Another common behaviour problem owner's encounter with their dogs involves excessive barking. This can become a nuisance behaviour, not just for the owner but for neighbours or guests coming to the home as well. Ever try to have a phone conversation with someone but all you can hear is barking? It's almost as though they wait for you to pick up the phone before they start to put their own two cents in.
The key to stopping the excessive barking behaviour is to figure out the cause of it in the first place. So, why do dogs bark? The answer can be any number of reasons, some of which I will list below.
Alarm barking or watch dog barking - This is where the dog hears a noise and barks out an alarm signal. Generally, this type of barking tends to be a brief outburst and dissipates on its own.
Excitement Barking - The dog becomes so excited that he just can't contain his emotions. Barking is a release for the dog. Teaching your dog the settle command, teaching alternate behaviours (something else he can do besides barking), giving the dog something to hold in his mouth when you first get home are all options for excited barking dogs.
Territorial barking - This type of barking can become problematic and lead to what appears to be aggressive displays. An example would be the mailman. The dog barks and the mailman goes away (even though the mailman walking away has nothing to do with the dog barking), it still reinforces the barking behaviour for your dog and encourages the barking behaviour to continue every time he sees someone outside the window. Managing the environment is key, do not allow access to the window, block your dog's view so that they don't have the opportunity to practice the behaviour.
Boredom/Loneliness barking - Dogs who have nothing else to do will sometimes bark repetitively, for hours on end. Ensuring they have been exercised adequately, and giving them something to occupy their minds in your absence will sometimes curb this barking. Frozen kongs, deer antlers, snuffle mats, licky mats or other enrichment activities will give them something else to do. Ensure that whatever you choose will be safe for your dog if he will be left unsupervised.
Fear barking - some dogs are naturally more fearful than others, due to genetics, learned behaviour, lack of socialization etc. These dogs will tend to bark at almost anything, noises they hear, fast movement, strangers or visitors to the home or any number of things that startle them. White noise, such as leaving the radio or television on will help to drown out outside noises. Work on socializing your dog and desensitizing them to whatever it is they are afraid of. Bring them to obedience classes to help build their confidence and their trust in you.
Demand barking- The dog wants something, and you, the owner generally give it to them because it makes them stop barking. Barking to be let outside, food, play time, throwing the ball are all examples of demand barking. Well what you have essentially done is reinforced the demanding, barking behaviour. Don't give them whatever it is they want, unless they are quiet. This is equivalent to a child throwing a tantrum in the toy aisle yelling " give me, give me, give me" and parents handing over whatever it is that the child wants, just to avoid the public embarrassment of a screaming toddler.
Attention Seeking - This type of barking is similar to the demand barking except what the dog wants, is your attention. Remember, negative attention is still attention. Yelling at your dog to be quiet while looking at him or her is still attention. Instead, you should ignore the behaviour, walk away from your dog, not even making eye contact.
The above are all general tips to help curb excessive barking There is not one solution that works for every barking dog. Teaching the command "quiet" and pairing it with a hand signal will increase your communication with your dog. The hand signal can be something as simple as a finger to your lips, with the sound "shhhhhhh". Dogs are masters at body language and will pick up on the hand signals rather quickly if taught properly.
You can also teach your dog to "speak", but I recommend teaching the quiet command first or your dog may want to show off his new found trick and you will end up with a worse problem. Barking is not something that can be cured overnight. The more opportunities your dog has had to practice the barking behaviour, the harder it will be to extinguish it. Sometimes the barking can become worse before it gets better. Because the barking has worked for so long, the dog will bark louder and longer in order to try to get his way. It is critical that you do not give in at this point or you have just taught your dog that in order to get what he wants, the quieter barking will no longer work, he has to bark louder in order to get reinforced. Trust me, this is the last thing you want to do. Stick to the program and you will soon have a quiet, calm dog that has learned other, more acceptable ways of expressing themselves.
It's hard to miss a leash reactive dog. One that appears to be the tazmanian devil, spinning, pulling, barking, snarling, lunging at the end of the leash. It's disheartening for any owner to see their sweet dog turn into cujo at the flip of a switch. The object of reactivity can be anything from another dog, a person, a bicycle, a car, anything on wheels etc.
Jamie Kerester is a member of the AABP (Association of Animal Behaviour Professionals) and is a certified Pet Dog Trainer with a Masters level canine behaviour diploma.