Understanding Why Your Dog Barks
A dog can bark for many reasons — to defend his territory, signal a stranger, get attention, say hello, express discomfort or frustration, and more. Find out why this happens and what you can do to help!
Understanding why a dog barks is key to getting him to stop. Sometimes, as in the case of compulsive barking, a veterinarian might recommend drugs. But, for the most part, there is no quick fix, and training, behavior modification, and environmental changes are the solutions.
Barking is one of several types of vocal communication tools employed by dogs. You may appreciate your dog’s barking when he or she signals that someone is at your door — or when he needs something (like food or a trip to the loo). However, dogs sometimes bark excessively or at inappropriate times.
Because barking serves many purposes, it’s critical for owners to determine why their dogs are doing it before attempting to address a barking problem. In fact, sometimes the barking is perfectly appropriate (as when alerting that stranger's approach) and/or a learned behavior. Does the dog use barking to get what he or she wants? For example, dogs that get attention for barking often learn to bark for food, play, and walks, as well. Therefore, training a dog to be quiet on command can be an important tool so that you can teach your dog a different behavior (such as “sit” or “down”) for getting what he or she wants.
Dogs of certain breeds may be predisposed to barking (appropriately, if annoyingly) more than others. Owners should be advised (hopefully before bringing one into a household) that certain types of dogs can be more difficult to train to quiescence than others.
Signs and Identification
Everyone knows what barking sounds like. Excessive barking, however, can be subjective. After all, some of us have a lower tolerance for this behavior. In any case, all dog owners should understand that attempting to resolve any dog’s barking problem includes having a veterinarian examine the dog to rule out medical causes of the unwanted behavior.
Indeed, identifying the cause of the barking behavior is crucial to its resolution.
- In territorial barking, dogs bark excessively at people, dogs, or other animals within or approaching their territory. Your dog’s territory includes the area around your home and anywhere your dog has spent time or associates strongly with you, including your car and the places you walk together.
- In alarm barking, dogs bark at any noise or sight regardless of the context. When barking, these dogs usually have stiff bodies and move or pounce forward 1 or 2 inches with each bark. These dogs might bark at sights or sounds anywhere, not just when defending familiar areas.
- In attention-seeking barking, dogs bark at people or other animals for attention or rewards, such as food, toys, or play.
- In greeting barking, dogs bark when they see people or other dogs, but they are excited, have relaxed bodies and wagging tails, and might also whine.
- In compulsive barking, dogs bark excessively and repetitively. These dogs often move repetitively as well. For example, a compulsive barker might run back and forth along a fence or pace when indoors.
- In socially facilitated barking, dogs bark excessively when they hear other dogs barking.
- In frustration-induced barking, dogs bark excessively when they’re in frustrating situations, such as when their activity or movement is restricted.
- In illness or injury barking, dogs bark in response to pain.
- In separation-anxiety barking, dogs bark excessively when left alone or when their caretakers are gone. This barking is usually accompanied by at least one other sign of separation anxiety, such as pacing, destruction, elimination, or depression.
Any breed of dog may be affected, but it is most prevalent among hunting and other working breeds of dogs. In these breeds, the ability and willingness to engage in what is obviously an enjoyable behavior bodes poorly for complete remission of symptoms.
Medical causes of barking should be ruled out before embarking on any behavioral modification or drug therapy to diminish barking behavior.
It takes time to teach dogs to bark less, so owners shouldn’t expect a quick fix or that a dog will ever stop barking completely. Working with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or a certified applied animal behaviorist or hiring a certified professional dog trainer is always recommended.
The veterinary behaviorist/certified trainer will help owners identify a dog’s type of barking. These are some of the most common solutions professionals will offer by way of reducing unwanted barking behavior.
- To manage territorial or alarm barking, blocking a dog’s view of areas that he or she guards can be helpful. Blocking windows that a dog uses and erecting a solid barrier or fence around the dog’s outdoor area are critical. In addition, owners shouldn’t allow dogs to greet people at the front door, yard gate, or property line. Instead, training dogs to go to another location (e.g., a crate or mat) and remain quiet until you invite him or her to greet someone appropriately is an ideal alternative.
