Why dogs bark and how to change the behavior is more complicated and requires considering how the vocalization sounds and the context in which it occurs.

It can come as a surprise that the sweet little bundle of fluff you recently brought home from the breeder or rescue organization has a voice – and a loud one at that. But here’s the thing: dogs bark. It is part of the way they communicate with the world. Sure, some dogs will bark more than others, but even the “barkless” Basenji has the ability to vocalize. Why dogs bark and how to change the behavior is more complicated and requires considering how the vocalization sounds and the context in which it occurs.

Hopefully you’ll find the following advice useful and can apply the suggestions to prevent the rehearsal of unwanted barking.

Why do our dogs bark?

Dogs bark to alert of potential threats, to announce the approach of someone/something, to warn off intruders, to let others know their presence, and to express their interest, excitement or even their frustration with a situation. Short of anything else interesting to do, dogs will also bark for the entertainment and sheer pleasure of it. (Hmm, bet you can think of a person in your life who also likes to talk just to hear the sound of their own voice!)

Details of the barking

The first thing we need to do if we want to address unwanted barking is to determine when exactly it occurs. Download a free barking record sheet here or, using a notebook or your phone, commit to keeping track of the  following details for every instance of barking for at least 3 days:

  1. What is the dog doing while barking? Is your dog moving or pacing? Is he standing still with body weight forward or back? Is he jumping and scratching at a door or window? Is he sitting in an enclosed space away from you? Is he running along the fence line?
  2. Can you see what the dog is barking at? Is it a person? A vehicle? Or perhaps there is a sound like a garbage truck?
  3. What does the bark sound like – is it low or high volume? Is it fast and repetitive or drawn out? Is there a discernible pattern (bark, bark, bark pause…….bark, bark, bark pause….)?
  4. How long does the barking continue if left uninterrupted? Get detailed – is it 15 seconds, 2 minutes, or did the dog continue barking until…….. (Obviously if you have neighbors who will be bothered by barking then you don’t want your dog to become more of a nuisance than he already is. It might help if you speak with your neighbor and mention what you’re doing – they might even be prepared to help record Rover’s barking during periods when you’re not home.)
  5. What happened immediately after the barking?

With the above details you’re going to have a much clearer understanding of the barking behavior. This is important as our response to the barking is going to depend on what function the barking is serving for the dog.

How to deal with the barking

Once we’ve determined what/when/why Fido is barking, now we can develop our strategy for addressing the behavior. Part of this response is going to require us to do some thinking as well. If your dog is barking at the sound of people outside and you live alone in an isolated area, is some “alert” barking acceptable to you? If you have a big house and/or don’t always know when visitors arrive, would some barking be helpful? If your puppy is barking because he needs to go to the bathroom, is there an alternative way for him to let you know this or an available place for him/her to eliminate? If Buster barks at the pool guy every Wednesday, can we limit how frequently he  sees him or perhaps we can ask the attendant if he’d mind our doing some training outside when he comes so we can change the dog’s opinion of beards/caps/sunglasses/men from something scary to something wonderful.

If we don’t like our dog’s barking, the bottom line is that we must ask ourselves “What do I want the dog to do instead of bark?” And then decide how much time you want to devote to resolving the problem barking. How quickly we can teach the dog to do something else will depend on a number of factors including the age of the dog, how long he/she has had to practice the behavior, and how consistent you’ll be in teaching the dog an alternative behavior.

For the time strapped, limiting the dog’s reasons for barking by obscuring lines of sight, playing a radio to muffle sounds, and giving the dog something else to do can be fairly quick solutions. For those prepared to invest a little more time, teaching the dog that it is more rewarding to behave in a different way is the most effective way to actually control unwanted barking.

Dogs simply don’t come understanding our human ways and it is up to us to teach them what is expected of them in a given situation. Some retailers sell products that say they will stop barking – by doing something the dog finds unpleasant whenever the dog barks such as spray Citronella or emit a sound or shock. All these things do is punish a dog for a naturally occurring behavior. Can you imagine going to a foreign country and being slapped or sprayed in the face whenever you unknowingly did something that wasn’t acceptable? Until we could understand the local language and establish what was going on we would be confused, angry and very unlikely to want to stay there for any period of time. It’s helpful to keep this analogy in mind when considering these “no-bark” devices. Taking a little time to explain to our canine companions what should be done in a given situation is both kinder and ultimately much more effective than constantly telling our dog that they’ve done something wrong but never bothering to explain what.

With just a little investigation, we can either manage unwanted barking, or teach our dogs a better alternative behavior and end unwanted barking once and for all. Cultural misunderstanding averted.