(first published by Huffington Post, October 25, 2016)
All dogs bark. Even the Basenji, a Central African breed known for its unusual silence, will yodel or howl.
Two of my dogs are the adorable, if loud, German Spitz. The other two are a recently adopted pair of Shetland Sheepdogs, a famously vocal breed. In days gone by, I might have attributed their collective noise levels to their breeds’ tendencies alone.
In fact, there isn’t a single, clear reason they bark so much. Dogs don’t necessarily bark because they are ill behaved or under-exercised or “highly strung.” They don’t always bark for attention or out of boredom or because they are distressed. They certainly don’t bark because they feel they are being dominant or “in charge of the pack”, though if you believe I am wrong about this, and that my dogs are trying to gain status, you might want to read this short article by Victoria Stilwell, or this book by Barry Eaton to give you a different perspective.
Dogs bark for a variety of reasons—all of which I am desperate to understand. Most importantly, however, they bark because they are dogs.
Puppies can begin barking as early as two weeks old and advance their repertoire of vocalizations into adulthood until different barks mean anything from greeting to distress to hunting, tracking, alarm, warning, excitement or a solicitation for play. Just to make matters more confusing, a barking dog may be trying to communicate more than one message at a time.
A study reported by E.L. Flint and her colleagues at Massey University in New Zealand reported that the average dog at home with an owner barks three times a day, with the duration of barking for each episode lasting just under a minute. We all know that if one dog barks, another is likely to bark. So if I have four dogs that each display perfectly average periods of barking, I should expect almost twelve minutes of barking a day. Twelve long, awful minutes. You might say that it would be unreasonable for me to expect anything less, in fact.
Punishing a dog by yelling at him or threatening him for doing a perfectly normal dog activity isn’t fair (anyway, force-free methods are more effective and kinder), but does this mean I have to live with a lot of barking?
Maybe not. I can modify the barking in two ways: reducing frequency and reducing duration. I may even be able to reduce both—and wouldn’t that be bliss?
A few things are working well for me right now and have definitely reduced the frequency or duration of my dogs’ barking over the past week:
- I have abandoned dog bowls for Kong toys and they now have Kongs filled with a portion of their dinner several times a day. This keeps them occupied and their attention is less focused on noises outside the home. Result: happy, quiet, engaged dogs for 15-30 minute stretches of time.
- I take them out of the house on walks when the postman is likely to arrive. Result: mornings are more peaceful and they get less opportunity to “practice” barking.
- I reward them with high value food treats for going quiet when I say, “shh.” This was going great until one of them figured out that if he barked, then went quiet, he got a reward. I am modifying my training of this clever, back-chaining dog but the result on my other three: shorter duration of barking (down to a few seconds).
- If I hear a noise outside, I throw treats onto the floor before my dogs have started barking. This diverts them from barking. Result: less frequent barking.
- I practice ringing the doorbell and throwing treats onto the floor before the dogs start to bark. Result: less reactivity to the doorbell, itself, as a trigger for barking.
- I drop treats onto the floor when the dogs are lying quietly and not looking at me. Result: they “settle” faster and stopped staring at me constantly, waiting to be rewarded for being quiet. The way you do this is nicely demonstrated by Emily Larlham in one of her early teaching videos here.
My next step is to enlist the help of one of the behaviourists at the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology where I am studying, because there is nothing better than an experienced dog behaviourist to help you think outside the box about your own dogs.
I am sure they will come up with even more effective ways of reducing the barking in my house. I may make a few mistakes and have to rethink, too. But that’s okay—it’s how we learn.
With Halloween just around the corner, you might wonder what I’m going to do about all the barking as children arrive to my door dressed in costumes. The answer? I’ll leave the sweets on the doorstep and take my dogs to the pub…
(Labrador photo by Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay)