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Latest health and behavior news and advice from the veterinarians at Tufts University.

Features July 2014 Issue

Will the Barking Ever End?

Yes, when you teach the dog to end it.

What can be more obnoxious than a dog who just won’t shut up? Maybe it’s your next-door neighbor’s dog barking away at 5 in the morning. Or your own dog every single time someone comes to the door — and even long after the person leaves? Or all day after you leave?

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It takes more to make a dog stop barking than putting a finger to your mouth.

Sometimes the situation truly interferes with quality of life. Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, Director of our Animal Behavior Clinic, tells of one dog, a 100-pound chocolate Lab, who barked at his owners all day long — whether they were chatting with each other or even when one of them was trying to have a phone conversation.

And sometimes the situation can get legal. In communities with stringent noise ordinances, violations could lead to eviction or other action, says the American Veterinary Medical Association, or AVMA.

Up to 7 percent of dogs seen by veterinary behavioral practices are evaluated for excessive barking, but that number “may underestimate the prevalence of this problem,” notes the AVMA. In one survey, the organization points out, “almost 13 percent of owners identified this as a concern.”

Just why do dogs bark?

Dogs bark for as many reasons as people talk, many of those reasons built in genetically. For instance, says Dr. Dodman, terriers bark to save their lives, whereas shelties are simply super-reactive. When it comes to keeshonds, Dr. Dodman explains, “it’s their job. Bred in the Netherlands as barge dogs, it was once their job to protect their owners’ barges and the property on those barges as the boats went up and down the canals. Barking was a way of driving people off, deterring them,” a warm-blooded alarm, if you will. As for beagles, Dr. Dodman says, their barking is “for any and no reason.” Some dogs, just like some people, have to keep talking.

Of course, there are also social reasons that dogs bark. They use their voices as a means of communication to inform, attract, or repel. “I’m over here” or “Come back,” or “Get a load of this!”

And then there are the territorial reasons, like the keeshonds have: “Stay away”; “Someone is coming”; and so on. That said, dogs live in a world with people, and sometimes a dog’s incessant or ill-timed barking becomes too disruptive for human comfort. That’s when intervention becomes necessary. But what kind?

Is de-barking surgery one way to go?

Devocalization surgery, also known as de-barking, devoicing, or bark softening, is an operation performed to resect, that is, remove, varying amounts of the vocal folds or cords, which are composed of ligament and muscle and covered with mucosal tissue. Dr. Dodman is decidedly against it. “It is inhumane and should never be an option,” he says. “If you don’t like a dog that barks, get a cat.” He is not alone in his opinion. The Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, a branch of the Humane Society of the United States whose membership consists of veterinarians, states that “views of humane treatment of animals in both the veterinary profession and our society as a whole are evolving,” and “many practicing clinicians are refusing to perform non-therapeutic surgeries such as devocalization.” They lump it in the same category as declawing, ear cropping, and tail docking. “These procedures provide no medical benefit to the animals and are done purely for the convenience or cosmetic preferences of the caregiver,” the association says.

What’s more, according to the AVMA, the procedure has only “variable success and is associated with some risks that are supported by published case studies.” Among those risks, the AVMA says:

  • General anesthesia — Devocalization is carried out under general anesthesia, which in itself has inherent risks and associated mortality.
  • Post-operative discomfort — As for any surgical procedure, pain and discomfort can occur during healing.
  • Potential complications — Bleeding, airway swelling, infection, coughing, gagging, and aspiration pneumonia can occur after vocal cord surgery. There is a risk for development of scar tissue and narrowing of the throat. Clinical signs resulting from scar formation include exercise intolerance, respiratory distress, collapse, and heat intolerance.

The kicker: resumption of a near normal bark can occur within months because of a phenomenon known as webbing — regrowth of scarred vocal cord tissue (which can also make it difficult for a dog to fully clear his throat of mucus, leading to chronic coughing or gagging). In fact, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association points out that “many patients have the procedure performed more than once…to try to obtain more definitive vocal results….Their altered voices have been described with varying sounds ranging from lower, harsher, more muffled to raspy, wheezy, screechy, and high-pitched.”

