24 August 2011

Barking mad

I was pondering the other day how when I take a call from a potential client about a problem they are having with their dog, they often describe the dog’s behaviour in a particular way. 

They tell me about the problem, and then go on to say, “but she’s SUCH a good girl the rest of the time … and she NEVER barks.”

So if a dog never barks, this is considered to be ‘good behaviour’, but replace ‘dog’ with ‘child’ and ‘barks’ with ‘speaks’, and suddenly we have a major communication problem on our hands.  Time to call in the doctors, medical experts, psychology specialists and do tests to find out why there is no speaking.  We celebrate our children’s first vocal utterings, melt the first time that they say ‘mummy’, smile when we listen to them playing and shouting and laughing with their friends, but when a dog barks, we get annoyed and want them to shut up or better still, never bark at all – except of course when we want them to warn us that someone is trying to burgle the house.
It’s a sad fact of our modern-day age that a barking dog is considered to be a noise nuisance and socially unacceptable, particularly in the light of the opinion of some scientists who say that our faithful friends have spent the past 10,000 years or so developing a repertoire of different barks solely for our benefit.

Bless their paws.

The real fact is that barking is a human problem, not a canine one.  Dogs bark.  They are supposed to bark – that’s what dogs do.  Barking is normal.  Barking is good.  Barking is COMMUNICATION.  But barking can become excessive, and it can be anti-social when it happens at 2 o’clock in the morning, however, we shouldn’t view it as ‘bad behaviour’, as something that needs to be punished.  Instead we need to understand the reasons why our dogs bark and know what to do to influence their behaviour in order to bring excessive or anti-social barking under control.

Dogs bark in exactly the same way as we shout.  Air is rapidly expelled from the lungs via contraction of the diaphragm, passes through the trachea and larynx, causing the vocal cords to vibrate and the rush of air to be emitted as an audible sound from the dog’s mouth. 

Just as we can control the volume and pitch of our voices by widening or narrowing the space between our vocal cords, in the same way a dog can control the force and pitch of its bark, and make other sounds such as whining, howling, baying, growling, screeching and yodelling.

There are six main reasons why dogs bark, and for each of those reasons, the bark is different.  Here’s my attempt at ‘translation’:

1)     The Alarm-Alert Bark.  Used to alert others to a particular situation or when taken by surprise.  Pitch is normally fairly high, the tone urgent, and barks are short and largely singular with definite pauses, e.g. “Hey! What! Who! Hey!”  Sometimes an alarm bark may change into an excited greeting, e.g. “Hey!  It’s-Jim!  It’s-Jim!  Everyone … IT’S-JIIIIM!”.  Tilly’s alarm-alert bark is very distinctive, and she only uses it when someone familiar arrives on or near the property – friends, our immediate neighbours, and even the postman.

2)     The Warning Bark.  Used to increase social distance.  Pitch is normally low, the tone threatening, and barks are successive and more rapid than the alarm bark and may be interspersed with growls, e.g. “I saaaaiiid … Back-off!  Back-OFF!  BACK-OFF!  BACK-OFF-PAL!  BACK-OFF-PAL!  BACK-OFF-PAL-I-MEAN-IT!”.

3)     The Play Bark.  Used during play.  Normally a mix of pitches with tones of excitement and goading and may include growls – “Hey! Wanna PLAY?  I wanna play!  C’mon … LET'S PLAY!”

4)     The Command Bark.  Used to command another’s attention.  The pitch varies from dog to dog but normally remains fairly consistent with a demanding tone, e.g. “OI … YOU … YES … YOU!”

5)     The Need Bark.  Used to decrease social distance.  Pitch is normally high with a desperate tone, may include whining, yipping and howling, e.g. “Come-back … please-come-back … please-oh-pleeeeeeeeeease … come back … come-back-please … please-come-back”.

