Barking is the ultimate attention getter
Vocalising is the canine communication channel most familiar to humans. Much of domestic dog social behaviour is accompanied by vocalisation. Auditory signals have many advantages over other types of communication. They can instantly reach an audience over long distances at any time of day or night and they do not require the receiver’s initial attention to be effective; in fact they are the ultimate way to get attention.
Canine vocalisations fall within two broad categories of interpretation; distance increasing signals and distance decreasing signals. In general distance decreasing signals include variations of whining and howling and distance increasing signals are variations of barking and growling. Vocalisations produced during play sequences are the exception here. Within each group there is enormous variation in direction, speed and frequency of the sounds with each minor adjustment providing different information. Without exception, barking is the sound at the centre of most vocalisation-based behavioural complaints.
Barking is a normal form of communication for dogs.
Barking is a normal form of communication for dogs. However, with increased urban density tolerance for barking has diminished. Barking complaints generate an enormous workload for rangers and importantly negatively impact on relationships within our community. Barking to some extent is to be expected by all dogs however the majority of complaints arise from persistent and loud barking. Since this type of barking is predominant in the owner’s absence most complaints arise from neighbours and are chronic in nature. Excessive barking is nearly always a sign of behavioural disease and not a training problem.
What is your dog saying?
Barking is a sign not a diagnosis and an important first step is to identify the underlying motivation for the barking; what is your dog saying? The aim is to decode the message as it is often not immediately obvious to you or your neighbours. A behavioural investigation always starts with a full medical work up including clinical examination and blood tests, which your regular veterinarian can help you with. Physical and physiological disease will affect your dog’s emotional resilience and may precipitate behaviour problems. Failure to address these problems will limit the success of a behavioural strategy.
In addition, a comprehensive history is essential to identify all the factors that are contributing to the behaviour. Questions to consider when identifying potential contributing factors include:
- Your dog’s external environment: What is your dog’s environment? Where does it spend its time during the day/night? What access does it have to the indoors/outdoors? How often is it alone? What access does it have to the front yard/back yard? What level of activity occurs at your property boundaries? Has there been any change in the environment? What is your dog’s diet? How do you feed your dog? What is your dog’s average daily activity? Where does your dog sleep? When does your dog bark? What resolves the barking (if anything)?
- Your dog’s internal environment: for example what is your dog’s age and developmental stage? What other medical conditions does your dog have (pain? itchy? hormonal disease? Seizures?)?
- Your dog’s past experiences and what it has learnt from them: for example where did your dog come from? Have there been any traumatic experiences while left alone (storms, break-ins, and house alarms)?
- Your dog’s genetics: What was its siblings/parents/relations behaviour like? What was your dog like as a puppy?
It is also important to define the problem: What is the frequency and duration of barking? Since most barking complaints relate to times when you are not home video or sound recordings are the best sources of accurate information. Premiers Bark & Activity Counter is a good option for monitoring activity levels and barking. There are better devices for activity and tracking (e.g. whistle GPS tracker) but these are not yet available in Australia.
Being precise about what is causing the barking and what your dog is saying is essential as this will provide focus and direction for the treatment program ultimately leading to permanent resolution or management of the problem. It is important to have realistic expectations – barking can never be totally eliminated, nor should it be, for the welfare of your dog. Equally, be aware that anxiety is frequently the driving force for a barking complaint which may manifest as separation related barking, compulsive type barking, part of a hypersensitivity/hyper-vigilance disorder, noise sensitivity/hypersensitivity or phobia, relate to social fears or be secondary to other disease (e.g. dog dementia).
Treatment almost always requires a multi-modal approach with a focus on resolving the cause, reducing exposure to triggers and modifying your dog’s behavioural response to the trigger. The key to success is a multi-modal approach including environmental interventions, behaviour modification and medication where appropriate.
Environmental interventions aim to improve your dog’s independence as well as exercise their brain and improve their feeling of safety. See if you can develop an enrichment plan focused on ‘saying no to the food bowl’ and using food to engage your dog with its local environment. Google ‘DIY dog puzzle feeders’ and be amazed how simple it is to whip up a puzzle feeder for your dog out of things from your recycling bin. Challenging your dogs senses with simple puzzles they have to solve in order to receive a food reward is a great way to exercise their brain. Its use it or lose it with the brain. The more your dog can focus on independent self-rewarded problem solving tasks the less it is able to engage in anxiety driven behaviours. Other strategies may include addressing triggers by changing the visual access to barking targets, changing indoor/outdoor access and providing other sensory stimuli (e.g. dedicated digging pit or herb garden). Environmental interventions must be paired with behaviour modification for ultimate success.
If you don’t want me to bark, what should I do instead?
Behaviour modification is very different from training. Training centres on what your dog can do. Behaviour modification is not what your dog can do but how your dog feels when it is doing something. In all cases the aim is for a lower level of emotional arousal. All dogs with a barking problem have learnt that barking ‘works’ when they identify they are under threat. Success for some barking problems relies not just on improving the overall level calm but also on teaching your dog an alternative response. That is ‘if you don’t want me to bark, just what should I do instead?’ Kalmpets head trainer Tracey Lord can introduce you to a behaviour modification program that focuses on rewarding calmer behaviours but also how to teach your dog cues for interrupting barking behaviour and redirecting to a more desirable behaviour.
Medication is sometimes indicated for behavioural disease. If the level of emotional arousal is such that the individuals primary stress response is activated then medication is generally required. When the primary stress response is activated the body operates in an automatic or autopilot way to survive the perceived threat. A hallmark of this is that your dog will not be able to acknowledge or respond appropriately to previously learnt cues. This is a sign of behavioural disease.
Medication is often thought of as a last resort. If a patient is diagnosed with a seizure disorder there is little hesitation to use medication. Both seizures and behavioural disease fall in the category of brain disease. Why then would we expect medication to be a last resort for behavioural disease? Prognosis depends on how rapidly resolution or management is reached. Medication should only be used when based on an accurate diagnosis, at the lowest effective dose and for the shortest time period possible.
Anti bark devices
Punishing anxiety always makes it worse.
There is an ever expanding supply of these devices and none of them address the underlying cause of barking, all they seek to achieve is a decrease in the signs. These collars should not be used in cases of anxiety as punishing anxiety always makes it worse. In addition, in some dogs these collars have been reported to elicit an aggressive response and should be used with great caution. These devices are a clear sign that we have no interest in what your dog has to say and why. Many countries have banned these devices.
Following debarking a dog will still be able to bark although with the volume turned down. It does not address the cause of the problem and your dog may still be anxious or in pain and just unable to adequately vocalise. All other avenues should be addressed first.
Too often a barking problem comes to consult well after it first begun. Treating a barking problem early can save a dog’s life as well as salvage the human-animal bond.
Dr Kate Lindsey
Veterinarian and Animal Behaviourist
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