The Humane Society group also points out the very real threat to physical safety imposed on a dog who can no longer bark, or bark properly, because of “the inability to ward off threats by vocalizing and alert others to threats or dangers.” And it cites an “increased level of stress” in dogs who can’t use their voices, “contributing to a possible decline in overall health.” Finally, dogs whose voices have been taken away or significantly altered experience an “increased level of frustration, leading to possible redirected behaviors such as destructive behavior toward property or aggression toward animals or people” that hadn’t been there previously.

For all these reasons, it’s no wonder that the United Kingdom’s Animal Welfare Act says “carrying out a procedure which involves interference with the sensitive tissues…of the animal, otherwise than for the purpose of its medical treatment” is an offense. The European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals, for its part, lists devocalization as an operation that for purposes not leading to the cure of a medical problem “shall be prohibited.” Here in the U.S., four states — Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio — have laws prohibiting devocalization, but all have pretty sizable loopholes.

That troubles the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association. “By allowing devocalization,” it says, “we may disincentivize responsible pet ownership. It is not difficult to postulate that a pet owner who is unwilling to spend the time to address the pet’s vocalization with training and instead seeks out devocalization, may eventually surrender this same pet to a shelter — or worse yet, abandon the animal or seek convenience euthanasia — if devocalization is either ineffective or engenders other inappropriate behaviors.

“No pet is perfect,” the veterinary group adds. “Responsible pet owners solve vocalization issues through humane behavior modification and training.” But just what does that training look like?

Humane solutions to intractable barking

Behavior modification is key to changing a dog’s habits that you find unacceptable, including the habit of barking excessively. Training a pet is not difficult, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association reminds dog owners. “But it does require time, energy, consistency, and a commitment to long-term care and understanding.” That is, you have to make room for it in your schedule, and in your store of emotional reserve.

Consider a dog who barks nonstop when someone comes to the door and won’t let up even after several minutes — even if he knows the person from a prior visit. You know the type — the dog who doesn’t understand that company has come essentially to see you, not him.

What you need to do, Dr. Dodman says, is stage visits from people so you can modify your pet’s behavior with repeated counter-conditioning. It’s a four-step process.

Have a “stranger” ring the bell or knock on the front door.

When the dog runs to the door and begins vocalizing, say “Shush,” or “Enough.” Say the word just once, calmly and cheerfully but briskly, then wait.

Get the dog to stop barking. In this case, you’re making the behavior happen with patience. Remain relaxed and still without any petting or gesticulating, making sure beforehand that the person outside knows to knock or ring only once, and wait for the dog to eventually quiet down. He will, if only because he’ll need to take a breath.

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You want to get to a point where you can have a conversation without your dog interrupting.

At the very moment the dog finally shushes, even if you know he plans to rev up in another few seconds, give him a wonderful food treat for responding to your verbal cue and praise him for his quiet behavior. That is, finish on a good note.

“Repeat ad nauseum over several days, or even a few weeks, until your dog consistently stops barking within three seconds of your telling him to,” Dr. Dodman says. But each day must be like the first. You cannot lose patience or show any exasperation.

Plan B

Some dogs aren’t able to take the hint and need a little extra help, even after several days have passed. You can provide it with a head halter such as a Gentle Leader, Dr. Dodman says. Before the appointed time for the “stranger” to announce his or her arrival, attach a lead to the dog with the head halter. What will then go differently is step 3 — getting the dog to engage in the desired behavior by ceasing to bark. The person will still knock or ring the bell, and you’ll still go through step 2 — saying “Shush” or “Enough” when the dog starts vocalizing. But when the dog keeps barking with absolutely no let-up, apply steady, upward tension (but not rough tension) on the lead. The dog will have to take your cue, and once he does by quieting down, proceed to the reward and praise of step 4. After a few days, try it again without the head halter. By then he might realize that if he doesn’t talk when someone comes to the door, he gets a treat and some warm connecting with you.