6)     The Displacement-Compulsive Bark.  Displacement behaviours are performed to ‘displace’ an un-resolvable emotional state, e.g. frustration, anxiety, excitement, social conflict or boredom.  Compulsive behaviours are both signs of stress and stress-relieving in nature.  Both types of behaviour function as a way of releasing what would otherwise be pent-up energy.  With the displacement-compulsive bark, the pitch and tone varies from dog to dog but it is always rhythmic and repetitive in nature, for example, a 'one bark per second' or a “BARK, BARK, BARK (pause) BARK, BARK, BARK (pause) BARK, BARK, BARK (pause) ...” style pattern.  

The barks that tend to become problematic are the alarm-alert bark, and the command and need barks, both of which can turn displacement-compulsive if the underlying stressor is not removed.  Excessive barking in the car when travelling is usually an extension of the alarm-alert bark – adrenalised and triggered by lots of fast moving stuff whizzing past the windows.  This goes for dogs that bark in response to sights and sounds when at home – police sirens, car alarms, kids playing, people passing by on the street.  The need bark can continue for hours without a break – a common symptom of a dog suffering from separation distress syndrome (SDS).  I read a very sad story recently of a Bulldog, who during his stay in boarding kennels while his owners were on holiday, barked himself to death, eventually suffocating because his larynx was so inflamed from barking almost continually for an entire week.

So what can be done to prevent barking from becoming excessive, or to resolve it when it has reached problem levels? 

In my professional experience, so-called ‘anti-bark’ collars are, on the whole, ineffective at stopping barking.  I have never used one nor advocate their use, but I know that largely they are ineffective because by the time many of my clients call me with a barking problem, they have already tried an anti-bark collar, and in many instances, made their dog’s barking worse through its use.  Because barking often occurs due to a panic or fear-inducing stressor of some kind, when an out-of-the-blue spray of citronella under the chin or worse still, an electric shock, is added to this, all that happens is that the dog becomes more stressed.  I saw one case last year of a dog whose owner had used an anti-bark collar to try and stop her dog’s barking and while it did work to stop the noise, it also sent the dog into a downward spiral of stress and by the time I saw her, the problem wasn’t barking, it was that the dog was literally tearing the hair from its paws and flanks every time she was left on her own.

The best way to resolve a barking problem is not to focus on the barking itself, but to look at the broader picture – to resolve the underlying cause for the barking. 

Q.  If your dog is barking when left alone, is it because he can see and hear things beyond the house (alarm-alert bark)?

A.  Remove his view of the street by drawing blinds or curtains.  Restrict his movement within the house by confining him to an area away from ‘busy’ windows or doors.  Leave a radio or CD playing on normal volume to help mask sounds coming from outside or neighbouring properties.

Q.  If your dog is barking when left alone, is it because she is under-stimulated and needs more exercise, mental challenge or company (command bark, displacement-compulsive bark)?

A.  Always exercise your dog for at least 30 minutes before leaving her on her own.  Leave her with activity toys (e.g. a filled Kong) and chews.  If you have to leave her for more than 4 hours a day, employ the services of a pet sitter, dog walker or doggy day-care.

Q.  If your dog is barking when left alone, is it because he is suffering from SDS (need bark)?

A.  SDS is a complex behaviour issue and the solution often requires a many-pronged approach, and is dependent on the underlying cause of the separation behaviours (e.g. it could be that the human-canine bond is out of balance, or that the dog’s temperament or background predisposes it to separation distress).  If your dog is suffering from SDS it will likely be displaying at least one other SDS-related behaviour.  Enlisting the help of a reputable dog behaviour psychologist is strongly advisable in order to reach a lasting resolution that does not further damage the dog’s mental health. 

