Barking is a normal method of communication for dogs, but excessive barking doesn’t just drive owners crazy, it may prompt neighbors to call the police.
The way most people handle barking actually only makes the problem worse. If your dog is barking and you start yelling for it to stop, in its head, you’re just joining in (meaning, it thinks it’s doing the right thing).
Dogs don’t bark just to bark, just like we don’t talk just to talk (well, mostly). The barking represents a need, and the only way you can solve the problem is to address the need. According to Lauren Novack, a certified professional dog trainer and owner of Lauren’s Leash, there are several root causes of barking, all of which may require slightly different methods.
Alert barking — This is totally normal behavior and the job dogs were bred to do. They’re just trying to let you know that someone’s in the vicinity. Allow the dog to bark a couple of times, then calmly thank it and cue it to another behavior. For example, you can train your dog to go to its spot.
You can also train a dog to stop barking on cue by teaching it to start barking on cue. It takes time and patience, but it’s easy. Just wait until it starts barking and say “speak,” then give it praise and a treat. Then when it stops barking, say “quiet,” then repeat the praise-treat process.
I used this method with my dog Mosby, and you should know that if a dog really has that “quiet” thing down like my dog did and it doesn’t stop when you say quiet, something is wrong. One evening he ignored my request for silence three times. When we got up and checked, two teens were breaking into our vehicle in the driveway! Thanks to Mosby’s awareness, they didn’t get away with anything of value.
Separation anxiety/distress — The dog is barking because it’s having the canine version of a panic attack. It takes time, but it can be reduced. You need to desensitize your dog to you leaving the house and give it every reason to be confident you’ll come back. Start with departure cues (things like grabbing your keys, putting on your coat, etc.). Encourage it to stay calm while all of this is happening, then reward it. Then move to you actually leaving the room, then finally with you leaving the house for a few minutes, then returning. As the dog gets comfortable with each step, you can increase the length of time you’re out of its sight.
Boredom — One of the key differences between your kids and your dog is that your kids can come up to you and say, “Mommy, I’m bored.” Barking can be a dog’s way of saying the same thing. Make sure it has plenty of physical and mental stimulation, which can curb boredom barking. Make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise every day, too. A well-exercised puppy is a more well-behaved puppy.
Dog/dog reactivity — Just as humans react to other humans they meet, dogs react to one another when they meet. Just because you aren’t having fear or anxiety about another dog doesn’t mean your dog isn’t fearful, which may cause barking. Novack advises a classical counterconditioning program. “Every time your pup sees another dog, hot dogs fall from the sky,” she says. Once your dog isn’t scared of other dogs, you can teach a more appropriate response, like teaching it to look at you instead of the source of its stress (which is probably pretty easy with hot dogs in your pocket).
Should you teach your dog not to bark?
If your dog is barking excessively, yes, you have to teach it to be quieter. In many communities, an excessively barking dog is considered a nuisance. Depending on local laws, you could be ticketed, receive warnings or even lose your dog after several unsuccessful warnings.
But barking a little is fine. It’s just part of being a dog. Novack warns to avoid products like shock collars. They’re cruel, and while the barking may stop, you could soon see other behavioral issues as the dog’s emotional state deteriorates. “Imagine if you were having a panic attack and started crying,” explains Novack, “and every time you sobbed you got shocked?” Not a fair trade.