If We Knew What They Were Saying, Their Barking Wouldn’t Be So Irritating
Dogs communicate 5 different things with their barks. They shouldn't be punished for trying to tell you — or another dog — something.
In her excellent book, Barking: The Sound of a Language (Dogwise Publishing), Norwegian trainer Turid Rugaas points out that people often think dogs bark as an act of aggression or to prove their dominance, or simply to annoy people. But while barking most certainly can get on people’s nerves, dogs don’t bark to “strut their stuff” or exhibit swagger. Like us, they vocalize to express something — a warning, an emotion, a desire, happiness even. For that reason says the head of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, “getting upset and yelling at a dog when it is barking — I cannot think of a single time where that would be helpful.”
Ms. Rugaas agrees. She also points out that the amount of time a dog engages in barking is usually very short. For that reason, she says, it is a good idea to keep a daily log of your dog’s barking activity for a while. After looking over their records, many owners “document that the dog in question had barked only two to five minutes a day, in some cases only 20 seconds, in other cases not at all for an entire day or two.” In other words, the barking that so gets on your nerves may be only a tiny fraction of a dog’s activity — not enough to warrant a lot of exasperation, and certainly not enough to warrant punishment. (Nothing a dog does warrants punishment, although it may warrant teaching him to redirect his behavior.)
To help you understand your dog’s different reasons for barking and to be able to identify which reason is going on at any particular moment, here are explanations for the five reasons dogs vocalize with barks. We’ll explain, too, how the barks sound different depending on what the dog wants to get across. Knowledge is power — yours, either to let the dog have his say or to teach him not to bark when his vocalizing is ill-timed, according either to the neighbors or your own limits for how much “talking” you want to hear. That is, to teach a dog not to bark at certain times, you have to know why the barking is occurring so you can apply the right non-threatening, non-punishing tactic to entice him to quiet down.
1 Excitement barking. Says Ms. Rugaas in her book, “excitement barking expresses emotions ranging from happiness to the…expectation of something good about to happen.” The sound is high-frequency, and it can even come across as a little hysterical because the dog is anxious, or stressed, about getting the show on the road in his anticipation. Many dogs run back and forth while engaging in excitement barking, wagging their tails at the same time, and perhaps biting at their leash or even your pant legs.
Definitely, this type of barking should not make you angry, even if it’s hard to take.
“Don’t punish joy!” Ms. Rugaas aptly says.
So what should you do? Well, now that you know what such barking is about, and knowing that it will probably last only a minute or two until the happy thing starts occurring — the dog gets to go outside, or play with a special toy — you may decide to just let the dog “talk” about his excitement. Remarks Dr. Borns-Weil, “having a dog is about living with them and striking a compromise rather than always getting them to do exactly what we want.” So what if the dog barks about being excited? “Dogs bark — that’s what they do,” she emphasizes.
On the other hand, if you really can’t take it, the solution is to ignore the excitement barking completely. Then, says Dr. Borns-Weil, “reward the dog for being quiet when he finally calms down.”
“It’s very hard to do,” she says. Many people want to yell at the dog, which the dog may misinterpret as socially facilitated barking. “Oh, I’m barking, so my owner is barking, too.” Being such social animals, dogs expect everyone to react by engaging in the same behavior.
Instead of yelling, you’ve got to calmly wait out the barking, moving to another activity when you may have been planning at that moment to get the dog out the door. And you may have to do that for two or three weeks until the dog fully gets the message that not barking will get him the reward of a treat or warm praise and, ultimately, what he was excited about in the first place.
Even if you show annoyance in your attitude without yelling, you’re giving the dog attention, rewarding him for his behavior. It all has to be very calm and even. Instead, if you wish, you can teach him to do something that is incompatible with barking such as “sit” (and be quiet) while waiting to get the leash on. The reward is getting the leash on for the walk.
Note: Dr. Borns-Weil points out that excitement barking could be a form of learned barking, sometimes called attention-seeking barking. If a dog’s barks are always followed by your putting on the leash, he thinks he has trained you that his barking will get you to take him out. You might want to resist the training, which is constantly being reinforced, by showing the dog that being taken out has nothing to do with his vocalizing at you. Simply put, you wait the dog out to train him out of training you.
Dogs also sometimes engage in attention-seeking barking during walks. You stop to chat with someone, and they keep barking to get you to move along. If you don’t want to be pushed, ignore the behavior. It will be difficult at first to talk over the loud, insistent sounds, but they will dissipate within a few weeks.
2 Warning barking. You will not hear a warning bark as often as other types of barking, Ms. Rugaas says. But some dogs use it in situations where they perceive that others (canine or human) need to be alerted to a danger. It’s a short, sharp woof meaning, “Get away, the enemy is coming.”
The warning bark was probably the first type of bark that people recognized, Ms. Rugaas says. In prehistoric times, they needed to be aware of the presence of such dangers as nearby wild animals.
