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Understanding why your dog barks

Barking is a completely normal part of canine communication. However, different breeds
and individuals might bark more than others. It may not always feel like it to us humans,
because we might just not understand why our dog is barking, but every dog barks for a
reason. Whenever barking is successful in bringing about what the dog wanted to happen,
the dog learns that barking was a good choice. The next time the dog is in a similar
situation they will be more likely to bark again. Despite it being a normal behaviour, if
barking becomes frequent or prolonged it can be as much a problem for the dog as it is for
owners, so it is important to act early to help prevent normal barking from developing to a
worrying stage.
Why is my dog barking?
The key to reducing and even preventing barking is to understand why the dog is barking in
the first place, so we can learn what the dog hopes to gain from barking and teach them
that they can obtain this by behaving in a different, more appropriate manner instead. We
might also be able to make changes to the environment so that our dog no longer feels the
need to bark. Broadly speaking, dogs will bark either to get something that they feel is
good to happen, or in an attempt to prevent something they feel is bad from happening.
Dogs are very social animals, however, most owners have commitments that mean their
dogs might need to be left at home alone at times. Unless a dog has been taught how to be
relaxed all by themselves, this can be scary or frustrating. Dogs that are distressed about
being left home alone may howl or bark in an attempt to regain contact with their owners.
If owners return home when their dogs are barking, this might make the dog feel that
barking was a good thing to do, because it worked to bring the owner home, so they may
try it again next time they’re on their own. Simply ignoring a dog who is barking when left
alone and waiting for them to stop before returning will not stop them barking, because it
doesn’t change the way they feel about being on their own. Our handouts on separation
anxiety and enrichment, give useful advice on how to teach your dog to entertain
themselves and relax by themselves. However, a dog who barks in order to be reunited with
their owner, or to gain any form of company, might well need some help from a
professionally qualified behaviourist.
Most dogs enjoy having our attention, whether that’s just us looking at and talking to them,
or interacting with them, giving them a fuss or playing with them. Dogs can easily learn
that barking can be a great way of getting our attention, and quickly too. Some dogs even
find owners telling them to “be quiet” rewarding, because they enjoy being looked at and
spoken to, and of course they don’t understand what we’re saying anyway!
Some dogs may learn to bark at their mealtimes, usually when their food is being prepared.
Because this always happens just before they get to eat, excited dogs might bark in
anticipation and if their food is given to them when they’re barking, they are more likely to
bark again next time because they have connected their barking with their food arriving.
Just as some dogs get very excited around food, others can’t get enough of playtime! Many
dogs bark when they are feeling excited or playful, and if barking works to get them a fun
game then they may learn to continue barking every time they want us to play with them!
Barking due to fear
Just like humans, dogs can be scared of lots of things. When a dog is frightened about
something and feels under threat, whether the threat is real or not, it certainly feels real
from the dog’s perspective, then they might bark at whatever is scaring them, in an
attempt to make it go away. If barking is successful in making whatever is scary go away,
then a dog will learn to bark again next time they want to feel safe. Consider the
post-person coming up the garden path to their front door and pushing letters through the
door. Remember the dog doesn’t know what these are, so some dogs might find this very
frightening, and if they started barking as the post-person arrived at the front door, they
might very quickly connect their barking with the post-person turning and walking away
again, and no more letters coming through the door. Next day, the barking magically
makes the post-person go away again and the day after too! Now the dog knows exactly
what to do whenever they feel scared, just bark and make the scary thing go away, so they
can go back to feeling safe again. Barking certainly seems to be the best thing to do, as the
poor dog has no way of understanding that the post-person was going to go away again
anyway. Dogs who are worried about something in the environment might also bark to ‘tell
us’ or others that this ‘thing’ is present because they want and need us to take action to
help them feel safe. It could be something they’ve seen, heard, felt or smelt and something
that we might not be aware of at all. We might have no idea what they are barking at, but
we do know that dogs always have a reason for barking, as it is an important part of normal
dog communication. The more a dog keeps themselves feeling safe by barking, the more
they will bark whenever they’re worried. This is why it’s important to make sure puppies are
taught to be confident and calm, even in unusual and unexpected situations.
