Humans are tremendously vocal creatures. Despite our own talkative tendencies, we tend not to appreciate “excessive” vocalizations from our dogs. Rest assured, your dog does not feel her barking is excessive. When she barks, she is trying to communicate with you. Learning why she barks is the key to stop your dog from barking.
Depending on the reason for barking and your own training skill level, you may need to consult with a qualified trainer/behaviorist to assist you with the training. For more on selecting a behavior professional, check out the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior guidelines for choosing a trainer.
Why Do Dogs Bark?
Just as there are many reasons humans speak, dog barking occurs for a number of reasons. Here are a few of the most common:
Distance decreasing: Distance decreasing barking can also be considered attention-seeking barking. The dog is barking to communicate with the owner – “pay attention to me!”
Boredom: Evaluate your dog’s lifestyle. How much physical exercise is she getting? How much social stimulation through appropriate play with other dogs? How much play does she get with you? Is she getting adequate mental stimulation in the form of both training and problem solving? If your dog is barking because of boredom, consider more physical exercise, more positive training, and introduce new toys and games for environmental enrichment (consider Buster Cubes, Kong toys, kibble hunts, Nina Ottosson toys, marrow bones, chew toys, bully sticks, antlers, etc.).
Frustration: While some frustration barking is boredom barking, not all boredom barking is frustration barking. Often in class, dogs bark when their owners have poor timing or because the rate of reinforcement is too low, the dog is frustrated because the signals are unclear. This dogster thread will help you improve your training skills.
Dogs also bark out of frustration when they are not sure what is expected of them – if you are asking for a behavior in a new environment without sufficient proofing, your dog is communicating to you that further training is needed before she can focus on cue response in that environment.
Separation distress/anxiety: True separation anxiety (destruction to self or property) is a topic beyond the scope of this article. If your dog is injuring herself or destroying your home, please seek the assistance of a behaviorist in addressing the issue.
If you believe your dog has separation distress (limited vocalization, no injury to self or property), consider how long she is left alone – if it is more than eight hours for an adult (even shorter periods of separation are recommended for puppies), find a dog walker or pet sitter to break the day up. Provide her with mental stimulation through puzzle toys, kibble hunts, etc., when she is alone. Greetings and exits should be low key. If her separation distress worsens, consult with a behavioral professional.
Invitation to play: Some dogs bark to say, “Hey, I want to meet/play with you NOW NOW NOW!” (puppy barking frequently falls in this category). These barks are generally high pitched, and are often accompanied by wagging “propeller tails,” loose/wiggly body language, play bows and jumping. Ask those who would like to interact with her to wait for calm, quiet behavior before greeting to avoid reinforcing the behavior. Also, click her for looking at people or other dogs/greeting quietly and for quiet or for focus on you despite these distractions.
Distance increasing: Distance increasing barking is a defensive behavior – the dog is trying to ward off potential conflict.
Distance increasing barks are generally low in pitch and may accompany intimidating body language including a stiffly wagging tail, rigid body posture, display of teeth, growling/snarling, snapping, kicking of back feet, etc.
If you suspect your dog is reactive or aggressive, it is best to consult with a qualified professional with experience using counter conditioning and desensitization to rehabilitate dogs as soon as possible.
A full veterinary evaluation including thyroid panel is advised for aggressive/reactive dogs.
(Barrier frustration is included in the category of distance increasing behavior and usually involves barking/lunging on leash or behind/inside of cars, fences, gates, or crates.)
Alert barking: Humans have been selecting for barking in dogs for millennia. This behavior is deeply ingrained in the dog, and is generally not a problem for pet owners unless it becomes “excessive.”
As alert barking is generally very self-reinforcing, your best bet is to train an alternative, incompatible behavior (“quiet!”). Here is a great article from Karen Pryor on teaching bark/quiet as a paired cue to bring barking under control.
Can I Stop Dog Barking?
Short answer: No. Surgical debarking is never humane and rarely effective in totally eliminating vocalizations. Dogs bark! You can, however, train your dog to stop excessive barking behavior if you listen to why she barks and respond appropriately with effective, positive training.