprising the dog from afar so he links barking to the correction.
There are several different products on the market which are designed to control barking.
Some, like the Barker Breaker, are handheld devices which issue an ultrasonic sound in response to the dog’s barking.
Others are collars, which incorporate circuitry to detect a bark, and issue a correction. The
corrections are either an ultrasonic noise, an electric shock, or a spray of citronella oil.
We’ve used some of the collars with ultrasonic correction. While it just sounds like a big click to the human ear, it’s supposed to distract and interrupt a dog, who can hear the noise at frequencies beyond what the human ear can detect. Unfortunately, the ultrasonic collar we tested didn’t do anything to interrupt our test dogs’ behavior. The dogs ignored it completely.
Shock collars use the same level of shock that the underground electronic fences use. It’s pretty harmless, but quite surprising. (I know. I’ve allowed myself to be shocked by them.) And they definitely interrupt the behavior. All collars need to be used in conjunction with training. The better ones allow the shock level to be adjusted to ft the dog, and allow the dog to bark once or twice and get it out of his system. While effective, many people don’t like the idea of shocking their dog. (Don’t shock a dog with separation anxiety – it will make the fear problem worse!)
Our favorite bark collar, and the one we use at the Good Dog! offices, is the ABS Anti-Bark System collar. Dr. Mugford also recommends this collar (called Aboistop in other countries), as do many other behaviorists.
Made by Immunovet, the ABS collar sprays a mist of citronella oil when the dog barks. This non-toxic mist smells like lemons. The spray is felt by the dog, heard by the dog, smelled and tasted by the dog.
Using all of these different senses, it is very effective at interrupting the barking behavior. And it does it safely. Our dogs know it as The Bark Collar, and merely invoking its name will quiet them down sometimes. Other times, we show it to the dogs, and they stop barking immediately. They don’t like being sprayed
Dr. Mugford notes that there is another option: Have your dog surgically “debarked.” I once house sat with an Afghan who had been debarked as a last resort. This surgery is not traumatic to the dog (aside from the usual trauma of anesthesia and healing) and results in a dog that rasps or gives a crouplike cough instead of barking. While it’s softer than constant barking, and doesn’t travel as far, the debarked dog can still be irritating to you, although it may help out with neighbor problems.
The Afghan was debarked when the city gave the owner the choice of debarking or putting the dog down. Needless to say, the surgical solution is not one to be taken lightly, and conjures up all kinds of ethical questions. On the other hand, in New Zealand it’s a common operation, especially in urban areas.
Putting Barking To Good Use
Earlier, we talked about how dogs need to be needed, and are happier when they have something to do. Carol Lea Benjamin says that once you teach your dog to bark on command, you can put the lesson to work in a fun way. She teaches dogs to bark with both the voice command and a hand signal. The signal is snapping two fingers up and down quickly like a talking mouth.
With this hand signal, you can ask your dog to speak for a cookie, or to speak when he has to go out. You can make him work for his dinner by speaking, or ask him to speak for any other reason – as long as it’s at your request.
For example, you can teach your dog to add numbers together. Ask him, “How much is two and two?” and start him with the hand signal. When he gets to the right answer tell him “Good dog” to stop the barking and make your dog look brilliant.
Benjamin says that your dog will love the chance to use his voice without getting yelled at. Barking on command can be fun for both of you, and your dog will get plenty of praise for each right answer.
Benjamin adds that teaching your dog the hand signal to stop barking can add to your home security. Do you hear a prowler in the house? The verbal command, “Speak” won’t help to scare away anyone. But using the hand signal along with a phrase like “Watch him!
Who’s there? Watch him. Good dog!” can keep your dog barking and help scare away the intruder.
Benjamin, Carol Lea. Surviving Your Dog’s Adolescence: A Positive Training Program. New York: Howell Book House, 1993