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Excessive Dog Barking: Tips & Advice


Barking is a common, frustrating problem for many dog owners. It can cause anything from mild annoyance to neighbourly disputes to formal disciplinary council action. In addition to being hugely stressful to owners, nuisance barking is potentially very dangerous for the dog. Barking can sadly lead to harsh unnecessary punishment, erosion of the human-animal bond and a higher risk of surrender and premature euthanasia. In some extreme cases, barking can lead to dogs being maliciously poisoned. 

For all these reasons, barking is an issue warranting solid understanding and appropriate intervention. Barking has previously received little exploration among the scientific community, despite being one of the most conspicuous features of dog behaviour.


WHAT DOES BARKING MEAN?

Barking is a vocal form of communication, used for both dog-to-dog and dog-to-people communication. However barking comes in many forms, has more nuances and carries far more information than we think. 


Emerging research has shown that barking can vary greatly in frequency, tonality, pitch and rhythmicity. Barking also varies depending on context, which can mean internal (physiological) or external (environment) of the dog. The challenge for us is in trying to work out what the dog is trying to say

SO WHY DO DOGS BARK?


The first answer is: always for a reason! Dogs do not expend energy barking unless it is for good cause. Barking simply serves to get his wants and needs met. However, in some cases it is normal, in others it is not.

#1. Communicating a State of Mind 

A key point is that barking provides information about the inner state of the dog. Dogs bark in many different emotional states and for different reasons. 


They may bark when they are startled, fearful, anxious, insecure, conflicted or confused such as when encountering an unfamiliar person or object. 
Or when they are feeling quite confident and secure, such as when they are patrolling a perimeter fence on their familiar property. 

They may bark when they are feeling excited and joyful, such as when playing chasey with their human. 

Interestingly, dogs may employ barking both as a distance increasing and a distance decreasing signal. Just like for us humans, a hand could be waved in an enticing way that says "come over here" or could be waved in a dismissive way that says "go away I'm busy". 

Similarly, a frightened dog may bark in a defensively aggressive manner at a threat in an attempt to make it go away. Meanwhile, a dog feeling optimistic and playful may bark provocatively to solicit play from another individual.

#2. Attention-seeking or Asking for Help 


Some studies have shown that dogs use barking as a means of getting our attention or showing us something to enlist our help. They might want to alert us to the presence of something of relevance to them in the hope that we help them. For example, when a toy rolls under a couch and the dog can't reach it, it may bark and make eye contact with us and then the toy in an attempt to communicate. This might seem fairly simple but if we break it down, this is actually super clever and complicated behaviour! 

It is evidence that the dog has an understanding of several factors such as that we will first respond to the vocal request of the dog by alerting to it and coming over, then be able to follow the gaze of the dog to find the source of the problem, recognise that it is a problem, recognise the dog's intention and then act accordingly (perform the desired task e.g. retrieving the object). Impressive!

#3. Getting more Information / Asking Questions


Barking can be an effective way of asking questions for a dog. Many dogs use barking in an attempt to "provoke the environment" to obtain more information.

If an animal is unsure about a social situation and specifically, whether something constitutes a threat, they will often bark at it to see how it reacts and either confirm or deny whether it is something to be worried about. 

This is overly common among anxious dogs whose brains are wired to feel and perceive threats more than normal. When dogs feel anxious and insecure they will often use aggression as a way of throwing out a behaviour to see what happens in response and help them to determine what they need to do. This is because anxiety scrambles and hampers any ability to rationally process information, especially social cues. 

HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHAT A DOG IS SAYING WHEN IT BARKS? 

Well, recent research has shown that people are intuitively pretty good at deciphering different types of barking and recognising how a dog feels when it barks. 

In one study, subjects were asked to listen to an array of recorded barking sequences and rate them on the basis of five emotional states (aggressiveness, fear, despair, playfulness, happiness). People were generally quite good at differentiating which was which. 

Interestingly, the research found that experience of owning or being around dogs was not associated with better ability to de-code their barking. It seems we are able to (consciously or subconsciously) pick up on differences in pitch, tone, rhythm to roughly get an idea of the state and intention of the dog. This is interesting as it illuminates our shared evolutionary ancestry and the fact that we likely have some degree of innate genetic understanding of dog behaviour in a very basic sense. 

SO WHEN IS BARKING NORMAL AND WHEN IS IT NOT?


When it comes to nuisance barking, of key importance is deciphering whether the barking is normal or abnormal. To diagnose this, we need to establish whether it is excessive in any or all of: frequency, intensity, duration and also if it is appropriate in context.

To know this, we need to first have a good understanding of what normal is. Barking like any behaviour is caused by the overlap and interaction of genes, experience, learning and environment


What is that dog barking about again?
Is the dog reacting in a normal and expected manner - a manner appropriate to the dog's genetics, experiences and context (not ours). Is it reacting to stimuli of relevance such as a cat on the fence or an intruder in the garden? Is it barking at a trigger we can't identify (remember dogs have very superior hearing and smell compared to us and sometimes we may be in the dark as to what the dog is barking at but it's certainly not nothing).   

In terms of genetic influences, some breeds generally bark more than others if this has been encoded during their domestication and selection process. Some breeds hardly ever bark at all but may rather howl or sing (e.g. Basenji, Siberian Husky). 


Importantly, we need to remember that during our previous 15,000 years of shared ancestry with our dogs, in many cases we have selected for their barking behaviour as a desirable trait to us. Barking served to warn us of encroaching threats whilst we slept or flushed out prey, hunted or herded our livestock. We have effectively asked dogs to bark and this lingers in their genetics and instincts that we have had a heavy role in shaping.
In this sense it would serve us well to take some conscious responsibility for their barking and remember that once upon a time it was a life-saving skill and perhaps we should be grateful for it rather than frustrated. This perspective helps us approach and address the problem in a more enlightened and compassionate way. 

For example, when my dogs go crazy barking at something, instead of reprimanding them I say "thank you", acknowledge they have done a great job, provide them with the reassurance they need in seeing that I have recognised and responded to their alarm and then ask them to settle. In this way, everyone wins. 

On top of genetics comes the layer of experience and learning. How much and in what contexts a dog barks is affected by all of the relevant learning it has undergone throughout its life. Has it witnessed and joined in with other dogs barking? Has it learned that barking is useful and successful or rather that bad stuff happens when it barks? Has or is the barking being reinforced? 


** If a dog barks at the postman and each time the postman inevitably leaves, then the dog perceives that his behaviour of barking caused the postman to leave – in this way the dog feels the barking behaviour was successful at getting the desired outcome (making the threat go away) and it has been strongly reinforced and will happen again next time.

**A dog may bark at other dogs when on-lead as it feels anxious and worried that it cannot get away, while off-lead it may not bark as it has more control and feels safer.

** A dog may be fine when walked during the day but will bark at people when out on walks during dusk or dark as it cannot see well (can't identify if someone poses a threat) and feels the need to act defensively and provoke for more information.

** Often when dogs are settling into a new environment they may not bark initially as they are very insecure and inhibited. Then as they gain confidence they may find their voice. 


IMPORTANT RULE OUTS FOR BARKING

1. Medical reasons


Dogs may bark when they are in pain or discomfort or having seizures or if they have cognitive dysfunction and are confused and disorientated.

2. Mental illness


Barking may also be due to mental illness involving emotional and psychological disturbances. Dogs with separation distress who panic when left alone will often deploy persistent long range barks and howls in an attempt to communicate with their owner and request their return. Dogs who have generalised anxiety disorder will often be hypervigilant and hyper-reactive, barking at any benign stimuli as if it were a threat because they are suffering abnormalities in stress, arousal and brain processing.

SO WHAT SHOULD I DO IF MY DOG BARKS EXCESSIVELY?


  • Be objective and know what you are dealing with. 
  • Get some footage or sound recording (pop up a camera or have your laptop or tablet recording)
  • Find out what kind of barking is occurring. Does it sound like an alarm, does it sound playful or perhaps does it sound distressed? 
  • Determine the frequency, intensity and duration 
  • Identify the triggers (Cat on fence? Planes overhead? Joggers running by?) 
  • Establish whether the barking is normal or abnormal. Is this just a problem behaviour (normal for the dog but undesirable for you) or is it a behaviour problem (abnormal and not adaptive for the dog)?
  • Seek advice from a qualified vet or a force-free behavioural trainer
  • Trial some enrichment to occupy your dog's time with productive activities to reduce the barking. This may help if under-stimulation is a contributing problem but will not assist in cases of medical or psychological abnormalities. 
  • Employ management strategies
1. Prevent and avoid triggers. Remove visual and auditory access e.g. if your dog barks when it sees and hears people passing in the street, then close the blinds and put on some music.

