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Why do dogs tend to bark?

Alexandra Nelke, certified Dog Trainer and Behaviour Consultant, will in this article help you understand why dogs bark and teach you how to deal with it through positive reinforcement. This includes teaching alternative behaviours, providing outlets so they don’t need to bark, or bark less, in the first place.

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Alexandra Nelke - Award winning, certified dog trainer and behaviour consultant

This article will teach you how you can manage your dog's barking by following a few simple steps.

This include teaching your dog alternative behaviours and providing outlets so they don't need to bark in the first place. In some situations, it's also okay for a dog to bark, but you might want to be able to stop it and calm your dog after a couple of barks. 

One thing to remember is that dogs bark. It’s what they do. You wouldn’t ask a lion to stop roaring. However, the fact that dogs live in our homes often makes barking an issue for us humans. 

What can cause a dog barking

    Common reasons why your dog bark

    Before I delve into the different types of barking and how to deal with these, here are some things to consider that can impact on most barking behaviours:

    Careful socialisation, habituation and desensitisation 

    Good socialisation should be a key component in every puppy’s life, and this also applies to getting a rescue dog used to their new environment. A dog who is well adjusted to the world around him, is a calm dog who will naturally have less things to bark at or about. 

    And even for adult dogs, it really never is too late to teach an old dog new tricks. That includes us humans too. 

    Always remember; quality over quantity. Give your dog control over their environment and offer choice whenever possible. 

    Size matters

    Smaller dogs often tend to be a bit more vocal, no matter the breed. And no, it’s not ‘small man syndrome’. There is just so much more for a smaller dog to be scared of. Imagine being only a few inches above the ground and moving around our human made world. Everything is huge and potentially threatening, from that stranger’s big hand reaching for your head to the car’s exhaust pipe spewing stinky smoke right into your face. 

    Small dog owners can also often overlook the importance of training their little friend, and therefore preparing them for the human world around them and how to navigate and cope. Studies show that dogs participating less frequently in activities and training are more fearful in novel situations. And fear often leads to barking. 

    Diet

    Let’s look at this behaviour from the inside out: diet impacts hugely not only on a dog’s health but also on their behaviour. Nutrient availability and diet composition affects behavioural regulating hormones and neurotransmitters in a dog’s brain, and gut (the second brain, as it’s called). 

    One of those, the ‘happy hormone’ serotonin, has a big influence on a dog’s mood. And if the serotonin production is out of kilter, the dog’s mood is out of balance, which can lead to stress, excitability, inability to settle and more. All of those behaviours, more often than not, result partly in barking. 

    There’s of course much more to this topic and I could, quite happily, go on and on about the importance of a good quality diet but let’s move on to the next subject. 

    Genetics

    Another internal component is of course genetics; some dogs have been bred to bark. Don’t get a Chihuahua and expect to enjoy the blissful sound of silence together. With naturally ‘barky’ breeds you may have to work a little harder to find a good sound equilibrium, but don’t despair, it is possible. That said, some dogs are just a bit chattier than others and we can’t blame it all on DNA.

    Different types of barking

    The most common types of barking include:

    1. Fear barking

    2. Visual barking

    3. Barking at noises (and the doorbell)

    4. Excitement barking

    5. Demand barking

    There are, naturally, different nuances to each individual dog’s bark. They could be saying: “I’m bored, can we please play now!” or “I’m really scared of this stranger reaching for me, please make him go away”. Every behaviour, including barking, comes with context and plenty of readily available information for us humans to read. 

    The first step is to learn about dog body language, especially early and subtle signs of stress. Looking at your dog’s body language will help you figure out their emotional state and unveil the Golden Grail of ‘why is my dog barking’. 

    Fear barking

    Is your dog frozen to the spot? Are his ears pinned back and is his face tense while he’s looking at the dog across the street? This means it is time to get him out of that situation and ideally before he starts to bark; interrupt and redirect (gently and always force-free), then make a point of working with your dog on changing his association with what’s stressing him. 

    Many dogs bark when they see something, and this is what I refer to as visual barking. It could for example be when your dog is watching through your living room window and barks at people or other dogs passing by your house.

    Visual barking

    When your dog is barking at someone or something they see it can either be a warning or be because they are frustrated. It could also be a combination of the two. Frustration barking is when a dog is fearful of missing out on something, such as if you’re out in the garden and they aren’t. Warning barking is your dog’s way of trying to let you know something potentially dangerous is approaching and they are warning both your household and the intruder. 