Q.  If your dog is barking in the car, is it in response to what she can see whizzing past the windows (alarm-alert bark)?
A.  Place the dog in a travel crate and cover the sides with a blanket or fit black-out blinds to the car windows and between the front and back seats.  If you choose the latter option, with the curtain between the front and back seats open, when your dog barks, pull the blind/curtain to obscure the dog’s view.  When it is quiet, open the curtain a little.  So long as the dog doesn’t bark, the curtain can remain open.  If it barks, close it.  This is a two-person training job – do not operate the curtain if you are driving!  Eventually, you may be able to remove the blinds altogether.  If you use this technique, it is also advisable to teach the dog the ‘QUIET’ command too.

Q.  If your dog is barking in the car, it is in response to people or dogs that walk near the car when parked (warning bark)?

A.  Great!  It’s unlikely that anyone will jack or steal your car, however, as territorial behaviour it can become out of control and if the dog does escape from the car while it is barking, it may well follow through with a bite to the passer-by.  I do not advocate leaving dogs in the car on their own under any circumstances, but if you do this, secure the dog in a covered travel crate instead of allowing it to climb all over the seats and get defensive and stressed every time anyone strays near.  NEVER EVER LEAVE A DOG IN A VEHICLE DURING WARM OR HOT WEATHER!  If you are also in the car when parked when the dog barks at passers-by, you could use some classical conditioning (Pavlov’s dog style) and present the dog with a food tit-bit every time it spots a person or other dog.  This way, a positive association is made with passing people and dogs, and the dog no longer feels the need to warn them away. 

Q.  If your dog is barking in the garden, is it because of noise from neighbouring properties or in response to other dogs barking (alarm-alert barking)?

A.  Working on your dog’s recall is important, also the ‘QUIET’ command.  To teach the ‘QUIET’ command, first you must allow the dog to bark.  When there is a natural pause in the barking, with the dog facing you, say it’s name to get it to look at you and then say ‘QUIET’ whilst giving some kind of hand signal – either a finger against your lips or crossing and un-crossing your hands in front of you (like you were doing a chest-expansion type exercise).  For the dog to understand what ‘QUIET’ means, it has to be making no noise.  Eventually, you will be able to use the ‘QUIET’ command when your dog is barking, as a cut-off cue.  It’s a good idea to spend time outside in the garden with your dog, playing and training with him.  This will help to integrate many of the every day sounds that cause the dog to alarm-alert bark into his normal garden environment, making him more relaxed outside and less likely to bark.

Q.  If your dog is barking in the garden, is it in response to people and dogs passing by the fence or gate (warning barking)?

A.  If the barking only occurs at certain times of the day, e.g. if your garden is next to a school route, restrict the dog’s access to the garden during those times.  If your fence or gate is open-style (e.g. picket-style or chain-link) consider adding a screen (e.g. willow, bamboo) to obscure the dog’s view.  Work on your dog’s recall.  Use classical conditioning with food tit-bits to change the dog’s association with dogs and people who pass by.  If the problem is extreme (bearing in mind that the barking is reflective of territorial activity) please enlist the help of a reputable dog behaviour psychologist who can provide you with a suitable desensitisation/counter-conditioning plan.

Q.  If your dog is barking at you when you are trying to sit and watch the TV of an evening, is it because you are not providing her with enough attention, comfort or stimulation (command bark)?

A.  Set your programme to record and take 15 minutes to do some training with her or have a game with her.  Let her up on the sofa for a snuggle, or if you are a ‘no dogs on furniture’ type, make sure that she has a comfy bed that you can place on the floor next to your sofa.  Provide her with an activity or chew-type toy.

Q.  If your dog is barking at you, is it because he needs you help (command bark) – perhaps he needs you to open the door so he can go pee, it’s past his teatime or his water bowl is empty, or his toy is stuck under the sofa?
A.  Ensure that all his basic needs are taken care of.  Don’t be late with his supper, make sure that his water bowl is always full, make sure that he gets out to pee once in a while, look under furniture for lost toys!

Q.  Is your dog barking when someone rings the doorbell (alarm-alert bark)?

A.  Some alarm-alert barking when the doorbell rings is normal.  If the dog continues on and reaches an excessive level, teach the dog the ‘QUIET’ command.

