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Common Dog Behaviour Problems: Excessive Barking

Excessive barking

Excessive barking is a common canine behaviour problem that can lead to sleepless nights for the dog owner, frustration, angry neighbours, legal action and even eviction.  For the dog, this behaviour can lead to abandonment, abuse by the neighbours or owners, or even euthanasia. However, most barking dogs are not behaving abnormally.  Rather, they are responding to an environmental stimulus and/or displaying normal alerting behaviour. Some breeds tend to bark more than others.

Whining and howling often accompany barking. To solve this problem with barking, a definite cause for the behaviour must be sought and addressed.  Barking is a sign of a problem, not a diagnosis.  There are many reasons why dogs bark excessively.  Some of these include:

Separation anxiety: Dogs that become anxious when separated from their owners often bark or make other noises.  They may also become destructive or eliminate in the home.  The barking usually beings at or shortly after the owner’s departure and may be continuous or intermittent for up to several hours.  This type of barking only occurs in the owner’s absence and is usually predictable.

Reaction to specific stimuli:  Some dogs bark in response to certain exciting stimuli, such as delivery people, loose dogs or cats, squirrels or unfamiliar noises.  This type of barking may be merely an arousal response or a combination of alerting, protective and fearful behaviours.  Unlike dogs with separation anxiety, these dogs bark despite the owner’s presence and the barking stops when the stimulus is removed.  This type of barking may be self-reinforcing.  For example, take the dog that barks at the approach of a postal carrier:  that person leaves after dropping off the mail, but the dog believes its barking caused the person to leave, thus emboldening him to do it again.  Dogs will also bark as part of a chain reaction: one dog barks at something and others join in.

Attention seeking: Many dogs bark because they have been inadvertently rewarded for barking by being given attention or praise (i.e. telling them “it’s ok”) by their owners.  Dogs may bark at their owners to get what they want or when they are being ignored.  This type of barking is sometimes associated with other annoying behaviours, such as pawing or jumping up.  Even scolding involves the owner paying attention to the dog.  Any attention is better than no attention. Playing behaviour: Barking can be a normal component of play and can be directed towards people or other animals or toys.  This type of barking can be reinforced as a learned behaviour.  For example, a dog drops a ball in the owner’s lap and then barks.  The owner throws the ball to stop the barking.  The dog learns to bark to get the owner to throw the ball.

Medical problems: Older dogs that suffer from deafness, cognitive problems, or other brain diseases may bark excessively.  Dogs that are in pain may also bark. It’s important to have your dog thoroughly examined by a veterinarian to rule out any contributing medical problems.  This examination is an important part of any behavioural work-up.  Blood tests may be recommended, especially if drug therapy is part of the treatment plan. When you consult with a behaviourist, be prepared to answer many detailed questions regarding your dog and its behaviour.

The answers will help lead the behaviourist to the cause of the barking, which will help in developing an individualized approach to resolving the problem.  An initial consultation may take a couple of hours.  A good behaviourist will follow-up with you until the problem is resolved. Direct observation of your dog’s behaviour is important.  Note what circumstances cause the barking, how long the barking lasts, and what causes it to end.  Also, note what your dog looks like when it is barking.  Video – or audiotaping may be necessary if you are not home when the barking occurs. Treatment is based on the causes of barking.

A treatment plan may include one or more of the following:

Avoidance of stimuli that may cause barking: This is a common management technique used for many behavioural problems.  Altering behaviour can take time and work.  Sometimes it is easier to prevent the triggers of your dog’s barking than to change its reaction to it.  This technique should work, at least temporarily, for barking caused by separation anxiety and territorial or protective barking. Avoiding the triggers that cause barking may entail sending your dog to doggie day care, keeping it inside, not allowing it to see out of the window, or keeping it away from the door.  Management techniques are based on what is causing the barking problem and do nothing to address the problem directly.  The next time your dog is exposed to the stimulus or left alone, it is likely to bark.

Extinction: This technique involves ignoring your dog when it is barking and is recommended when your dog is barking to get your attention.  Owners and neighbours should be aware that the barking will likely get worse before it gets better.  Eventually your dog’s barking will lessen, though; as it learns that barking is no longer an effective way of getting what it wants.  It is important to be consistent.  Avoid petting and talking to your dog when it is barking and avoid making eye contact and scolding it.  If you give in and respond to the barking, you will be teaching your dog to bark for even longer the next time it wants something.

Punishment: Punishment is the most common technique used by owners to control barking in dogs.  However, it may be inappropriate or unsuccessful in some types of barking dogs.  When punishment is used with anxious or fearful dogs, the barking may worsen.  Punishment can come in the form of bark-activated collars, water sprays and loud noises (air horns, coin-filled “rattle” cans).  In order to be effective, the punishment must be administered immediately at the onset of each episode of barking.  Yelling is not usually an effective punishment as the dog may just think that you are joining in.

Counterconditioning and desensitization: Counterconditioning involves teaching your dog an alternative behaviour in response to a stimulus that would normally make it bark.  Desensitization involves exposing your pet to a weak version of the stimulus and gradually increasing its intensity. These behavioural modification techniques are usually combined to change your dog’s reaction to the stimulus.  For example, if your dog barks at other dogs while on walks, you can use these techniques to train your dog to focus quietly on you (rather than on the other dog) for a food treat.  Your practice sessions may start with a dog that your pet knows at a great distance and should progress gradually by decreasing the distance between the dogs.  The next stages involve working in a similar way with less familiar and then unfamiliar dogs.

Positive reinforcement:  Praising your dog when it does not bark, especially when exposed to a stimulus, can be an effective way of controlling barking.  You can also use positive reinforcement to teach your dog to obey a “quiet” command using praise or food treats. Medical treatment of disease: If barking is due to pain, the source should be identified and treated.

Therapeutic mediation: Dogs that have medical conditions or severe behaviour problems, such as separation anxiety, may require medication. Because there are many reasons for barking, treatment must be based on the specific cause.  A behaviourist can help you with a treatment plan. Until you receive help, prevent your dog’s exposure to stimuli that cause barking.  This may include keeping your dog inside or away from windows, keeping windows closed to minimize noise, using a doggie day care service or leaving the dog with someone when you are away.

With Kind Regards Pam Naude K9 Communications Dog Behaviourist/ Force Free Dog Trainer PAT ( Pets As Therapy) Area Co-Ordinator and Behaviourist for Durban Doggone Safe Bite Educator for Schools Durban Member of the Animal Behaviourists of SA Mobile: +27 83 628 88 04/ WhatsApp Office: 031 572 5146 Facebook: K9communications-doggyminds

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