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   Quieting the Barking Dog

Would you punish a child who said "Mommy, I'm afraid"? Would you scold that child? Would you want that child to trust you and believe you have the power to make scary things safe? Our dogs are not children. Nevertheless they come to us without language, and with their built in instincts for things that might be scary. The relationship I want with my dog is that my dog can trust me to take care of scary things. I want my dog to feel that doing what I ask feels good. Dog barking isn't always from anxiety or fear, but it is often so. Yet people routinely respond by increasing that anxiety and fear by addressing the behavior with punishment. It is not just unkind, it is ineffective. Getting yelled at, squirted with water, scary penny cans shaken etc does nothing to reduce anxiety.

A study of anti-bark collars was reported in one of the dog magazines and it found that the citronella collars were the most effective. The dogs found the scent to be a more significant punishment than shock or noise. Hardly surprising as dogs have more sensitive noses and experience scent very differently. I strongly dislike the citronella collar, however, because the punishment (unwanted scent) cannot be stopped as soon as the dog stops the unwanted behavior. I don't think that is fair.

I also don't think it is fair to punish a dog for expressing fear or anxiety. So in any barking problem I think the first thing to do is to make every effort to protect the dog from sources of stimulation (e.g. install screening, use barriers to keep the dog away from the property line, narrow but don't eliminate ability to see "out") and take steps to make the dog feel secure and protected (e.g. make sure the dog has access to the interior of the house at all times, don't leave it tied or otherwise confined in a very open area and similar measures).

Some punishment methods can appear effective because they can stop that particular behavior. They can also cause new additional behavior problems. That is because punishing the behavior addresses the symptom only. In the short term, for example, bark collars can interrupt long established patterns of behavior. However, if the reason for the barking is not addressed then the dog will find other ways of meeting its needs. So the dog's needs that were expressed in barking come out in other ways - other vocalizations that don't trigger the bark collar (constant whining is common), digging, fence climbing, aggression, and self mutilation are alternatives. So to the question of "What kind of bark collar should I get for my dog?" my usual response is, none. Instead work out ways to reduce the dog's need to bark.

First step is to work on why the dog is barking. While some dogs bark just for the joy of it most nuisance barkers are barking because they are anxious / frustrated. In the long run it is far more effective to remove the reason for the anxiety than to punish the dog for being anxious. If the cause is excitement, it is most effective to reduce sources of excitement and use training to help the dog learn self control.

The majority of nuisance barking occurs when the dog is outside. Most nuisance barking can be curbed by improving the level of daily interaction with the dog and reducing barking triggers. Keeping the dog indoors except when supervised, being played with or trained is often effective. Twice daily walks (15 minutes or more), plus daily play (10 minutes) and training sessions (5 minutes) also tend to reduce anxiety as well as providing a healthy alternative to unsupervised outside time.

Reducing the source of the things that stimulates barking will help. For example, block the dog from being able to go to the edges of the property line. Use fencing or other such barriers to keep the dog four to eight feet from the property line. This can make so it is that gap, rather than other people's property, what the dog guards. Blocking the dog's view of the public street or stimulating activity in side yards will help, IF the dog still has at least one vantage to view things. If there is one side or even just a porthole open the dog will focus on that, and be more willing to ignore the other sides. If there are no sides open the dog feels equally threatened from all directions and has no focus, and thus is anxious. While indoors, leaving a radio or TV on and blocking access to street facing windows are also effective methods of reducing sources of stimulation.

Taking steps to make the dog feel safer will help. A dog that is locked out of the den (place where the pack sleeps, i.e. inside the house) will feel more anxious than a dog that can retreat to the den. So for people who struggle with keeping the dog indoors while they are at work, a dog door that provides access to some part of the house is a better alternative than no access to the house. It is most effective if the dog can reach a portion of the house normally occupied by family so that the scent of family can provide a feeling of safety. Interior doors can be shut and locked to limit the dog's access to the rest of the house. This also helps the dog feel more in control than if there is access to a larger area.

Defensible space helps create a sense of safety. While there is a natural inclination to think the dog would like more, often this is not the case. More room means greater difficulty in defending space. More space requires alarm barking as a warning, while smaller space can be defended by merely body posture. More room is more responsibility - and more anxiety. A smaller dog run that is visually screened on three sides makes the dog feel protected from those three sides, and it can then focus attention on the one open side. And if that one open side faces an open area but one which is devoid of "threats" e.g. neighbors, wandering dogs etc. then the dog feels safer.

Something that is very effective is to install a modest dog run with a dog door providing direct access from the run into some occupied part of the house (meaning a den, kitchen, any place that will smell heavily of the family members). The dog run keeps the dog away from the fence line and reduces sources of stimulation. The dog door allows the dog to stay where it feels safest. In the absence of a dog run most dogs are much happier, and quieter when inside while the owners are working, than when left outside alone.

A significant problem with mechanical means of reducing barking (such as a bark collar) is that the collar can't distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate barking. A dog that won't bark is more of a danger than a dog that will. A dog should be able to announce its fears BEFORE acting on them. The desire to warn its pack members of impending danger is part of what the dog is. Teaching the dog what is, and is not, a danger is long term more effective and long term mentally healthier for the dog than punishing that natural behavior. This can be approached by making the dog feel protected rather than being the protector.

Good obedience training goes a long way, but so does the manner in which the person responds to the dog's alerts. Barking can be quieted more quickly by getting up and physically checking for the "threat" then telling the dog to quiet. On the occasion where the barking was appropriate the dog can be praised. Gradually getting up and checking can be replaced by body language of the person that indicates to the dog that one is aware of the cause for alarm - going part way - sitting up straighter - "listening" then again asking the dog to quiet. Once the dog is confident that the person is in control, and will at least acknowledge the anxiety, the barking will decrease and will subside after just a single command.

There are many approaches to curbing nuisance barking that will result in a healthier, more companionable dog. They just require a bit more interaction with the dog than relying on a mechanical collar.


Professional Resources from Dogwise
Behavior Problems in Dogs    
Behavior Problems In Dogs by Bill Campbell    
Handbook Of Applied Dog Behavior And Training, Vol. 3: Procedures And Protocols >Handbook Of Applied Dog Behavior & Training, Vol. 2: Etiology And Assessment Handbook Of Applied Dog Behavior And Training
Handbook Of Applied Dog Behavior And Training, Vol. 3: Procedures And Protocols Handbook Of Applied Dog Behavior & Training, Vol. 2: Etiology And Assessment Handbook Of Applied Dog Behavior And Training

Problem Solving and Prevention book and video resources from Dogwise Dogwise  is a USA resource

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Copyright © 1997-2003, Diane Blackman
Created: January 17, 1997     Updated: April 6, 2018

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