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Can you hear me now?

(Behave! is a monthly column on dog training and behavior, written for ohmidog! by Lauren Bond and Carolyn Stromer of B-More Charming School for Dogs. To see all of the columns, click on the Behave! tab on the rightside rail.)

While dogs bring lots of wonderful things to our lives, they can also bring muddy paws, dog breath and, sometimes, enough noise to drive you ,or worse yet your neighbors, crazy.

Incessantly barking dogs can, and have, led to full-fledged war between neighbors. But as with much bad behavior — not just canine — the key to stopping it is understanding why it’s taking place.

First, let’s debunk some myths: Barking is not the dog version of conversation. Dogs don’t communicate that way, they use body language for most of their “discussion” with us, and with other animals. Dogs don’t have a barked vocabulary. Nor do dogs speak English, so you can’t reason with your dog to be quiet.

Barking serves three functions.

Dogs bark when they’re bored. If your dog is under-stimulated, barking can ease that situation. It also gets us, and sometimes other animals to do things — like playing with them, or giving a bone, or throwing the ball. It can also elicit attention from other animals, if a dog barks at the cat, or a squirrel, they often will run. This is fun for the dog. Think how quickly we react when the baby is asleep and the dog barks, or if you are on the phone with an important call and the dog barks. Just imagine what a fun and powerful experience that is for the dog. So, barking gets stuff to happen, that is a good enough reason for dogs to do it.

Dogs bark because they are over-stimulated. You can see this in the agility ring. Often the dog in the ring is sounding off the whole time they are running the course. This is also true of dogs who get excited to about playing. Think of it as a pressure release valve. They have all the energy and excitement built up and they can’t move their bodies fast enough to get rid of all of it, so they bark along the way to keep themselves from exploding. Some dogs get so excited about going on a walk that just picking up the leash produces jumping, dancing, twirling, and barking. Over stimulated barking isn’t always because dogs are excited, sometimes it is because a dog is overly anxious. This is often the case for separation anxiety.

Dogs bark as a startle response. My dog is awakened from a sound sleep by a person walking up onto our porch, and before his eyes are fully open, he has let out one bark to let us all know that there is potential danger. Once he sees that it is just the mailman, he begins to wag his tail. Normally “alert” barking happens just a few times in the presence of clear stimulation –a knock on the door, the doorbell, the crash of something falling over or breaking. The alert bark is often accompanied with scrambling towards or away from the stimulus depending on the dog. A poorly socialized or overly anxious dog can continue this alert barking and cross over into over-stimulated barking.

Sometimes, in our effort to stop barking, we end up encouraging it. If you try to appease your dog when he or she is barking, you teach your dog that in order to get goodies/attention/stuff all they have to do is bark. If you yell or even speak to your dog when they are barking, you are basically saying, “Yes! Let’s all bark. Bark, seriously, Bark! Bark! Bark!”

The worst thing you can do if you are trying to stop your dog from barking is to ignore the barking for 5, 10, or 15 minutes and then go get the bone or ball, start yelling, or anything else. What you have done at that point is taught your dog that the button to make you do what they want is 20 minutes long. And they will accept that as a challenge.

If you get up to retrieve the ball from under the sofa while your dog is barking at it, if you get up and give your dog a bone so you can get thru your conference call, or if you get up and run to the area where your dog is barking you are making the behavior continue.

So, how do you make it stop?

Mainly, by avoiding the traps above, providing the right amount of stimulation, and teaching your dog that silence has its own rewards.

If your dog can get all those things — the ball, the bone, the attention, the treat — without having to bark, they are just as happy to accept that route. Perform all of those acts in the absence of barking and you can just as easily teach your dog that silence is the button that gets goodies/attention/stuff.

Ignore the dog when he or she is barking, or even better, leave the room or shut the door between yourself and your dog. Let silence be the button that makes doors open, makes bones materialize, and leads to all kinds of good things.


Comment from Anne-n-Spencer
Time February 9, 2009 at 10:08 am

I don’t know why our resident Beagle is so vocal. He does bark for most of the reasons you’ve mentioned–alert, startled, occasionally over-stimulated. (But not bored.) And his bark is larger than he is–a big, deep bay.

But he also has a whole assortment of conversational sounds for every occasion:
– A plaintive moan on a sort of rising key that is specifically used for “Need to go out, please.” This will escalate into a bark if you ignore him.
– Another moan that means, “I’m so excited, you’re getting out the food, but I know I need to sit and stay, but would you please hurry?”
– A very soft growl when he is playing with his assortment of toys.
– A contented series of low moans when you are scratching him and you hit the exact spot.

He’s the most vocal dog I’ve ever had, but most of his sounds are so quiet they can’t be heard in the next room. Still, when he barks, you know you’ve been barked at.