Up to 7 percent of dogs are brought to veterinary behaviorists because of too much barking, but that number may underestimate the prevalence of the problem, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. In one survey, almost 13 percent of owners identified too much barking as a concern.
It’s understandable. Excessive barking is not just a nuisance for owners. It can have legal ramifications, including eviction for renters or condo dwellers who belong to a homeowners association. This may unfortunately drive some dog owners to consider debarking surgery, also known as devocalization. Remove the vocal cords, and the problem is solved, right?
Not necessarily. Resumption of a near normal bark can and with some frequency does occur within months of the operation because of a phenomenon known as webbing — regrowth of scarred vocal cord tissue. The scarring can also make it difficult for a dog to fully clear his throat of mucus, leading to ongoing coughing or gagging.
Then there are the risks of the operation itself: the general anesthesia that can lead to complications, post-operative pain and discomfort, airway swelling, aspiration pneumonia, heat and exercise intolerance, and respiratory distress.
Finally, many in the veterinary community consider debarking surgery just plain inhumane, due to the altering of a dog’s natural behavior. Dogs bark to play, as a greeting, as a warning, to gain attention, and to protect themselves. Taking away a dog’s bark takes away an essential tool of communication, to the point that it could make a dog aggressive, says the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.
For all these reasons, the European Convention of the Protection of Pet Animals prohibits devocalization surgery, and many practicing veterinarians and veterinary hospitals in the U.S. do not perform the procedure either, lumping it in with ear cropping, tail docking, and other operations performed for convenience or cosmetic purposes rather than out of necessity. Additionally, some states in the U.S. have banned the procedure, including Massachusetts, where Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University is based.
So what’s the owner of a dog whose barking won’t end supposed to do?
Humane solutions to barking that won’t quit
The reasons for excessive barking usually have to with something in the dog’s life that’s not being properly tended to: boredom, for instance, or social isolation, or anxiety. It’s very important to give your dog outlets for regular physical activity every single day, social interactions with you and others, and a calm environment. If the entire family is out of the house all day, someone should come and check in on him and spend time with him, or doggie daycare should be considered.
But beyond that, you can address the excessive barking directly, through proper training.
4-step training for less barking
It might seem like it would be impossible to train your noisy dog to vocalize less, but you can do it if you’re willing to make room in your schedule and in your store of emotional reserve. As the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association puts it, you can train a dog to do lots of things you might not have thought imaginable if you put in the “time, energy, consistency, and a commitment to long-term care and understanding.”
Let’s apply that mindset to training a dog who starts yapping the minute someone rings the door bell.
1. Arrange with someone you know to ring the bell or knock on the front door at a mutually convenient time.
2. When your dog starts for the door and begins barking, give a single word cue, like “Shush,” or “Enough.” Say it calmly yet firmly, and say it only once. Then just wait. (That’s the hard part.)
3. Get the dog to stop barking. This might sound impossible, but it’s not. You’re going to make it happen with your patience. Remain relaxed and still, without any petting or gesticulating whatsoever. (Make sure the person on the other side of the door knows to ring or knock only once and to wait patiently, too.)
4. The dog will finally shush, if only to take a breath. That’s your “in.” Immediately give him a wonderful food treat for responding to your verbal cue, even if you know he plans to rev up in another few seconds. Praise him to the hilt, too.
How often will you need to repeat this routine before your dog learns that if he doesn’t bark at the sound of the front door, he will get a treat? In some cases, every day, or every other day, for a few weeks. And each time must be like the first. You must never show exasperation, or it won’t work.
But look at the result: you’ll finally get the quieter dog you were hoping for. You might still feel skeptical about this approach. But fair, consistent training with rewards for compliant behavior works wonders if you’re willing to go the distance to get your dog over the hump.
A Bridging Stimulus May Help
Plenty of physical activity, socialization with others, calm and confident leadership in the household, and conscientious training add up to a terrific set of tools for getting your dog to stop barking excessively. Some dogs also benefit from what veterinary behaviorists call a bridging stimulus — a sound, such as a duck call or a tuning fork, that signals you are now going to withdraw all attention.
When your dog won’t stop barking, make the bridging noise and cease to pay your pet any mind. After a few times, your dog will make the connection between the noise and you completely ignoring him. Dogs find it very hard to be ignored; they are hard-wired to belong to the group. Thus, withdrawing attention will help him act the way you wish so you’ll interact with him again.