Barking is a normal part of being a dog, and some barking is to be expected. Dogs that bark excessively, however, aren’t just a nuisance to their owners, but also to their neighbors.
What’s All the Racket About?
There are as many reasons for excessive barking as there are barkers. Some dogs bark to warn away intruders, real or imagined. Others bark because they’re bored, anxious, scared, frustrated, or excited. Some dogs, like many of the herding breeds and hounds, seem to bark just because it feels good, while terriers bark to alert you to the presence of every dog, person, squirrel, and falling leaf in the neighborhood. Many dogs have been rewarded into excessive barking by their owners, who jump at their dog’s every command, whether it’s “Let me in,” “Let me out,” “Play with me,” or “Pay attention to me now!.”
Lack of clear leadership contributes to many cases of excessive or uncontrollable barking. If your dog thinks that he is the ultimate protector and decision maker, he’ll not only bark, he’ll also ignore your requests for him to be quiet. Separation anxiety, also often owner induced, can also be a cause of troublesome barking.
Nip It in the Bud
Getting your dog to “zip it” means you need to nip barking in the bud before it gets out of control. How you control your dog’s barking depends on your dog, the reason she’s barking, and how persistent her barking is.
If she’s alarm barking, is it reasonable? For example, is someone in your yard or at the door? If your relationship is in order, a simple “Good, girl, that’s enough” may be enough to let her know that you recognize and appreciate her effort, but that you can control the situation. If your dog barks out of boredom, more exercise can help — sleeping dogs don’t bark — as does controlling your dog’s exposure to her barking triggers, like not leaving her alone in the yard, or closing the blinds if she barks at every jogger she sees outside.
Don’t add to your dog’s barking problem by rewarding barking. Unfortunately, many people teach their dogs to be persistent barkers by allowing their dogs to “win” or get their way by barking to get some reaction or attention, or to be let out of their crates, or to get you to hang up the phone, or whatever else it is they want. Even yelling at your dog to “shut up” is better than nothing, from her point of view. It can be tough to wait out a barking dog, but you either have to wait it out and reward quiet, or add a meaningful punishment.
For something to be meaningful to your dog, it has to have an almost immediate effect on the behavior. Within 3 or 4 repetitions, either the frequency or intensity has to decrease, or it’s not meaningful, it’s nagging.
Some people have had success controlling their dog’s barking by using shaping to teach their dogs to bark (and then quiet) on command. It doesn’t work for every dog, but it’s worth a try, and you’ll have taught your dog another cute trick, if nothing else.
You guessed it, you have to figure out what’s meaningful for your dog, but you can try a squirt bottle (maybe with a little bit of vinegar or Bitter Apple in it for an unattractive flavor), a shaker bottle, a spritz of breath spray right in your dog’s mouth, along with the word “Quiet,” said firmly, not loudly. After you’ve connected your new quiet command with the correction that works for your dog about ten times, try the command by itself. If it works, have a party; if not, follow through with your correction. It’s very important not to give your dog empty threats. He needs to know that if he didn’t listen to the first command, he’s going to get the correction.
If you don’t have good timing, or your dog barks persistently when you’re not home, you may have to consider a bark collar. There are two basic types of bark collars. The first sprays a mist of (usually) citrus-scented oil in the dog’s face when he barks, and the second delivers a static shock. Some of the shock collars are self-adjusting, increasing the level of the correction if the dog continues barking. Neither of these collars works on every dog. Some dogs aren’t deterred by them; some get worse (sometimes before getting better), and some are smart enough to turn their heads away from the mist as they gleefully bark away. If you choose to try a bark collar, make sure you get one that is activated by your dog’s vocal cords, not by noise, so he doesn’t get corrected for noise he didn’t make.
What about surgical debarking? Surgical debarking should only be considered if all other options have been exhausted and the dog is in imminent danger of losing his home or his life because of excessive barking. Dogs do still make noise after debarking, which is sometimes even more annoying than the barking was.