Barking up the wrong tree? Understand and tackle barking
Barking dogs are a real nuisance for owners, and anyone who has the misfortune to live within earshot, and your barking dog can get you fined or even evicted.
Unfortunately, chances are you have unwittingly created the problem. The good news is, you can easily be the solution.
How to deal with a complaint about barking
People affected by the noise of a barking dog may raise the problem with the owner after enduring it for some time, hoping the owner will deal with it. Or, they might complain directly to the body corporate or Council.
People generally don’t like to complain. They’d rather it wasn’t a problem in the first place.
Take a complaint seriously, and don’t shoot the messenger! If someone complains, it’s best to say “Thank you for letting me know'“!
If you’re aware that your dog barks, speak to your neighbours and let them know that you are concerned, and tell them what you’re doing to deal with it. You might even ask them to let you know when there’s noise so you can adjust your plan, if necessary.
Now take meaningful measures to address the problem by first understanding what’s going on and then making a plan.
Barking is ‘natural’, but….
Owners often dismiss barking as “it’s natural” or “he’s just excited”. But what’s the bigger picture?
Barking is something that dogs do naturally, of course. And some breeds or individual dogs do appear to bark more readily than others. But that doesn’t mean barking is inevitable. It may mean you have to work a bit harder to prevent or tackle the problem, but you can definitely do it.
Happy dog’s don’t make a noise (mostly).
So why do dogs bark? I think we’d all say, ‘to communicate’. But what are they communicating?
Barking and other vocal noises can communicate a range of needs, intents and feelings.
Barking is one less-subtle way dogs display fear, and fear-based aggression, stress, boredom, anxiety, manipulative behaviour, and of course, let us not forget, excitement and joy.
Some situations where barking may be a sign that your dog is anxious, fearful, or distressed are:
Barking at boundaries – like doorways, fences and gates.
Barking at noise – traffic, doors opening or people talking
Barking at people, other dogs, or objects
Barking as an alarm and ‘territorial’ barking
Often, as many have experienced, barking is associated with stress, alarm or fear. I sometimes compare it to human screaming - that too is ’natural’ but mostly associated with profoundly negative things.
Dogs that bark when the phone rings or there’s a knock at the door are often ‘alarmed’. It’s a bit like when we scream when we’re shocked or surprised.
Of course, this ‘alarm’ is inappropriate. The response is irrational. behaviour. It is not appropriate to be scared or alarmed at a passer-by or shocked by a door bell. The dog’s radar is permanently scanning for ‘threats’.
Sometimes the barking is described as ‘territorial’ - it’s a form of ‘alarm’ or a response to a perceived threat.
I would argue that ’territorial’ barking is also inappropriate. It’s not the dog’s territory, it’s the owner’s, and the owner is the only member of the group who is competent to make any call about what is a threat or not. It’s not the dog’s job. It’s like letting a toddler take care of security!
Barking that people interpret as ‘aggressive’ is usually more about fear. Dogs bark to ‘intimidate’ or make the thing that’s ‘confronting’ them or making them anxious or fearful go away.
I sometimes compare it to how people avoid a person on the street who is shouting and swearing. If I appear ‘aggressive’ the thing that is frightening me might get more frightened than me and go away. It’s often a very successful coping mechanism - for dogs and humans! You’ll often see this when dogs in the park bark at people walking their dogs or cycling by, for example.
Of course, almost nothing a dog comes across is worthy of fear. They learn to fear by looking around to other members of their society and seeing what they do. People tend to behave in ways which the dog understands as justifying the dog’s feelings of ‘fear’.
Most of the time, in fact, the owner has unwittingly taught the dog to be afraid of the thing the dog is barking at. Owners can very easily teach their dogs what not to fear by adjusting their behaviour.
Barking is a way to control and manipulate
You’ll very often see barking to control and manipulate your behaviour - the dog barks to get something, to get attention, to get something quicker, for example.
That’s also a taught behaviour. Barking is rewarded with some form of acknowledgement - usually eye contact, verbal contact or physical contact.
Manipulation is a way to test, to control, to see who is weak and who is not. Humans do it all the time. So do dogs. But if you lose the battle, you open the door to all manner of unfortunate behaviour.
It often starts as a puppy. The puppy makes a noise - usually quite randomly - and the owner reacts in some way. The puppy thinks, “hmmmm whatever it was that I did then, worked!…” and so the downward spiral begins.
Sometimes the dog uses barking to manipulate play. He’ll incite play with another dog. I’m personally not concerned if one dog manipulates another - they know their language, and it’s appropriate. It’s their business. They can manage it.