This four-step method of modifying your dog’s behavior, with or without a head halter, is called classic counter-conditioning. There’s also operant counter-conditioning — giving the dog something else to do when the doorbell rings, like lying down in a room at the back of the house so you can toss him a Kong filled with peanut butter or perhaps some frozen yogurt.

Whether you use classical or operant conditioning, one thing that’s important to keep in mind, Dr. Dodman says, is that your dog’s behavior might very well get worse before it gets better. Don’t despair — or give up in the mistaken belief that you’re going about this the wrong way. If your dog is used to creating a lot of havoc by barking and receiving attention from you in the form of arms flailing and whatnot, he’s going to try even harder to continue to “push your buttons” in the usual manner — thinking he has to up the ante to get a response — before he finally accepts that his usual tactic truly isn’t going to work.

Beyond behavior modification

Along with counter-conditioning, in some cases you can tamp down your dog’s tendency to over-bark with some good, clean living. Consider, for instance, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association’s point that “sheer boredom can lead to unnecessary vocalization,” as can long-term tethering or confinement. Make sure your dog gets the appropriate amount of exercise, and perhaps enrich his daily routine with dog park outings, pet play groups, maybe even a couple of days a week of doggie daycare. Keep teaching him new tricks, too, in order to engage his energies and attention in a constructive way. As is often said, “a tired dog is a happy dog” — and no doubt one less apt to bark uncontrollably.

Then, too, while all dogs benefit from the 3Fs — fun, fair, and firm — pushy dogs who feel the need to get their way may need a little more out of you in the “firm” department. A dog who over-vocalizes and sees that it aggravates you but that you are powerless to stop it gets a charge out of his position in the household. He needs to see that demanding behavior is unacceptable and will not be rewarded.

Empower yourself by showing your dog that you’re in control and that his comfort is in your hands. Make him work for the good things in life. Maybe he needs to sit or perform another trick in order to get his food, or a stroke from you, or something else desired. Once he learns that you hold the cards and are not willing to share them without his cooperation, the excess barking may diminish.

Some dogs also benefit from what is called a bridging stimulus — a sound, like that of a duck call — that signals that you are now going to withdraw all attention. When the dog starts insistent barking, make the bridging noise, and he will learn to connect the dots between his vocalizing and your completely ignoring him. Because he is a natural pack animal, that’s very hard for a dog, and it will help him behave how you want so that you will pay attention to him again.

Finally, if all else fails, you may want to try a citronella spray collar or an ultrasound collar or free-standing ultrasound device. A citronella collar will give a squirt of a sort of a lemony citronella scent when a dog starts barking, and the ultrasound collar will emit high-pitched sounds that for a dog are akin to fingernails on a blackboard — “screechy and horrible,” Dr. Dodman says. We are not great fans of these tools, as they are forms of punishment rather than ways of redirecting the dog’s behavior. But in some seemingly intractable cases, such collars and devices have had a beneficial effect when other anti-barking techniques have not done the trick. And, notes Dr. Dodman, at least “it’s not the owner punishing the dog directly. It’s a self-activated punisher.”

The bottom line

Behavior modification through counter-conditioning, plenty of exercise, frequent games, other types of environmental enrichment to mix things up, get-togethers with other dogs, an emphasis on “firm,” bridging stimuli, citronella and ultrasound collars — the arsenal of anti-barking strategies is large, varied, and widely underused. The last thing that should be on any owner’s mind is a debarking surgery that comes not just with all kinds of health risks but also behavioral risks once a dog’s voice is taken away. Paramount to those downsides is that debarking is considered by a number of veterinary societies to be a cruel, inhumane way to treat a canine companion.

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