The best thing to do to calm a warning bark is the opposite of what you’re supposed to do to quell an excitement bark. Instead of doing nothing, react — but calmly. Acknowledge to the dog that you got the message and make it clear that you will now step in to deal with the threat so the dog will feel secure and not continue to sound more warnings.
One way to do this is calmly place yourself between the dog and whatever he perceives as the threat. It could be another person, Ms. Rugaas says, or an animal, or even the sound of something that neither of you can see. It’s what dogs (and horses) do to protect others, and your dog should be able to recognize your coming to the rescue.
3 Fear barking. Fear barking is high pitched, like excitement barking, but it comes in a long series, and you will very clearly be able to hear the fear, even hysteria, in your dog’s voice. Sometimes the series of barks ends in a howl — a call for help.
Unfortunately, says Ms. Rugaas, fear barking is the kind of vocalization people punish most often and most severely, perhaps because the sound is so penetrating. It also makes the situation worse. Imagine being punished for communicating fear.
Among things dogs fear: being left alone, threatening behavior from others (dogs or people), anger, and loss of freedom of movement.
The solution, to both the fear and the barking it evokes, is to try to avoid whatever makes the dog afraid enough that he feels the need to start vocalizing. Don’t force your pet into a situation where he doesn’t feel safe. That will not desensitize him; it will only serve to sensitize him to the fearful thing or situation even more. If you can, go between the dog and whatever scares him, just as you would for a warning bark. “Splitting behavior” on your part can often work wonders.
It is important to talk soothingly to your pet, not harshly or in an unnerved fashion when he is upset. However, be careful not to reinforce his behavior choice of barking. While remaining calm, you can teach him a better strategy for managing his fear than barking. For example, if he sees a frightening-looking person while on a walk and begins to bark, tell him “leave it” and then “let’s go,” rewarding him as he obeys each command. With repetition, you are teaching him that ignoring and walking away is more effective at keeping safe than barking.
Whatever you do, do not lock the dog in his crate or in a small, closed-off room unless he has already been taught that the room or crate is a safe space for him. Imagine your own sense of hysteria increasing if you felt fear, then on top of the fear, felt trapped.
4 Guard barking. Different behaviorists have different terms for this. For instance, Dr. Borns-Weil calls it territorial barking. It’s often accompanied by growling — grrrr, bark, bark, grrrr — so people view it as aggressive, but it’s not.
“It’s normal canine behavior,” Dr. Borns-Weil comments. Moreover, she says, territorial barking is not necessarily fear-based. Territoriality is built into canine DNA. That’s why many dogs will bark when someone outside the social group steps onto their territory (such as when the mailman comes to the door). For that reason, she says, “it very hard to completely suppress.”
But you can attenuate it by acknowledging that the dog did his job. With her own dog, Dr. Borns-Weil acknowledges territorial barking by walking over to the window when he is “shrieking” at a supposed interloper and saying “thank you.” That is her cue to him that she is aware of his concern and that she does not feel bothered or threatened, so neither should he. It calms him down.
Whatever you do, you should not ignore guard/territorial barking the way you would ignore excitement barking in order to get it to cease. You’ve got to let your dog know you’re on the case. If that’s not enough, counter-condition your pet. Teach him that when someone comes up the driveway or another dog passes the window, it’s time for a treat, or some play time. He’ll learn that the approach of a “threatening being” means it’s time for fun things to happen in the house. Over the course of a couple of weeks, what seemed so alarming will move to the background.
Be aware as you cope with your dog’s threatened barking that some of it may be learned barking. For instance, every time the mail carrier comes and the dog “screams,” the mail carrier leaves, right? The dog has learned that his barking clears the premises. You can even get the mailman in on the act by having him push a tiny biscuit through the mail slot along with the mail. The dog will learn that way that what seemed threatening, isn’t.
5 Frustration barking. An endless row of static barking, with the same tone over and over again, frustration barking is heartbreaking to hear, Ms. Rugaas points out. Often ending in a howl with the whole sequence then repeated, it means a dog’s frustration is of a desperate, and often lonely nature. It’s often sounded by a dog who is tied up, alone outside, is not allowed to be with people, or is in a kennel. Sometimes hunger is the cause of this type of barking.
The barking, which helps the dog stay calm, is the equivalent of people repeating the same motion over and over again, which can frequently be seen in nursing homes or mental hospitals. In other words, the barking is like rocking back and forth in an effort to deal with overwhelming emotional pain.
The solution, of course, is simple. Fix what is wrong. Take the dog inside to be with you, to be part of the family; feed him; love him. “That’s usually all it takes” to stop this type of vocalization,” Ms. Rugaas says.
As you look at your dog’s barking in a new way, be aware that different kinds of barking can overlap. But if you stay calm and don’t get angry, you’re half way to solving the problem, or not solving it, if you decide it’s not a big deal and doesn’t last long, anyway.