Dogs vocalise for many reasons. They whine, bark, howl and growl when they’re excited, distressed, to alert us to something, when they want interaction from us or another dog, or when they want to repel a potential threat.
It's ultimately a form of communication and the first thing we need to do is establish what is motivating them to bark in the first place.
We can’t stop barking until we understand why they might be doing it. And we need to be aware that barking is normal dog behaviour and we might need to adjust our expectations a little in terms of when we expect our dogs to be quiet.
That said, excessive barking can be a nuisance for us and for our neighbours, it can be an embarrassment on walks, and ultimately it might be a sign that our dog’s welfare is compromised. So it is always sensible to think about why our dogs might bark, when they bark and how we can help them learn not to bark as much if necessary.
Barking when someone is at the door
Dogs are naturally territorial and therefore it's perfectly normal for them to alert us to activity outside the house. Many of us appreciate this as it helps us feel safer in our homes, but we equally don’t want our dogs barking at every external noise or activity they see around their territory.
Barking in response to activity outside is generally hugely reinforcing for dogs. Because they are barking to alert us (and when someone is at the door, we generally get up to answer it – so, RESULT!) AND they are barking to repel a potential territory invader.
When the postman or other delivery person comes, the dog barks and the person turns around and walks off (after delivering their post or package), the dog thinks their barking is successfully getting rid of them – another result!
The same thing happens when a dog hears a noise outside (e.g. a car door slamming), barks and the noise stops. They don’t realise the person was not going to approach the property anyway – they think their barking is successfully scaring people away from their home.
How to stop this
It's reinforced even more when a dog can sit and look out of windows, barking at particular activity outside. If you have this problem, my advice is to block visual access.
Sticking opaque frosting on windows prevents your dog from feeling like they have to be ‘on guard' all the time, which can increase overall stress levels and reduce opportunities for sleep and rest. It also reduces rehearsal of the barking behaviour, which will only become stronger as the dog practices it and views people or dogs leaving the area the dog perceives as their territory.
What can also happen, is that the dog becomes so used to successfully getting rid of these pesky territory invaders, that when someone does not move away from the home quickly frustration increases.
This invigorates the barking behaviour – the dog tries harder, and eventually when the person leaves the dog is reinforced for barking extra hard and loud! So this becomes the new level of barking behaviour the dog thinks it needs in order to be successful.
If you have a dog who barks a lot when someone comes to the house, you can teach them a different behaviour. The doorbell or knocker has become associated with someone at the door which leads to the behaviour of (usually) running to the front door or window to look out whilst barking.
Instead, we can associate the sound of the doorbell or knocker with something great arriving in the dog’s bed. If the dog becomes VERY aroused at the noise of the bell or knock, it would be easier to introduce a new bell.
Start off with the presser in the house, so you are in control of the noise whilst working through a training plan and so that it does not become associated with someone at the door until you have created a strong association between the noise and the dog going to its bed.
So, the dog hears the noise (bell or knock) and you sprinkle some delicious treats in their bed then go to the door. Through repetition, the dog should learn to anticipate food (or a stuffed Kong, LickiMat that you have pre-prepared) arriving in their bed. Now the sound of someone at the door leads to your dog running to their bed!
If you have a visitor coming into your house, it can be easier for dogs if we prevent access to the front door by popping them in the garden or another room with a chew or Kong to keep them busy whilst we go and answer the door.
Asking the visitor to sit down in another part of the house and then taking an item of theirs for the dog to sniff before letting them in, can help ensure the initial greeting is calmer and more controlled. The dog then chooses whether to approach the visitor rather than the person encroaching on the dog’s territory.
Barking when bored
Sometimes dogs start barking to get our attention. This is more likely if the dog has learnt that quiet behaviour does not successfully gain them attention (we are usually quite good at ignoring our dogs when they are quietly behaving themselves!).
Barking quickly becomes a way of receiving reinforcement – whether that is to be spoken to, looked at, touched, played with, or anything else the dog is demanding of you.
How to stop this
Firstly, it's really important to provide your dog with adequate stimulation. Ensure they are receiving adequate physical exercise for their breed and age, and also that they have plenty of mental stimulation and enrichment at home.
Self-reinforcing activities that encourage independence can also reduce your dog’s focus on needing you to amuse them. For example, items to chew on, lick at, activity feeders or toys that they can play with by themselves.
Make sure you reinforce them for quiet, calm behaviour. Acknowledge with a smile, talk to them, touch them or even drop a treat in front of them when they are behaving in a desirable way.
Barking on walks
Dogs might bark at people, other dogs, cyclists, squirrels or any other triggers on walks. This might be because they are restrained by the lead and feel frustrated that they can’t access or chase the trigger, or it might be because they are scared and trying to repel the perceived threat.
How to help this
A lead will make them feel trapped so they're more likely to try to scare away the trigger because they can’t themselves move away. If barking on walks is a problem for you, it would be sensible to seek further professional help from a clinical or veterinary behaviourist.
They might bark because they are excited to be on their walk or to demand that you throw something for them. Try to avoid reinforcing barking behaviour by only throwing a toy when they are quiet!
Barking when left home alone
Dogs might bark when they are alone at home for a number of reasons including territorial barking, or because they are bored and under-stimulated (as outlined above). However, if a dog is only exhibiting barking or other vocal behaviour when they are left alone, it may be that they are exhibiting separation distress.
How to help this
Setting up a camera can be really useful to determine exactly what the dog is doing after you leave so you can see when the barking might start or what might trigger it. It can also highlight other behaviours that your dog might show that you have been completely unaware of such as constant pacing or inability to settle.
If you have a separation problem, seek professional advice because it will not get better on its own accord.
What not to do
Whilst barking can be a pain for us and neighbours can complain, we need to ensure that we avoid using methods that the dog finds unpleasant in order to attempt to suppress the barking behaviour. Rewarding your dog for good behaviour is much more effective.
Dogs bark for a reason. If they are barking out of distress, it would be very unethical of us to try to deal with this using something the dog dislikes.
Not only is this not addressing the underlying reasons for the barking behaviour, but it is also going to increase the dog’s anxiety as they anticipate something unpleasant happening to them. This then prevents them from being able to communicate or express their distress.
Bark-activated collars, for example, work by delivering something the dog finds unpleasant (e.g. a certain pitch of noise, a squirt of something in the dog’s face, or another stimulation) in order to punish the barking behaviour. However harmless it might seem to us, the very principle of it working means that the dog must find it unpleasant.
The motivation to avoid the outcome of the collar outweighs the motivation to bark. The same is true for us responding in a hostile way to the dog. So try not to tell your dog off, however infuriating it might be.
Instead, we need to work out what is causing the barking and implement management to stop the dog from rehearsing the barking behaviour. Such as by blocking visual access at windows, putting the dog in another room when someone is at the door, or asking friends or neighbours to help to avoid the dog being left at home alone for example.
Then we need to work on altering the dog’s perception of whatever it is they are barking at. If they are barking at other dogs on walks because they are frightened, we would need to change our dog’s emotional response so that they feel happy when they see other dogs. That, in turn, will stop the bad barking behaviour.
It's always sensible to seek professional guidance to help you work through a dog behaviour modification programme if barking has become a problem. You can find a clinical or veterinary behaviourist at www.apbc.org.uk