Your Dog is Barking -- Are You Listening?

Two years ago on a bitterly cold February night, the terrier across the street from my father’s home began to bark uncontrollably, much to the puzzlement and consternation of her owners. In an attempt to determine what was bothering Winnie, they opened the door and let her outside, where she promptly raced across the street to my father’s garage (something she had never done before). When her owners went to retrieve her, they found my father lying on the garage floor with a broken leg. Darkness had prevented any of the neighbors from seeing him and although he had been calling for help for over an hour, no one could hear him – except for Winnie.

Barking is a primary form of communication for dogs and as already illustrated, can be extremely useful, yet left unchecked, owners (and their neighbors) can be driven to distraction by a dog who refuses to quiet.

Dogs often bark because they have been reinforced for doing so. Whether the reinforcement has been intentional or inadvertent makes no difference -- behavior that is reinforced tends to be repeated. This maxim is also true of your behavior, your spouse’s behavior and, as most parents know, the behavior of every toddler and teen walking the planet. Puppies sometimes bark in their crates, and in order to stop the noise, owners let them out. Dogs may bark when they’re sitting near the dinner table, and an owner may respond by giving them food. If you’ve been paying attention, you can easily predict the future behavior of these two dogs. This unintentional reinforcement tells the dog that their behavior is effective, and they learn to use it repeatedly to get what they want.

Dogs also bark to alert us to changes in the environment, including solicitors hanging out on the front step with magazine subscription cards, miscreants lurking in the bushes, children fast-forwarding past the house, and the occasional squirrel, who appears to exist solely for the sheer torment of all Labrador retrievers.

Many dogs become appropriately protective of their owners and homes and begin to bark when a non-family member appears on the premises. If you want to stop the noise, forget the electronic bark collar, which can create other, more complicated problems, and teach the dog to be quiet upon request. When the dog barks, tell him “thank you” for bringing the offender to your attention and then ask him to stop, by issuing a command like “Shush!” or “Quiet!” Once the dog is quiet, praise him for his behavior. If he won’t stop barking, introduce a piece of freeze-dried liver or other dog treat, and put it close to his nose where he can sniff it. Do NOT give the treat to the dog, or you will have just rewarded him for barking. It is a well known scientific fact that dogs cannot bark and sniff at the same time (neither can you, actually) so while the dog is sniffing the treat, he’ll be quiet. Once he’s maintained his silence for at least 10-15 seconds, you can praise and reward him for quiet behavior.

Pet owners might be surprised to learn that some dogs become barkers because they have never been properly housetrained. The backyard barker who gives voice every morning at dawn and makes incessant noise throughout the day is a perfect example. Consider the following scenario:

Mr. and Mrs. Smith get a new puppy (Rowdy), but don’t want to use a crate for housetraining. Rowdy quickly saturates the living room carpet with urine. The Smiths replace the carpet and send Rowdy to live in the basement. Here, he learns to creatively redesign drywall with his bare teeth and is then banished to the backyard, where he begins free-lance excavation work, rearranges the siding on the house, and removes what appear to be unnecessary steps to the wooden deck - and, to quote Dave Barry - "I am not making this up." Finally, he discovers his voice and after several days of non-stop barking, the neighbor rings up Rowdy's owners at 5 a.m. to bark (anonymously) into the phone. Rowdy's owners find the neighbor's behavior highly annoying and quickly conclude that perhaps they should housetrain Rowdy and bring him back inside where he belongs.

If only they had come to that conclusion in the first place! It baffles me that we would spend centuries domesticating dogs so that they need and desire human companionship only to exile them to the backyard. Then, when they begin to bark from loneliness and isolation, we become irritated with them. Sometimes human behavior is the most confounding of all!

Dogs bark to communicate and they bark for myriad reasons, ranging from small, everyday occurrences to life-changing and sometimes life-saving events. The next time your dog barks, listen carefully -- he may be saying something you need to hear.

(Reprinted with permission from the Iowa Source, January 2004)