Park the Bark!

Sleepless nights? Neighbours complaining? It's offical, your dog is driving you mad! Excessive barking is a common reason people seek professional help for their dog.

Forget yelling, forget anti-barking collars... solving the problem means looking at why your dog is barking in the first place, not punishing it for barking.

Firstly, is it normal or abnormal? Most barking is a normal behaviour. It’s how a dog communicates vocally and may just be happily ‘talking’ to other dog’s in the distance, barking at a cat or birds in the trees, ‘telling’ people and dogs passing by to ‘move away from my place’, saying 'hi' or seeking attention, excited by other noises or maybe just bored.

Sometimes, however, excessive barking may be abnormal when the underlying emotion is anxiety, such as separation anxiety, panic disorders and noise phobias. In older dogs, senile dementia may be the underlying cause. Medical conditions causing pain, vision and hearing changes, chronic skin problems, neurological disorders and hormonal disorders also need to be ruled out.

Secondly, barking may be a problem when you are at home or when the dog is home alone, and there are different solutions to put in place for each.

If barking is occurring when you are at home:

A. Identify what stimuli are causing your dog to bark excessively and reduce access to these by:

  • Eliminating the stimuli if feasible
  • Removing the dog from the area (place it inside) if it occurs at certain times of the day e.g. mailman, neighbour’s car leaving/returning, school kids walking past, night time
  • Altering the fencing so the dog can’t see the stimuli or add fencing so the dog is confined to the back part of the yard, not the street side, or away from a side fence if it is a neighbouring dog setting off the barking.
  • B. Determine what amount of barking is tolerable (time or number of barks)

  • at the start of implementing training to reduce barking, the aim is to distract your dog at the first bark before he becomes too aroused.
  • If he or she does not respond to your cues, remove your dog from the stimuli. Have a lead readily available or leave a short strap attached to your dog that you can easily steer you dog away to calm down, then ask the dog to ‘sit’, reward, and continue with your training.
  • C. Reward-based training techniques

  • the best way to achieve a calm dog is to remain calm yourself and reward your dog for quiet behaviour.
  • Positive-reinforcement training involves adding (positive) a reward to increase (reinforce) the chance of that behaviour occurring again. Call your dog to you, get him to ‘sit’ calmly and focus on you for a few seconds and reward him with a treat or praise. Throw the treat away, say ‘Fetch’ and get him to ‘Come’ back to you, ‘Sit’ and reward. This can be turned into a fun game that you can practice 3 times a day with 10 repetitions each time.
  • We can then introduce a ‘Leave’ word with a stop-sign hand signal after you ask ‘sit’ and get your dog to wait patiently 5 seconds for his food reward.
  • .
  • After practicing this in different parts of the house and garden for another week or so, ultimately you can use this routine to distract your dog at the early stages of barking with a firm ‘Leave’ before his arousal levels stop him from being able to learn and respond to you. When he is distracted momentarily, issue the ‘Come’ command and keep the routine going, moving away from the source of arousal.

    Barking solutions when your dog is home alone:

    Firstly, identify the underlying cause. No amount of electric anti-barking collars or even citronella collars are going to help if your dog is suffering from anxiety – punishment only serves to increase anxiety. Some may bark despite the pain or the dog may stop barking eventually but only because it has given up entirely, helpless to do anything else. Very inhumane.

    For dogs with Separation Anxiety, anti-anxiety medication is often required before you are able to teach the dog to cope with being alone. Dogs with Separation Anxiety often also display destructive behaviours such as chewing, digging and attempting to escape. You need to seek veterinary help for this.

    Environmental enrichment is important for all dogs left alone for the day:

  • Provide your dog’s meal in food puzzle toys e.g. Kong Wobbler or make your own
  • Freeze treats and hide around the garden for your dog to find
  • Hang toys from trees on bungee ropes
  • Clam shell kids toys are good – put sand in one half for digging and water for cooling off in the other half
  • Get someone to come in for a backyard play session or a walk to break up the day
  • Exercise your dog before leaving
  • Play when you return, teach your dog tricks or build your own agility course to keep your dog mentally stimulated as well as physically.
  • Fences again need to be looked at if outside stimuli are causing the barking and to stop dogs from escaping and injuring themselves. Allowing your dog inside and creating a cosy, safe den for it can help keep it calm and away from arousing or frightening stimuli. Using pheromone products like Adaptil in the den make it even more safe and calming for the dog.

    Night-time barkers are also much better if kept inside away from the night-time noises, nocturnal animals and scary shadows.

    Remember, if anxiety is at the root of the problem then an indivudiual treatment plan, inlcuding environment and behaviour modification, along with medication if required, is recommended.