    The best way to manage this type of situation is by blocking your dog’s view. Close the curtains or blinds, re-arrange the furniture or get some window film. This way you eliminate the visual trigger and manage the situation before it arises.

    Barking at noises (and the doorbell)

    Barking at noises at home or when outside can have a variety of root causes. From frustration to warning to fear barking. There could also be physiological underlying reasons that play into this behaviour. 

    Using a white noise machine may help in some cases and if your dog reacts loudly to specific noises, such as the neighbours entering the shared hallway, I would suggest to work on desensitising your beloved friend to these specific events. The same goes for the good old sound of the doorbell of course.

    I personally think it’s ok if a dog has a couple of barks when the doorbell rings or someone knocks on your door, but if this turns into a complete barking bonanza every time someone hovers outside your door, it’s time to get your trainer hat on.

    We learn our dogs not to bark or stop barking by teaching them an alternative behaviour. You could for example teach your dog to pick up a toy every time someone rings the doorbell, as it's somewhat difficult to to bark with a full mouth. Another option would be to learn your dog to run to a specific station. This could be a mat, dog bed or similar. You direct your dog to this spot by offering or spreading treats at that exact spot. 

    Another great tool when it comes to fear, warning or guard barking is scatter feeding. You simply spread tempting treats across a wide area for your dog to seek out. 

    Searching, sniffing, licking, eating treats or food switches a dog from being fearful or emotional to using their cognitive part of their brain. When a dog is searching for food they are in their prefrontal cortex, meaning they are in a cognitive state where they're using their brain in a good way. When they on the opposite side are barking intensively, they are in their amygdala, which means fight or flight. Lots of stress hormones are released into their system, which is to be avoided. 

    Don't worry about potentially reinforcing the barking behaviour with food rewards, as you can’t reinforce an emotion or fear (oh how I love science!). 

    You begin by first teaching the alternative behaviour, then you pair it with the sound of the doorbell or noise that sets off the barking. I recommend recording the triggering sound on your phone for easy repetition when at the start of the training process, then eventually using the real sound. 

    Adding mental exercise will generally also help. Using positive reinforcement training, play, puzzle toys and so on in your dog’s daily routine will further help with most barking types. A snoozy dog is much less likely to bark and this applies to both puppies, adult dogs and especially adolescent dogs. Remember physical exercise isn't the same as mental stimulation, so please don’t be tempted to physically over-exercise your dog to wear them out.

    Demand barking

    Last but not least, there’s the one barking type that should be ignored; demand barking. When your dog sits in front of the treats cupboard and barks at you to get your lazy self up and over to open the drawer, so they can dive into treat heaven, they should be ignored. Don’t tell your dog ‘no’ or explain why you won’t do it. Simply ignore your dog, and if needs be, leave the room for a moment (and get yourself a treat, you deserve it!).

    Things that won't help your dog to stop barking

    It goes without saying that using punishment is an absolute no. Using bark collars, if it’s a shock collar or using citronella spray, is not something I would ever recommend. Neither is it ok to use a can filled with coins or a water spray bottle. 

    Dogs need to be able to communicate freely with the world around them and closing off a channel for expression of a natural behaviour often brings out other equally unwanted behaviours. Not to mention that suppressing or punishing one behaviour brings a high risk of fallout, like aggression or anxiety.

    So, if your dog is competing for the title of Chatty Pooch of the Year, sit down, have another read of the above and think about why and how you can help your friend. 

    Depending on the severity of the behaviour, please always consider working with a professional trainer or behaviourist on a tailored programme for you and your dog.

    Alexandra Nelke Dog trainer & behaviour consultant

    Who?

    Alex has accomplished various practical and theoretical training and behaviour courses with The Institute Of Modern Dog Trainers and completed seminars and workshops with a number of distinguished dog trainers and behaviourists.

    She exclusively uses science-based positive reinforcement training techniques that are effective and fun and will help you to build a strong, lasting relationship with your furry companion.

    Fun fact

    Alexandra Nelke is an award winning, certified dog trainer and behaviour consultant. She has studied under and has been hand-selected by renowned dog behaviourist Sarah Whitehead to become a licensed trainer under the Clever Dog Company Method.

    She’s a member of the Pet Professional Guild British Isles and serve as a volunteer dog trainer and behaviour consultant for Underdog International.

    Why?

    Her aim is to teach you to communicate with and teach your dog/s how to navigate our human world. Everything in and around the canine/ human relationship should be based on mutual trust and understanding and she’s passionate about ensuring her clients understand the importance of learning to talk dog and providing choice and breed specific enrichment opportunities in their day to day.

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