Q.  Is your dog barking when unfamiliar people or dogs get too close when out on a walk (warning bark)?
A.  The close proximity of strangers and dogs are causing your dog to become defensive.  There are many potential causes for defensive barking – it may have its route in your dog being possessive of you, a lack of socialisation, a past experience that frightened the dog, or simply that the dog is unconfident about having its personal space invaded by strangers.  If your dog only barks at strangers and other dogs when it is on-lead, the fact that it cannot move away (because its movement is restricted by the lead) will amplify its defensive reaction (just as warning barking is a defensive tactic, so is running away).  Defensive behaviour on-lead is a stress reaction, and probably the problem that I deal with most, often after various techniques and methods to resolve the behaviour have been tried by the dog’s owner and proved to be unsuccessful.  If your dog is showing defensive behaviour towards unfamiliar people and dogs when out on a walk, please enlist the help of a reputable dog behaviour psychologist who can provide you with a suitable desensitisation and counter-conditioning plan.  

Q.  Is your dog’s barking a displacement behaviour for frustration, excitement or boredom, e.g. if you stop and chat to someone for too long out on a walk (command/displacement-compulsive bark)?

A.  If the trigger for the stress can be removed, remove it (problem solved).  If the trigger cannot be removed, changing the association with the trigger to a positive one is one approach.  Providing the dog with an alternative behaviour is another approach, as is instructing the dog to do something else, e.g. ‘SIT’, ‘DOWN’, ‘WATCH ME’.  Teaching the dog the ‘QUIET’ command.  Teaching the dog tolerance and impulse control can also be helpful.  I came across a case of a Beagle some years ago now that became excited and then cataleptic when presented with its food, and used the displacement-compulsive bark to prevent itself from collapsing while it ate.  Sometimes this type of barking is a solution in itself and in this particular case, necessary for the dog to survive (if it didn’t bark, it didn’t eat).  For displacement-compulsive barking problems, I recommend enlisting the help of a reputable dog behaviour psychologist. 

Q.  Is your dog’s barking a displacement behaviour for anxiety, e.g. if you tether and leave him outside a shop (need/displacement-compulsive)?  (Not that you should be leaving your dog outside of a shop in any case, many dogs get stolen from outside of shops.)

A.  As with the command/displacement-compulsive bark, if the trigger for the stress can be removed, remove it (problem solved).  If the trigger cannot be removed, changing the association with the trigger to a positive one is one approach.  Providing the dog with an alternative behaviour is another approach, as is instructing the dog to do something else, e.g. ‘SIT’, ‘DOWN’, ‘WATCH ME’, ‘STAY’.  Teaching the dog the ‘QUIET’ command.  Brushing up on your leadership skills to increase the dog’s confidence (therefore reducing anxiety).  Several years ago I assisted a colleague with a seemingly odd and inconsistent case of a Golden retriever who barked compulsively when left outside a particular shop, but not every time.  I eventually worked out that the cause for the dog’s barking was a rotary sign further along the pavement that spun in windy weather.  When it wasn’t windy and the sign wasn’t spinning, the dog didn’t bark.  The solution was simple – on windy days, she left the dog at home.  For displacement-compulsive barking problems, I recommend enlisting the help of a reputable dog behaviour psychologist.

Q.  Is your dog barking at the vacuum cleaner (warning bark)?

A.  This is a common reason for barking.  From the dog’s point of view, the vacuum cleaner is an animate and noisy creature that you appear to wrestle with every time you unleash it from its cupboard.  Dogs who tend towards noise sensitivity often display fearful or defensive behaviour towards the sound of an electric motor.  Changing the dog’s association with the vacuum cleaner is the best way forward.  In the short term, ensuring that the dog is not in the same room as you are vacuuming and can engage in a rewarding distraction (e.g. a food-filled Kong) will usually stop him barking.  For some dogs, this is enough for them to make a positive association with the vacuum cleaner and no further action is needed.  For others, a suitable step-by-step desensitisation and counter-conditioning plan is required. 

