Just as human language is multifaceted and multipurpose, barking allows a dog to communicate many different messages in a variety of situations. It can signal a request to an owner (“Hey, I want to go outside!”), impart a warning (“You’re in my territory!”), or simply serve to amuse when a dog has little else to do.
An instinctive canine behavior, a bark now and then reminds you that your dog is still very much a dog. However, constant barking can be disruptive, if not downright nerve-racking. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent or curb problem barking.
Most often, barking results from boredom, fear, or frustration.
If you don’t hear him do it, but you hear about it from neighbors, it’s likely your dog barks out of boredom when you’re not around. In short, he enjoys barking–it’s a way to occupy himself when he’s left alone.
Fear barking, on the other hand, is a stress response. It’s caused by something unknown to the dog, such as a sudden noise or another dog’s bark. Fear barking can also result from sights and sounds a dog finds disconcerting, like skateboards or sirens. In these cases, dogs bark to send a clear message to whatever’s scaring them: Stay away!
A third type is frustration barking. This occurs when the dog is denied access to something he desperately wants, such as a favorite toy, a piece of steak, or the terrier on the other side of the fence.
As you might have guessed, treatment for barking varies, depending on its cause.
For a fearful barker, desensitization–the process of removing anxiety around a negative stimulus–can be a very effective treatment. As with any procedure aimed at alleviating a dog’s stress, enlisting the help of a reputable trainer is an excellent choice. In the meantime, here’s an idea of how it works:
Let’s say your dog barks at men with beards. Begin by asking a bearded friend to stand a good distance away from you and your dog (far enough that your dog can see the man, but still remain calm and comfortable) while you reward your dog for not barking. Very gradually, move closer to the bearded man; give your dog treats when he remains quiet.
Eventually, you’ll reach a point where your dog can happily trot past a bearded stranger without any stress response at all. This takes weeks, however, so don’t expect complete resolution in a single afternoon. Again, professional guidance is key with this type of treatment.
When the source of the barking is a rare or one-time occurrence and doesn’t require desensitization (for example, he spots a hot air balloon overhead), resist the urge to comfort your dog. This will only reinforce the idea that whatever he’s barking at is truly scary and worthy of your attention. Instead, redirect him–lure him away from the window with a tasty treat. Once you have his attention, tell your dog to sit or lie down, and reward him for responding.
Like many unwanted behaviors, barking can be greatly reduced if your dog gets enough mental and physical exercise. Leave him plenty to do when you’re not around. Freeze a Kong stuffed with peanut butter or baby food and give it to him just before you walk out the door. Or hide small treats or toys around the house for him to find while you’re away. Perhaps most important, make sure he gets plenty of exercise so that he’s sleepy, not antsy, when on his own.
For dogs who bark when frustrated, eliminate the stimulus whenever possible. If the bark-provoking Beagle next door is always on the front porch between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m., this might be a good time to take your dog for a walk. Or if your dog is aroused by squirrels racing through your yard, consider putting up a scarecrow to frighten away small animals.
Obedience classes and at-home training can also help curb barking by teaching impulse control. The more your dog is asked to perform a particular behavior before getting what he wants–to sit before receiving a treat, for example–the better he’ll be able to control himself.
In most cases, the more confident and content the dog, the less likely he is to bark. Keep your dog mentally and physically stimulated; socialize him to as many different people, places, and animals as possible; and ensure that he gets the attention from you that he needs and deserves. Providing plenty of opportunities for him to choose an appropriate behavior is key to a mutually happy relationship.
Bottom line: Barking is a natural form of expression for your dog; completely eliminating it is neither healthy nor humane. However, with effort and the right tactics, problem barking can be managed, if not largely prevented.