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Sometimes Their Bark is Worse Than Their Bite – Karen Phillips

A common question that I am asked during workshops for Better Pets and Gardens is how to stop dogs barking.  Understandably barking can become a big issue given that it also impacts the neighbours and has been the cause of many neighbourhood disputes.  One of the first things you must do before attempting to solve excessive barking is to try and understand why it is happening.  This allows you to address the underlying issue and ideally eliminate the cause.

There are many theories as to why dogs bark.  Some of these include boredom, wanting to attract attention, over excitement or being alarmed.  In cases where dogs bark at each other through the fence it often becomes a fun game for them.  Dogs can also bark due to stress and anxiety.  All these behaviours are at completely different spectrums of a dog’s emotional state which is why it’s so important to understand what the cause is.

With our busy lifestyles boredom and loneliness is common for dogs and barking is often the result.  If you make the commitment to bring a dog into your life it is your responsibility to make the time to provide an abundance of exercise and mental stimulation for them, preferably including obedience or agility classes.  A dog that has the opportunity to regularly run free and get out and about, experiencing lots of different sights and smells, is generally a highly contented individual.

Dogs are clever creatures and can learn that barking gains them attention.  My youngest border collie Sonic, who is by nature a very verbal dog, figured out quickly that if he barks at me he gets a response.  It doesn’t bother him whether my response is good or bad.  This barking often occurs during training sessions when he gets frustrated working for his reward.  To combat this, rather than tell Sonic off or even worse give him the reward that he wants, every time he barks at me I actually give the reward to one of my other dogs.  Needless to say it didn’t take long for him to learn to control himself otherwise he missed out on his coveted reward.  He also barks at my partner to demand petting.  This was resolved by simply ignoring him.  Should my partner pat or even acknowledge Sonic when this happens he would be reinforcing the bad behaviour and teaching him that by barking he gets the attention that he seeks.

A dog barking from over excitement is easy to identify.  For example, when I get home from work my dogs get highly excited and the result is crazy barking.  As soon as I get into the house and let all the dogs out together they charge around for a couple of minutes and then peace is restored.  So the best resolution for me is to let them run around and get it out of their system.  Provided the carry on isn’t for a prolonged period most neighbours won’t be unduly bothered.  My neighbours have informed us that it doesn’t bother them at all given that my dogs don’t bark at any other time during the day.

Alarm barking is the way our dogs warn us that there is a potential threat nearby.  Ideally this should only occur on the odd occasion such as someone actually being on the property or worst case scenario, attempting to break into the house.  I’m fairly certain that most people want their dogs to warn them if this is the case!  Unfortunately excessive alarm barking in suburbia is common and often exacerbated when dogs are locked away behind high backyard fencing.  This can serve to cause isolation and subsequently a dog is more inclined to feel threatened if they hear even distant strange noises.  This is generally most noticeable at night and dog lover or not, I don’t know anyone who enjoys being kept awake by a neighbour’s dog that spends all night alarm barking.

By far the easiest answer is to keep a dog inside the house at night.  If the dog cannot be trusted loose in the house, consider purchasing a dog crate that can be located anywhere inside the home and then spend some time training the dog to be comfortable and relaxed sleeping in it.  It is important to be aware that a dog can’t be just locked inside a crate without correct training.  Dogs who aren’t used to being “crated” may well bark from the stress of suddenly being put somewhere they aren’t used to.

One of the traps people fall into is looking for “quick and easy” resolutions that involve punishing the dog for barking, especially where there is pressure from neighbours.  It is important to understand that use of punishment in any form of dog training will only serve to suppress the behaviour.  In many cases what will happen is another unpredictable and often worse behaviour will develop in its place.  If the barking is caused by anxiety or stress punishment can make things worse.  If resolving barking issues is just too difficult, contact a qualified dog behaviourist who specialises in positive training methods.  They will be able to properly assess the situation and provide a sensible plan of action.

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