If you have tried and failed to remedy vacuum cleaner barking, please enlist the help of a reputable dog behaviour psychologist because it is an issue that is resolvable with the right approach and training.

Q.  Is your dog barking during the night?

A.  If he needs to pee or poop, he is probably command barking, although there may be a desperation about his tone.  You must get up and let him outside to relieve himself.  If this becomes a regular occurrence, it may be that he has a UTI or GI infection, that he is drinking a lot of water late in the evening, that he is being fed too much, or that his food is creating a lot of waste (some grain and cereal based foods produce a monumental amount of poop).  Getting him checked by the vet, adjusting or changing his food and/or mealtimes, ensuring that he drinking sufficiently during the day and restricting his water intake after 9pm, giving him ample opportunity to pee and poop last thing before bedtime (e.g. give him the opportunity to pee/poop at about 6pm, but don’t keep letting him outside during the evening.  Let him outside again at 11pm), are all possible solutions to the need to pee or poop during the night. 

Another cause for a dog to bark during the night is because of a separation issue (need bark).  For some dogs it doesn’t take much to trigger separation barking – a fright during the night, a stay in kennels whilst the owner is on holiday, a major change in the social set-up of the household (e.g. a spouse or grown-up child moving out), a change in owner working hours, or moving house.  Many rescue dogs will separation bark until they are fully settled into their new home, as will puppies.  It is really important to realise that just because a dog is need-barking, it does not mean that it is being ‘needy’ or ‘attention-seeking’ – if you were suddenly taken from all that was previously familiar and safe to you and put into a new place with strangers of a different species and then left to fend for yourself in an unfamiliar, dark room overnight, I expect that you would feel pretty lonely and bewildered too.  What you would be needing right then is friendly company.  I do not advocate ignoring a need-barking dog.  Ignoring barking in any case is often ineffective as a resolution.  What I suggest for the need-barking dog is to remove it from its nightly isolation, either by way of the owner ‘camping’ downstairs for a week or so until the dog feels safe and secure in its surroundings and then leaving the dog with a once-worn item of the owner’s clothing at night for a couple of weeks, or having the dog sleep in or near the bedroom.  The vast majority of dogs and puppies adjust to their new home given time – quite quickly too when an owner is empathetic to their social needs – and having them sleep near you absolutely does not create a separation problem later down the line, so long as you work on your bond with the dog in other areas (leadership) to keep it balanced, and ensure that the dog can on the whole predict what is going to happen in its everyday life and when it is to be left alone for periods during the day (routine, rituals, consistency).  

Whatever the reason for a dog’s barking to become excessive or out of control, the barking is merely an expression of the dog’s state of mind.  Excessive barking is a symptom of an underlying problem, not the problem itself.  Punishing a dog for barking does not have the dog’s psychological welfare at heart.  The solution lies in the answer to why the dog is barking, and as any dog will tell you, it’s important to bark up the right tree.

Please note that training methods and techniques employed incorrectly may make a dog's behaviour worse.  If your dog is not responding favourably to your training efforts, please seek advice and guidance from a reputable canine professional.


  1. Caroline, Bob and Lexi24 August 2011 at 11:42

    Excellent article. Very nicely written and very informative. Thanks for taking the time.

  2. another interesting article Lizi - thank you ;-)
    I have 1) an alert-alarm barker who I really must teach a 'quiet' command for when people knock on the door - so thanks for the tips. 2) an early morning 'I'm awake now mum' command barker, I suspect (different dog from 1) and we're working through our strategies for him!!!!!

  3. Thanks Susan. 'Quiet' is a really useful command to teach and simply brings the barking under your influence, rather than stopping the dog from barking in the first place. Command barking is sometimes a toughie to resolve, so feel free to drop me line if you need any extra guidance!


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