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Will you just stop barking?!

Key Points

- Barking is a normal form of communication

- Dogs do not bark ‘for no reason’

- There are as many reasons why a dog might bark as reasons a person might shout

- Your reaction can make the problem worse, or create new ones

Why might a dog bark:

- Threat detection. ‘Alarm barking’ is a normal behaviour displayed when a dog detects a potential threat and wants to make sure everyone knows about the risk.

- Aggression. Barking can include aggressive vocalisations which are part of a dog’s defence strategy. If I bark and sound scary the threat might go away.

- Excitement. Sometimes you just want to jump around and shout…

- Frustration. If a dog is unable to achieve a desired goal, they may become frustrated. Think toddler tantrum…

- Communication with people and learnt behaviour. Communicating with a species that doesn’t speak your language can be tricky. Dogs often find that barking seems to be something us humans respond to. If they have learnt that barking makes you react in a positive way (for example barking at the door makes you open it) then they will repeat it.

Understanding the behaviour:

You cannot address an issue with excessive barking (note that barking occasionally is a normal behaviour and not something we should be trying to stop) without understand at the very least what triggers it. Even better if we understand why that makes our dog bark, and what causes the dog to continue to perform the behaviour.

When we look at behaviours we think about ABCs. That is Antecedant (trigger) Behaviour (barking) Consequence (what happens directly after).

The Antecedent is what causes the behaviour to occur, but the consequence is what influences the likelihood that it will happen again.

An example with barking might be… a dog barks at the kitchen cupboard (for the first time) human opens cupboard and gives them a treat. They will do that again because something nice happened that made the behaviour worthwhile. If the first time they barked at the cupboard nothing happened, then it isn’t worth repeating.

Another very common example is barking at the postman. Postman comes to the door, dog barks, postman leaves. The postman doesn’t leave because the dog barked but they don’t know that. So from the dogs point of view barking to repel a potential threat worked. So they continue to use the same strategy.

To better understand what your dog’s ABCs are it is worth keeping a diary, or recording your dog when the unwanted barking occurs. Then look back through and try to identify what happens before they bark, does that happen every time? What happens after the barking?

How to control barking:

Once we know what triggers your dog to bark, the quickest and easiest way to reduce barking in this context is to avoid the trigger. That isn’t always possible. But often we can do things to help. For example, if your dog barks at the postman then keep your dog in an area of the house where they can’t see him arrive when it’s delivery time, or fit an external post box further away from the house.

We must also look at consequences. We need to make sure we don’t react in a way that reinforces the barking (such as giving them attention, or using food to keep them quiet).

Teaching an alternative behaviour is a great idea. For example if your dog barks when they see other dogs teach them that looking at you will mean they get a treat. They can’t be barking at the other dog whilst they are also facing you.

If your dog is barking because they have a negative emotional reaction to something, such as being scared of new people, and they are using barking to express that then we also can work to change their feelings to the trigger. This is called counter conditioning. It means swapping the negative emotion for a nicer one.

Methods that are not recommended:

- Shouting at your dog is very unlikely to help the problem. Does someone shouting ‘calm down’ at you make you feel calmer?

- Punishing your dog. Not only is this unlikely to help it also risks causing other issues such as aggression and making your dog scared of you.

- Ignoring your dog. If you ignore the barking very early on when it first occurs this might work. But once the behaviour is well practised then it will likely make it worse. This is because you failing to respond in the way you usually do can increase frustration.

This is sometimes called an ‘extinction burst’. Essentially if animals gave up every time something stopped working, they wouldn’t survive very long, so instead they try harder. I like the example of a chicken scratching for corn. If it scratches and doesn’t find any, it doesn’t just give up as it would starve, it scratches harder. It might also start to try different techniques. So, don’t be surprised if ignoring your dog leads to them trying out new attention-grabbing behaviours.

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