What's all the barking about?


19 September 2014

What's all the barking about?

If your dog barks excessively, our experts are here to help. Kelly Felstead investigates this common problem. 

Barking can be a major problem for dog owners; as well as being frustrating and noisy, it can also make you unpopular with the neighbours. So what can the owners of persistent barkers do?

Trainer and behaviourist Carolyn Menteith explained: "It's time to face facts - dogs bark. It's one of the things they're designed to do, and one of the main reasons the whole human/dog relationship started in the fi rst place. The ancestors of our canine companions became valuable to early Man because they kept watch over the family and the flocks, and warned of intruders long before burglar alarms.

"However, if your dog's barking has become an issue, there are things you can do to help the problem. To reduce the barking you have to find the reason behind it and take it away. This might be obvious or it might take some input from a behaviourist.

"There are generally five reasons why a dog barks: watchdog barking - guarding either the owner or the territory; ‘I want something' barking; scared/frightened barking; excitement barking; and boredom barking - the most common form of nuisance barking.

"First work out what sort of barking your dog's doing," Carolyn continued. "With watchdog barking, prevent him having access to windows or glass doors so he can't see people walking past (use baby gates if you have to), and keep him occupied - try interactive toys, training sessions, and plenty of exercise - so watching out for people isn't the only interesting thing in his day.

"With ‘I want something' barking, make sure he only gets what he wants when he's quiet - teach him that barking won't work.

"Scared barking is a tougher one to deal with, and might need help from a behaviourist to make sure it doesn't escalate into something more serious. Excitement barking isn't really a problem as it stops when the excitement does.

"If your dog's barking through boredom because he's being left home alone, you have a much greater problem. The best solution is not to get a dog if you're going to leave him alone. But what if it's too late? You need to find ways to keep your dog happy, stimulated, and occupied while you're away.

"Leave him with a stuffed Kong when you go out so he has something to occupy his brain and his mouth, get a dog sitter, and make sure he gets enough exercise - a tired dog is a happy dog, and more likely to sleep while you're away. Spend quality time with him when you're there; take time to walk, play games, or to do a training class. All these things will stimulate your dog's brain, help to make life more exciting, and prevent boredom.

"Once you know why your dog's barking and you've removed the causes or the triggers, put the barking under your control. This works very well for all types of barking except boredom barking. Teach your dog to bark when you ask him to - when he barks naturally, encourage him, and use a word like ‘Speak'. Then use a really tasty and smelly treat held on the end of his nose, and when he stops barking let him sniff and eat the treat, and say ‘Quiet'. By building up the length of time between saying ‘Quiet' and giving him a treat, you can teach him to stop barking when you want him to."

Trainer and behaviourist Gwen Bailey, founder of Puppy School, a UK-wide network of training classes for young puppies, said: "Dogs bark to communicate and to reassure themselves. Just like us, they make a noise when they're angry, frightened, lonely, or when they want something. The secret to stopping the barking is to find out what they want and do something about it.

"For example, take a dog who's left alone while his owners go out. At fi rst he's frustrated that the door's closed and he can't follow, and might bark rapid, high-pitched, frustrated barks. Hearing the car backing out of the drive, he might bark to encourage his owners to come back: the rapid ‘woof-woof-woof' of alarm barking might have brought his owners running in the past. Once he realises he's truly alone, he might be anxious and try to reassure himself by setting up a period woof with long pauses in-between. Hearing his owners return home he might start yipping excitedly to relieve some of the feelings that have built up.

"Dogs don't just bark when they're alone; they bark to alert us to intruders, for attention, when excited, or frustrated. If your dog barks excessively and you want to stop him, you need to work out what he's trying to say. Is he over-protective and trying to alert the family to every disturbance outside? If so, teach him to just give one woof and to run to you for games and treats. Once he gets into a good habit, reward him with praise and occasional games. In addition, take him out and about more, play more games with him, and give him more to do so that he has a job that doesn't involve guarding the house.

"It might be that your dog runs up and down next to the fence barking at nothing when you let him into the garden. Get him into good habits by walking him out on the lead, and praising quiet, calm behaviour. Play games with him so he's focused on those instead; after a few weeks it should be possible to keep him interested in running after toys when you let him out, using up his excitement on that until he's ready to explore the garden quietly.

"If your dog barks for attention - standing in front of you, looking you in the eye, and woofi ng - it's important not to respond at that moment but wait for quiet. He might get worse before he gets better, but if he's consistently ignored, he'll eventually stop doing it. Look at ways to give him attention or try other activities at other times instead.

"The worst thing to do is to put on an anti-bark collar and try to shock your dog into being quiet. Tempting as it might be at times, it's much kinder to listen to your dog and find out what his problem is. Remember that contented dogs are silent."

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Real owners' experiences

Here are three first-hand experiences of readers whose dogs bark excessively, and our experts' advice.