- To manage attention-seeking barking, an owner must consistently not reward the dog for barking. Dog owners often unknowingly reinforce attention-seeking barking by looking at, touching, scolding, or talking to their pets; to dogs, all of these human behaviors are rewards. When a dog starts to bark for attention, owners should stare at the ceiling, turn away from the dog, or leave the room. As soon as the dog stops barking, owners should ask him or her to sit, and then give the dog what he or she wants (e.g., attention, play, treats). To be successful, owners should try to never reward a dog for barking.
- It might help to teach a dog an alternative behavior. For example, if you don’t want a dog to bark when he or she needs to go out or come in, install a doggie door or teach your dog to ring a hanging bell by touching it with his or her nose or paw. If a dog barks when he or she wants to play, teach your dog to bring a toy. If the dog barks when you’re talking on the telephone or working on the computer, give the dog a tasty chew toy to occupy him or her before the barking starts.
- In addition, teaching a dog to be silent on command can help strengthen the connection between quiet behavior and attention or rewards. Regularly giving a dog attention (e.g., praise, petting, a treat) when he or she isn’t barking is an excellent approach.
- To manage greeting barking, try to keep greetings low-key. Teach a dog to sit and stay when meeting people at the door. First, teach the dog to sit and stay when people aren’t at the door; this will help a dog practice the behavior before being asked to perform it when people arrive. Keeping a favorite toy near the front door and encouraging the dog to pick it up before greeting guests is recommended. (Your dog is less likely to bark with a toy in his or her mouth.)
- On walks, an owner should distract his dog with special treats (e.g., bits of chicken, cheese, or hot dogs) before the dog begins to bark at passersby. Some dogs do best if they are asked to sit as people or dogs pass. Other dogs prefer to keep moving. Praising and rewarding the dog with treats anytime he or she chooses not to bark is helpful. Putting a head halter on the dog when he or she is likely to bark may decrease the likelihood of barking. For safety, use a head halter only when the dog is supervised. Guidance from a veterinary professional about the use of a head halter is recommended.
- To manage compulsive barking, try changing how you confine your dog. If a dog is alone for a long time, increasing his or her exercise, mental stimulation, and/or social interaction can reduce the impulse to bark. It is also recommended that owners seek guidance from a certified applied animal behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist for this problem.
- To manage socially facilitated barking, keeping dogs indoors when other dogs are barking and also playing music to drown out the sound of other dogs (or distracting dogs with treats or play when other dogs are barking) is often effective.
- To manage frustration-induced barking, teaching a dog to control his or her impulses through obedience training helps a great deal. Teaching a dog to wait, sit, and stay, and rewarding him or her with fun activities such as walks or play with other dogs is helpful. This condition, too, might require the help of a veterinary behaviorist.
- To manage separation-anxiety barking, your dog must be treated for separation anxiety. Please contact your veterinarian for this.
Anti-bark collars deliver an unpleasant deterrent (e.g., a loud or ultrasonic noise, a spray of citronella, and sometimes a brief electric shock) when a dog barks. Anti-bark collars are punishment devices and are not recommended as a first choice for managing a barking problem. This is especially true for barking that is motivated by fear, anxiety, or compulsion. Before using any anti-bark device, seek the advice and guidance of your veterinarian, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, a certified applied animal behaviorist, or a qualified certified professional dog trainer.
What Not to Do
- Don’t encourage your dog to bark at sounds, people, or animals outside your home by asking “Who’s there?” or looking out the windows.
- Don’t punish your dog for barking at certain sounds while encouraging him or her to bark at other sounds, such as people at the door. You must be consistent in training your dog.
- Do not use punishment techniques, which could worsen your dog’s barking problem.
- Do not use a muzzle to keep your dog quiet for long periods of time or when you’re not supervising him or her. Dogs can’t eat, drink, or pant to cool themselves while wearing muzzles, so making your dog wear one for extended periods of time without supervision is dangerous.
Prevention may be undertaken through pre-purchase counseling. Prospective dog owners with a low tolerance for barking behavior should be advised against adopting/purchasing breeds that have an affinity for barking or breeds that require a lot of exercise, unless the owner is prepared to provide frequent walks and other forms of activity.
Recognizing and avoiding situations that trigger barking and providing alternate behaviors that are more appropriate can also aid in the prevention of barking.