How to Deal with Incessant Barking
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM
Barking can be a normal means of communication for dogs, but it can get to a point where it is excessive and becomes a real problem. When dogs bark they may be alerting an owner to a stranger, a perceived danger, or simply playing. Barking will increase when any type of reinforcement (positive or negative) is associated with it. For example, a barking dog that is fed as soon as he starts barking will consider food to be a reward and will learn to bark in order to obtain food. This is similar to young children throwing a temper-tantrum to try to wear you down and get their way. Barking can provide a dog with a sense of satisfaction when any type of reward is obtained, even if that “reward” is negative attention from you like telling them no. That is one of the reasons “time out” is so helpful. The one thing that our pets want most is our attention, so if they are exhibiting bad behavior ignore it – take away that attention and only pay attention to them again when they are behaving (have stopped barking). However, as frustrating as incessant barking is it can be a part of medical disorders, such as separation anxiety or cognitive canine dysfunction syndrome (which is similar to doggie Alzheimer’s). In some breeds of dogs and in certain individual dogs, there is simply a tendency to be more vocal about things that would not elicit a response from most other individuals.
The behavior of incessant barking in dogs can be difficult to correct, and different methods of correction may be needed based on the individual, but this is something that we can tackle together. Dogs may bark to receive attention, in defense of a stranger or another dog, out of fear, or due to separation anxiety. The first step is often finding out what triggers the barking and being sure that we have ruled out any underlying medical issues. Barking, just like any other unwanted behavior, is never improved with yelling at the dog or physical punishment; dogs that bark playfully will simply bark more, where as yelling or punishing dogs that bark out of fear or confusion will only worsen their problem and can bring out other problems (destructive behavior, urinating/defecating in the wrong places indoors, etc.). I have had good luck with the use of Citronella collars – a collar worn around the neck that sprays a mist of citronella to stop barking without hurting the dog. This allows the behavior to be addressed immediately and consistently (even when you aren’t home) and timing and consistency are everything when it comes to behavioral issues.
If dogs are punished with the owner present, and the stimulus of the barking is not addressed, the dog may stop barking in the presence of the owner but may continue when the owner is not present. This can cause huge issues with people who live in apartments or have neighbors close by that do not appreciate the barking and may even call the police to report that the noise has gotten to a level that they want something done about it. It is totally unethical to surgically address the issue with procedures referred to as debarking and these procedures do not even guarantee that your dog won’t be able to bark, it may just alter the sound your dog makes. However, the surgery can lead to serious, even fatal, consequences such as laryngeal paralysis or an animal being unable to protect its airway when eating, thus developing aspiration pneumonia when food goes down the breathing tube into the lungs instead of into the esophagus to be delivered into the stomach.
Initial Steps to Take:
• Have a thorough veterinary exam and any diagnostic testing that needs to be done to rule out any medical conditions that may be resulting in the barking.
• Identify and eliminate the cause of the bark:
o Is the bark a new habit? If so, recent changes in the household may help explain the onset of the bark, and modification of these changes may decrease barking.
o Is your pet older than 10 years old and showing sign of “aging” such as decreased awareness of people and places around the home, loss of house training, and/or changes in behavior such as new-onset bouts of unprovoked aggression? If so, cognitive dysfunction (doggie Alzheimer’s) may play a role in barking, especially if the bark is not clearly directed at anything identifiable to you. There are different medications, foods, and supplements that help with controlling canine cognitive dysfunction – which is again why any underlying medical reason must be addressed.
o Does your dog systematically bark more than other dogs but interact well with other dogs and all members of the family? If so, that amount of barking may be normal for your dog but inappropriate for the context (for example, living in an apartment with neighbors that are bothered by it). In this case, specific interventions that seek to decrease barking may be useful, such as use of the citronella collar.
• If you can pinpoint things (stimuli) that induce barking, you can avoid doing these things and start to desensitize your dog to these cues.
• Desensitize the dog to stimuli (what starts the barking). This means identifying a trigger that causes barking and repeating it at a very low level, then gradually increasing the intensity while praising lavishly when the dog does not bark. An example is barking when there is a knock at the door. For desensitization, simply record the knock and replay it at a louder volume. When your dog does not bark give him/her extensive praise. However, when he/she does bark, take away all attention and enforce “time out”
• It may be helpful to use commands during periods that would normally result in barking as a distraction/diversion. For example, if leaving the house triggers the barking offer him/her a special chew toy immediately before you leave that contains food, requiring him/her to use the mouth and therefore making barking at the same time impossible. It is found that if your pet is suffering from separation anxiety and starts to bark when you leave, that if we can distract them for the first 15 minutes after you leave then they tend not to become anxious at all. Another example is training your pet to sit on a specific rug if someone comes to the door, so they have a job they can learn to do (going to sit/lay on their specific spot quietly) and know they will be rewarded for doing their job instead of barking.
• Scolding or reprimanding systematically fails to improve the outcome of barking in dogs and should not be used. We only want to use positive reinforcement – lots of loving, praise and attention when they are behaving the correct way.