Vikki and Sam

What's all the barking about? Vikki Pickering's Bearded Collie-cross Sam, who's about eight years old, barks at people at the front door. The problem's become more apparent since Vikki, from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, had a baby.

She explained: "Sam's a rescue dog and we've had him for seven years. He was really docile for the first year. The problem's become worse since having my baby because we get more visitors; the main issue is when someone comes to the front door or the postman arrives. Sam's been known to launch himself off the stairs at the door.

"Since my baby arrived he's become even more protective, and he'll even bark at people who talk to me while on a walk. We share our front door area with our neighbour and he'll bark if anyone goes to see him too. I don't know the best way to deal with it; I don't want to reprimand Sam. If we put him in the garden when we have visitors he just barks.

"We've tried giving him treats to get his attention and lure him away from the door so it can be answered, but that requires a lot of preparation. We're concerned about letting anyone into the house. When the baby gets older the unpredictability of it could become worrying."

Sally and Barney

Working Cocker Spaniel Barney barks at everything. Owner Sally Comer described the three-year-old as manic and energetic, and apart from occasionally putting him in the kitchen so he can't see people walking What's all the barking about? past, Sally's unsure how to tackle his barking. "Our neighbours can't hang their washing or put their rubbish out because Barney barks every time," explained Sally, from Leeds, West Yorkshire.

"When people walk past the window he'll bark at them. When the postman comes he's terrible.

"I want him to be a guard dog, to protect the house, and let us know when something is wrong, but I don't want him to bark at everyone. We've got a baby gate on the kitchen door and sometimes we put him in there as it just wears us out, and we have to think about the neighbours.

"He's a lovely dog; he has a fantastic temperament and is a great addition to the family - it's just the barking."

Dave and Max

What's all the barking about? Dave Newton, from Riding Mill, Northumberland, has a problem with his daughter's Rottweiler-cross, Max, constantly barking. Dave said that four-year-old rescue dog Max barks at him when he tries to quieten him down.

"When my daughter is here all she has to do is raise her voice and he'll stop," explained Dave. "My wife can do a bit with him but I've got no chance. He doesn't like vans and he hates the postman. If someone comes to the door he goes berserk - he flies at the door and hits it as hard as he can. I can sense he's full of nervous energy; he's really tense. We've taken him to training classes and he acts perfectly there, but when he's in the house and looks outside and sees someone he goes berserk."

The family have tried giving Max a calming supplement, which Dave explained helps to soothe anxiety and nervousness in dogs, as well as using an ultrasonic training device designed to stop dogs barking. Neither method has made any difference to Max.

Trainer and behaviourist Carolyn Menteith says:

Max should see a behaviourist to get to the bottom of his behaviour. There's more going on than just the barking - especially as he's described as being ‘full of nervous energy and really tense'.

"For Barney, this is a breed with massive energy and activity levels. First of all, Sally should make sure he's getting enough exercise and stimulation - she should consider getting involved in one of the dog sports, such as agility.

"Remember, these are dogs who were bred to work and so need to be kept active, otherwise they'll get bored and look for things to do (including barking). Dogs can't tell who needs to be barked at and who doesn't, so it's unrealistic to want a dog to be a guard dog but not bark at everyone. It's one or the other.

"Vikki should prevent Sam having access to the front door, using baby gates. If people visit, use an indoor crate and a stuffed Kong so he gets to be part of what's going on and also gets something nice too. She should practise getting people to come up and talk to her on walks, and use treats and rewards when he doesn't bark. Get them to give him the treats."

Trainer and behaviourist Gwen Bailey says:

If Dave shouts or gets cross with Max, which is understandable, it will raise the tension levels and might make the problem worse. They need a way of lowering the overall stress levels for Max at home and the best way to do this is through play. They must put him at the back of the house when post or deliveries are due so he doesn't get alarmed, and teach Max to play with toys and then play with him often, particularly if he notices something outside and begins to bark. Eventually, Max should begin to feel more secure in his environment and feel the need to bark less.

"Working Cocker Spaniels need work to feel content. In the absence of real work, it's important to give Barney as many jobs to do around the house as possible. Sally should teach him to fi nd hidden toys, feed him using stuffed Kongs and scattered food, and teach tricks and a good retrieve so he can help carry in the shopping or pick up dropped items.

"Above all, she should teach him to be obsessed with playing with a toy so that he carries it with him wherever he goes. If his mouth is full of toy and his head's wondering what she's going to ask him to do next, he won't be barking.

"I recommend Vikki pays for a good behaviourist to help her as the potential is there for this to develop into something more than barking. It's usual for a dog's behaviour to change when a new baby arrives, since the family's attention is often more focused on the baby, which can result in the dog feeling more insecure.

"A greater insecurity can result in them being more worried about everything and this can leave underlying behaviour issues more exposed. She should contact her vet and ask to be referred to a good behaviourist.