2. Try behavioural modification 

  • Train a reliable "bark" and "shush" using positive reinforcement methods so that the dog learns to bark on cue when asked and be quiet on cue when asked. 
  • Train a reliable "place" cue – lure the dog to a bed or safe place and reward it for stationing and settling there, instead of barking when triggers are imminent or the dog is already barking.
  • Gently interrupt and redirect any barking into an alternative desirable behaviour, e.g. call the dog and get them to a calming exercise such as sitting and making eye-contact for some treats. 

If your own attempts to stop or reduce the barking via the above methods fail then this is when you need to contact a dog trainer or vet as mentioned above. 

WHAT TO DO IS SOMEONE'S DOG BARKS EXCESSIVELY?

1. Let them know: preferably in person (door knock) or via letter, call or email. Many people may not know as perhaps the dog only does it when they are not home (e.g. separation distress) or the dog is only outside to bark at triggers when the owner goes out. Some people are very grateful to be made aware that their poor dog has a problem.

2. Be sure to advise people in a compassionate and polite way – try and leave any frustration and emotion out of the situation.  If they fail to believe you or fail to recognise there is a problem, maybe suggest getting footage or you can use sound recording software to make some recordings and get the evidence you need.

3. Some councils provide bark recording collars which record data on how much the dog wearing it barks. If it is a serious problem and they won’t take it seriously, you may need to make a complaint to council. Council may issue a notice giving the person a chance to rectify the problem. If not solved, then a control (barking dog) order may be placed on the dog.
You can find more details via the dog and cat management boards of each state.


WHAT NOT TO DO IF A DOG BARKS EXCESSIVELY

  • Punishment: common examples of aversives include yelling at/striking the dog, placing a citronella or shock collar (illegal) on your dog or using a high-frequency ultrasonic noise. 
Why? Because punishing a dog who barks may suppress the barking but does not address the cause. It will make an anxious dog more anxious and worsens the problem. Dogs are barking for a reason and as a coping strategy in many cases to deal with the stressors in their environment. If we add more stress in the form of punishment this is severely detrimental. It is also unethical and can be abusive.
  • Getting emotional, angry or frustrated will never help, it will only serve to make your dog frightened, confused, anxious and frustrated. 
  • Become confrontational with your neighbours: this will not help you, your neighbour or the dog and everyone needs to work together for a good outcome. 

SUMMARY

In summary, barking is a complicated topic. Dogs bark at other dogs, us and other stimuli for many different reasons and have many different types of bark with different meanings in different contexts. Barking can be a part of the normal dog communicative behaviour repertoire or can be a sign of mental illness or poor welfare.

Where barking is excessive or causing a nuisance then in order to address it we need to first understand why it is occurring and treat the underlying issue. If force-free training techniques are not effective in reducing the barking then there may be a medical or mental health problem which needs to be treated by a veterinarian. 


For questions, clarifications or further information, please contact Dr Eleanor Parker of AdelaideVet or leave your comments below.

Dr Eleanor Parker 
BSc BVMS (Hons) MANZCVS (Behaviour)

Elle graduated from Murdoch University in 2010. Starting out in emergency and critical care, she quickly found her passion for behaviour and mental health in animals.

Fascinated by this blossoming field, Elle undertook further study through the University of Sydney in 2015 and sat her membership exams in veterinary behaviour in 2016. 


Elle's behavioural mantra is "compassion, communication, co-operation, cohabitation" and she brings her great enthusiasm to the AdelaideVet Animal Hospitals team.

References:

1) Applied Animal Behaviour Science - Volume 100, Issues 3–4, November 2006, Pages 228–240
Acoustic parameters of dog barks carry emotional information for humans; Péter Pongrácz, Csaba Molnár,  Ádám Miklósi

2) J Comp Psychol. 2005 May;119(2):136-44. Human listeners are able to classify dog (Canis familiaris) barks recorded in different situations, Pongrácz P1, Molnár C, Miklósi A, Csányi V.

3) Animal Cognition, December 2000, Volume 3, Issue 3, pp 159–166 - Intentional behaviour in dog-human communication: an experimental analysis of “showing” behaviour in the dog, A’. Miklósi, R. Polgárdi, J. Topál, V. Csányi

4) The Veterinary Journal ,Volume 183, Issue 2, February 2010, Pages 141–147 - Barking in family dogs: An ethological approach, Péter Pongrácz,  Csaba Molnár,  Ádám Miklósi. 

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