Find out why
The first thing to do is to find out why your dog is barking, and ask what they hope the
barking will achieve. It is always important to find out how our dogs are feeling when they
are behaving in a way that we would prefer they didn’t, because this will help us help them
to make better choices over how to behave in this situation in the future.
It’s always best to ask your vet about problems or changes with your dog’s behaviour, as
there could be medical influences. If necessary, your vet will also be able to refer you to a
qualified behaviourist who can give you personalised support and guidance.
Make sure you are not rewarding attention seeking
Make sure that your dog doesn’t find barking rewarding and reward them for staying quiet
instead. For example, if the dog barks at mealtimes simply ignore the barking and wait for
it to stop before feeding. Similarly, if your dog barks at you in an attempt to get you to play
with them then try hard to ignore this, or even leave the room and do something else
instead. When your dog is quiet, then pick up a toy and invite them to play. The fun game
that follows, will be an excellent reward for quietness.
Teach your dog to do something else instead and reward that
Rewards should be appropriate for the atmosphere you’re trying to create, so if your dog
has run straight to you excitedly when you’ve called them then a fun game would be an
enjoyable reward. If you want to reward your dog for being quiet and relaxed, then keep
your praise calm and gentle. Gently stroking them or just looking at and talking to them can
be thoroughly rewarding, however, for some dogs this might be too exciting, so think about
how your dog responds to your attention before you give it and think about what they are
doing whenever you give them attention, in case you are accidentally rewarding them for
something. If your dog is barking for something very specific, such as getting attention
from another person, or to make another dog go away, then it is useful to teach them that
doing something quieter and safer instead will get them the same result. This might even
be something that means they can’t bark at the same time, for example dogs can’t bark
and sniff at the same time, so teaching a dog to put their nose to the floor and sniff out
tasty treats to eat and putting it on a cue such as “find it”, instead of barking at another
dog or person can be useful.
There’s no need to tell your dog off
Although it can be very frustrating, especially if you have neighbours to consider, telling
your dog off might also make them anxious, or confused about you, because sometimes
you’re friendly and fun but now you’re loud and angry. This could even contribute to the
problem, encouraging them to bark even more. It can also add energy to the situation and
so escalate the situation and if the barking is for attention, telling them off is indeed
attention, albeit negative attention, which may be accidentally rewarding the barking and
so encouraging it.
Avoid the scary situation if your dog is barking because they’re worried
If your dog is barking because they are scared, try to avoid the scary thing as much as
possible and help prevent your dog being in this scary position again. For example, if your
dog barks at passers-by through a window, cover this up to block their view. If they bark
because they are scared of being alone, try to avoid leaving them as much as possible by
considering a pet sitter or dog-walker.
Scared dogs might need further support from a behaviourist to find out exactly what it is
they are scared of, in order to help them change the way they feel and learn to not only feel
differently, but behave differently too.
Make sure your dog has lots to do and think about
Dogs might be more likely to bark if they are not getting enough mental or physical
exercise, so make sure that you spend quality time keeping your dog engaged and active
each day. Our handout on “Canine Enrichment” has lots of useful ideas for providing your
dog with appropriate activity to prevent boredom and to use their bodies and minds.
Be prepared
Be aware that if in the past you would normally have responded to your dog’s barking by
interacting with them and trying to get them to stop, then once you start ignoring them for
barking they are likely to bark even more to begin with! This is because they might become
confused when you don’t react as they are expecting you to, based on their past
experiences, and so they might feel they need to try even harder and bark with more
intensity in order to get you to behave as you used to! Don’t worry if this happens, be calm
and quiet and wait for the moment they stop and be ready to reward this moment of
quietness with praise and attention. They need to learn that it is quietness that brings them
the reward they want, so you should find that over time they become quiet much more
quickly, as long as you are consistent and make sure you reward them when they’re quiet. It
is worth talking to your neighbours to let them know what you are doing and prepare them
for the barking to get worse before it gets better , they’ll hopefully thank you in the long
run. Try to be consistent, as giving in and responding to their barking, even if it is just the
once, is likely to teach them to persist and try even harder.
Extra help
If you are struggling please get in touch with a qualified behaviourist. These can found by
copying and pasting the following link into your web browser:
Jade Spiro BSc 2022