Manipulative barking is not appropriate if it’s directed at a person. People are all too commonly manipulated, and don’t realise it. They usually think it’s ‘cute’. It’s not!
When barking has become part of the dog’s ‘repertoire’ of things that work, it’s harder to extinguish that behaviour.
It’s a real test of a human’s strength and resolve to tackle this one. It’s best to prevent this one - it’s a problem that the owner will likely always have to think about and manage.
Living like that is stressful
Of course, being on alert for any perceived threat or primed for confrontation is really stressful - adrenaline is continuously pumping! Imagine lying awake listening out for every noise thinking it’s a burglar, or feeling that a fight is about to kick off, or being in a permanent job interview!
It’s also very stressful to be put in the position of being in charge, or given a job you are completely unqualified to do. If you’ve ever been out of your depth at work, you’ll know what that feels like.
It’s also pretty stressful living with a dog that may erupt into barking, appear aggressive, or be the source of disputes. You are also primed for unpleasantness, embarrassment or even confrontation with the neighbours or other dog walkers.
What can I do if my dog barks?
With time and consistent behaviour, barking can be significantly reduced or perhaps extinguished as a fear or controlling response.
A holistic approach ensures proper social order, rewards appropriate behaviour, ignores the undesirable behaviour and provides appropriate and fulfilling mental and physical stimulation. But here's some general advice to help you on the road to a peaceful neighbourhood.
1. Take control
A dog’s job is to relax, knowing that someone more competent is in charge.
Dogs are not capable of heading a household, and some of the owner’s behaviour will undoubtedly have communicated to the dog that he is in charge.
It is a heavy burden he is not capable of carrying, and it is stressful. Just as you would be stressed if you were forced to do a job you couldn’t do, so too is your dog. It is your job to be in charge.
Taking control of a pack is simple, quiet, subtle and gentle. Establishing a healthy pack order is not bullying, dominating machismo. It involves gentle forms of communicating, like controlling key resources, and having consistent rules and boundaries.
2. Socialise your dog
Dogs learn about the world and what is good, bad and indifferent. from the owner. Unfortunately, owners are the main source of a dog’s anxiety and fear. Owners teach their dog what to fear and how to behave by the way they react, particularly when the dog is uncertain or in new or perhaps ‘stressful’ situations.
Exposing your dog to as many experiences as possible in a calm and quiet, neutral way is always the way to go and is the foundation of good socialisation.
You can read more about socialising your dog here.
Example: If your dog is reacting to a noise, like a phone, you can also ‘uncouple’ the links between a stimulus (e.g. the phone, the postman, other dogs) and the behaviour (barking) by careful and well-thought out neutral exposure.
3. Reward the behaviour you want
As in life, so in dog training! Dogs get more attention for displaying unwanted behaviour – jumping, barking, biting, digging – than they do for being calm and quiet.
Attention, or acknowledgement, is reward. Reward is not just a bit of chicken! Negative behaviour – a shout or smack even - is still a form of ‘reward’.
Reward silence by acknowledging it. ‘Punish’ barking by not acknowledging it.
Example: If your dog is barking to manipulate you, understand the nature of it, and what he’s trying to do. Don’t provide acknowledgement or acquiesce - don’t throw the ball to shut him up, instead walk away; don’t give him what he’s demanding. Wait for acceptable behaviour and acknowledge that instead.
4. Keep calm and carry on!
One significant way people contribute to barking is by joining in – ‘Shut up!’ STOP IT! QUIET!!!’.
If the dog is reacting that way because he is anxious or fearful, shouting at, yanking a lead, squirting with water or some other negative stimulus will simply reinforce the anxiety and fear.
I don’t know about you, but my own anxieties and fears have never been tackled by someone shouting at me!
Respond instead by leading your team calmly and quietly.
Example: Imagine what you do when you walk past a lamp-post or tree. How do you interact with your dog then? Do that! Don’t yank the lead, don’t shout, don’t ‘reassure’.
5. Take your team on a hunt
Ensure your dog is appropriately mentally and physically stimulated.
Just like us, dogs need mental and physical exercise to stay healthy. Under-stimulated dogs, and humans, cause trouble!
Dogs need more than just a wander and a sniff while an owner stands in the middle of a park chatting with other dog owners.
For the dog, the morning and afternoon walks are hunts. Hunts that you lead.
Create mentally and physically demanding games that get your dog to use his nose, solve problems, and run around.
Tracking, retrieving or agility are great ways to stimulate the body and mind, and to make your walk interactive and fun for you and your dog.