Article published in Dogs Life Magazine May/June 2012
Most of us like having a dog that barks when strangers approach our homes, but what happens when your dog barks non-stop and for no reason?
Being the owner of a dog that barks excessively is a sure-fire way to find yourself out of favour with your neighbours. Not only that, if your dog is disturbing the peace and quiet, you may be faced with warnings and fines from your local council.
Margot Pettman’s ageing Golden Retriever, Jessie, has become a problem barker in her twilight years. When Jessie was sent to a boarding kennel while the family was on holiday, she was bullied by other dogs and came home with kennel cough. Since then, she likes to be close to her family at all times.
“Jessie loves being in the car and going for a drive,” Pettman says. “When I stop for petrol, I have to pat her through the back window to keep her quiet. If I stop — even though I’m only centimetres away from her and she can see me — she’ll start barking. She generally won’t even be looking at me.
“When we’re at home in different rooms, she’ll either find someone or she’ll bark until one of us appears.”
Barking, along with growling, howling and whining, is how dogs communicate; it is normal behaviour. If your dog is particularly chatty, it’s helpful to establish the reason for the barking before you can address any problems. Sam Lewis, head dog trainer and coach from Sherlock Bones in Adelaide, says separation anxiety and territorial behaviours are the most common causes of problem barking.
According to Lewis, Jessie’s is a classic case of separation anxiety and a common result of bad kennel experiences or even group training and puppy classes.
“If your dog is in a stressed-out or highly excitable environment and sees lots of other dogs barking, he’ll copy and join in,” he says. “It becomes a learned behaviour. Some big-group situations are more social things rather than good training experiences (because) dogs learn undesirable traits.”
So how can you get your noisy pooch to pipe down? When it comes to fixing the issue, Lewis emphasises the importance of effective communication with your canine companion, making training both easy and enjoyable.
Food rewards are fine for basic training, as you want your dog to associate learning with fun. But you need to draw the line,” says Lewis. “Your dog needs to learn to respect you, which I don’t think can be achieved with just food. I like to train dogs on voice control, so you can control them anywhere at any time.”
Vocal control makes sense, after all. When you are by your dog’s side, food rewards are easily accessible. But when he’s out in the yard barking and you’re inside the house, what do you do?
“lf you run out to scold your dog for barking and then give it a food reward for doing the right thing when he stops, the dog will soon associate barking with getting attention and food,” says Lewis. “If you can control your dog with your voice, you don’t wind up reinforcing the behaviour.”
Similarly, diverting your dog’s attention isn’t necessarily effective, either. ” People will try to redirect a barking dog to a ball or distract him with a noise. lt doesn’t actually teach him that the barking is wrong and needs to be stopped; it just shifts his focus for a moment.”
Communication is key
Communicating effectively with your dog isn’t very difficult; it’s just a matter of doing what they do. A dog’s vocalisations express a range of emotions and can indicate if your dog is happy, distressed, startled or giving a warning.
“When dealing with your dog, you just need to be confident. Stand up straight, be in charge and use different vocal tones. You don’t need to carry on — dogs have fantastic hearing and are really good at using and reading body language,” says Lewis.
”All we do is copy how dogs communicate so they can understand us. By doing that, rather than teaching them a whole new language, we get results very quickly.”