Friday, July 1, 2011

Help! I’m barking & I can’t shut up!

One of the most common reasons dogs end up in animal shelters is excessive (or what is believed to be excessive) barking. Your neighbors complain, and your dog drives you crazy. Some breeds are more inclined to bark than others, so it’s always a good idea to educate yourself about breeds you might be interested in. Some breeds were actually bred to bark because of their “jobs”. Then again, you have the Basenji, which does not bark it all, though it does vocalize in other ways. Adopting a mixed breed from a shelter is a wonderful thing to do, but you still need to be aware of what breeds might be in the mix and make sure it will be a good fit for your family.

Why do dogs bark in the first place?

It may seem like your dog is barking for no reason, or just because it likes the sound of its own voice, but that is not true. Why do they bark then? It’s simple. When babies are hungry, scared, lonely, or just want attention, they cry. Dogs bark. Barking is a vocal type of communication that dogs use, both with each other and with their humans. A bark can signify many things, from territorial issues to expression of a specific need. If they need something but don’t bark, how will they let you know?

Humans are actually a good part of the reason dogs bark. We have, whether we meant to or not, conditioned them to bark. What do I mean? Some examples: If your dog wants out, it barks. You let it out. If your dog is hungry, it barks. You feed it. Your dog wants to play, it barks. You throw the ball. Your dog wants a treat, it barks. You give him a cookie or chew bone. Your dog wants back in, it barks. You let it in. Your dog wants attention, it barks. You scratch his ears or rub his belly. In other words, they have trained US. Good human! Good!

No wonder they bark!

One of the keys to understanding (and possibly managing) this behavior is to understand all the reasons dogs bark, and learning to decipher their individual sounds. A dog’s bark can be anything from a soft “woof” to a loud, growling “I’m going to eat your face” kind of bark. Each one means something different to the dog. Once you spend a good deal of time with your dog, you will be able to understand each type of bark and get a pretty good idea what they are saying to you. It will also give you an idea of how to change their behavior if the barking is excessive.

Let’s look at some of the specific reasons a dog will bark.

  • Protective or territorial barking: Most any dog will bark when a person or another animal enters what they consider to be their territory. The bark can be a warning. “ this is MY territory…beware”. They may be trained to alert you in the event someone enters their space. Either way, they will loudly announce your visitor. Sometimes this is a good thing, but not if they bark like crazy at everyone that comes in the door…including people they know.
  • Greeting or play barking: Some dogs get so excited to see you or one of their canine friends that they have a barking fit. It is a happy sounding bark, sometimes accompanied by jumping up. It’s their way of saying “I’m happy to see you.”
  • Attention seeking: Dogs often bark when they want or need something, such as needing to go out, wanting food, wanting attention, or wanting back in the house. A bark is the primary way they have to express a need or get your attention. Sometimes they want nothing more than a pat on the head. Some dogs are very needy and will bark constantly to get your attention.
  • Fear or Alarm: A dog will often bark in response to fear or alarm. The bark serves to try and ward off the thing they fear, and alert their humans that something is wrong. Any perceived threat will trigger this type of barking.
  • Separation anxiety: Some dogs basically “flip out” when left alone and have the canine equivalent of a panic attack or anxiety attack. They may exhibit other behaviors in addition to the barking, such as destructiveness, pacing, having “accidents” in the house, or depression. This one is tough to treat, but it can be done with behavior modification, and sometimes anti-anxiety medicine.
  • Boredom or Loneliness: Dogs are pack animals and do not do well if left alone for long periods. A dog chained outside with no contact or mental stimulation will bark because it is unhappy and to try and get attention. Even if the owner comes and fusses at the dog for barking, it’s still attention…negative or not. Barking relieves stress and anxiety to some degree, and basically gives the dog something to do. If the dog must be left alone for long periods, provide something to keep it busy (hiding treats in specially made toys, providing safe things to chew on, etc.)
Some less common reasons for barking include:
  • Compulsive barking: This is one where the dog seems to bark at nothing or just into the air, for hours on end if allowed to. They may also display other behaviors, such as running in circles or back and forth along a fence. There are many reasons for this. Your vet should examine your dog to see if it is a medical issue. Things like bee stings, chronic pain, or brain disease are possibilities. There is a form of canine senility that can develop in older dogs that can cause excessive vocalizations, as well as other cognitive issues.
  • “Back Talk” barking: Some dogs will bark at you when you are telling them not to do something or otherwise trying to discipline them. It is their way of being defiant, or “talking back” (relate this to a parent with a teenage child who talks back when corrected). Not all dogs do this, but it does happen. This is a dominance issue, so training would need to teach the dog that YOU are the alpha…not him.

From all this we can see that barking is a complicated behavior which can mean a multitude of things. You should never expect a dog to never bark. That would be like asking a child to never talk. Completely unreasonable. Sometimes, however, barking is excessive and causes problems for you and those around you.

If the barking is constant or problematic, the behavior needs to be corrected before it becomes severe. As I said in the beginning, this is a top reason why a lot of dogs end up in shelters. Rather than give up on them, there are numerous ways to address the various barking issues…depending on the reason for the bark.

Next time, let’s take a look at some of the ways to correct your dog when he is “barking and he can’t shut up”.

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