• Periodically throughout the day reward quiet behavior. This is in the form of praise, a treat, or extra attention, as examples. Dogs do not need to be rewarded every time they are being quiet, just periodically. This also works the opposite way, it only takes one slip up of giving your dog attention because of the barking for them to start doing it more. This is the same thought process behind why people play the slot machines – if they pull that handle 100 times with no luck, but on the 101st time they get lucky the next time they will sit there for even longer because it eventually worked last time.
Anti-bark devices and citronella collars may temporarily stop the barking, which offers an opportunity to begin training and desensitization. Such devices are rarely permanent solutions however. Extensive training, along with immediately and consistently interrupting the barking pattern with diversionary or distractive activities is critical. Providing dogs with interactions (with you, with other people, with other dogs) is indispensable for managing a dog whose excessive barking is simply due to a desire for more attention. Physical activity (Frisbee, throwing the ball, going for a jog), obedience classes, and incorporation into leisure activities all can decrease the need for attention through barking. Every pet needs at least 30 minutes of dedicated one-on-one time with an owner, where they are getting their heart rate up so they are getting energy out and are getting the attention they so need and desire. In some cases, it can also be very helpful to use a daily medication that allows for a reduction in the overall anxiety present in your dog, which also helps the brain to form new pathways of correct behavior more quickly while you are working with them. This is something that I frequently run into with my own pets since they are all rescued pets with their own sets of issues and I have had wonderful success combining medical therapy with my behavior therapy, but do keep in mind that medicine alone can only do so much – the rest is keeping up with the behavior training and being consistent.
A dog that barks when the owner leaves the house may suffer from separation anxiety. This is common in more of the high-strung breeds or in dogs that come from rescue situations where they did not have a sense of security. This separation anxiety is often a result of your dog being too dependent on you for security and often times some lifestyle changes need to be made to lessen this abnormally strong bond. Some helpful tips for establishing a more normal relationship with your dog, that does not cause him to panic when you are gone, include not allowing your dog on the furniture, having them perform a command (such as sit) before they get to eat or go outside, and not making a big production out of leaving or coming home (don’t say good-bye when you leave and when you return don’t acknowledge your dog until he has calmed down).
Separation anxiety is often not only an issue with barking, but is accompanied by destructive behavior (chewing or destroying furniture, walls, etc.). Other ways to help with this issue include leaving the house briefly, returning to the house, and rewarding the dogs positively if he isn’t barking when you return. This helps the dog to learn that the owner will be returning. You want to gradually increasing the length of time away from the home and provide positive reinforcement when you return home to calm dog – all leading to extending the dog’s bark-free period. It also helps to desensitize your pet to the “clues” they look for which indicate to them that you are going to leave, thus causing their anxiety to start to rise simply by seeing these actions. This can be done by grabbing your car keys or purse/wallet at random times, when you aren’t leaving, so that they don’t always associate those actions with being away from you. It is amazing what a difference just picking up your phone or car keys and not going anywhere (simply sitting on the couch or cooking dinner, etc) can do to lessen the anxiety those actions usually cause for dogs with separation anxiety. This is a hard situation to evaluate the progress you are making since the signs occur when you are not at home. One thing that has helped me is to place a video camera in the area my pets are so that I can actually see how long they are barking or when they start to become destructive, as well as how their overall quality of life is when I am not home. One of my rescues was much worse than I thought (because she wasn’t destructive – I could just hear her crying when I was coming or going) and the video showed me that she was a nervous wreck the entire time I was gone, so I knew it was time for some medical intervention because just the behavioral work I was doing wasn’t enough.
Food-containing toys can distract a dog and divert the attention away from a stimulus for barking, but you want to be sure to those calories so that you do not end up with an obese dog, which leads itself to a whole slew of other problems. One of the easiest ways to offer treats, but not add extra calories is to use your pet’s own dog food (just feed that much less at meal-time), offer frozen low-sodium chicken broth as ice cubes or within Dixie Cups, or use low calorie options such a plain cherrios, fruits and veggies (avoiding grapes, onions, and nuts). Kong toys and other interactive toys are available at pet stores or on-line. I prefer the interactive toys that allow you to simply place dog food kibbles or other treat options within the toy, which distracts your dog for a period of time while you are away and gives them a job to do. These interactive toys work by your pet moving the toy around in order to get pieces of the goodies inside to come out! Not only is this a good distraction technique, but can help slow down the dog that tends to be a vacuum when it comes it meal time.
I love crates (carriers with a door that latches and that are kept inside at home) because they can provide a “safe” sanctuary for dogs (who are naturally den animals), but I recommend the type of crate that is wire so that your dog can see out of it (as opposed to the plastic crates for airlines). That way you have the option of covering part of it with a towel/blanket if that helps your dog, but if your dog does better being able to take in the surroundings you can leave it uncovered so he can see. If your pet is feeling insecure and barks consistently, a crate may help eliminate the barking. For this to be successful, the crate must feel like home, not like jail so it should never be used for punishment. Ways of making the crate feel like home include placing it in the busiest part of the home (not off in a remote corner), feeding your dog in the crate exclusively, having special toys that your pet only gets when in the crate, and leaving the crate door open at all times when home to allow easy circulation in and out of it. If you do not make the crate a happy place, then your pet will have negative feelings about the crate which may increase the potential for barking. Therefore, crate-training must be undertaken with an approach of making it feel like a home (as described above), but realize that if your dog has increased anxiety when in a crate you may have to abandoned it.