Barking is a dog’s way of communicating it either wants something to go away, or wants something to come closer. At home, dogs will often bark to get owners to engage if they are bored and want attention, while barking at the postman and visitors is the dog’s means of trying to make those people go away as the dog views them as a threat. In the countryside a dog will bark for similar reasons. So they will bark at other dogs and people to either make them go away, or because they want them to come closer and play.
A dog who wants another dog or person to come closer may be bored, frustrated or just over excited. It may have learned that people and dogs are really nice to be with, and yet it has not learned that it cannot play or meet every dog or person it sees on a walk. This type of behaviour is often encouraged in the pet’s house by the dog enjoying a constant stream of interactions with people or dogs, and perhaps on walks being allowed to run over to every person or dog it sees. A dog that is never away from its owners and never left to rest quietly asleep on the sofa away from people expects attention all day, and finds it difficult not to have that attention on walks.
Conversely, dogs may want to encourage people or dogs to move away and this may be due to anxiety of what may happen when new dogs or people appear for the first time. In these cases it may be unusual-looking people from the dog’s perspective that causes the anxiety, so they will bark at people in hats or with trekking poles for example, and they may bark at dog breeds that are much bigger or much smaller than themselves.
They may have developed a specific fear of dogs or people if dogs have attacked them or barked at them in the past, or if people have thrown objects at them, shouted at them or done something else that scares them.
Therefore to stop the barking, we can teach the dog that it does not need to bark to make the scary target go away, and it does not need to bark to get the dog or person to come closer. The most basic means of controlling barking is by asking the dog to come and sit and wait with their owners, then rewarding the dog for sitting quietly by feeding the dog food treats or a slow release chew item. A foraging game of ‘find the treats’ by scattering food on the ground can often be effective. Using a ball or toy to play with can also distract the dog.
The use of aversive training methods such as spraying water at the dog, jerking the lead, shouting or tapping the dog on the nose often does not work in the long term and can make the problem worse. This is because the dog still wants the target to go away or move closer, and it may actually become more aroused due to its owner acting so strangely. In some cases, the dog will become more frightened of the owner and it is then common that the dog may bite their owner. Of course the dog does not understand “Will you stop barking!” so human speech is often viewed as the owner providing attention, which the dog then barks to get more of, or the dog may think the owner is just joining in with a human version of barking.
The important element to teaching a dog not to bark is timing of signals, and the dog’s ability to follow signals such as come, sit, lie down or watch me for example. If the dog cannot follow these basic signals, then there will be little chance of it following these signals when highly aroused by a dog or person. Equally if people give the dog attention after it has barked then the dog can learn to bark at a stranger and then follow signals as a means of getting a food reward from the owner. It is these complications that often cause barking to continue, but problems that are easily resolved by professional help, especially if owners attend to the barking as soon as it begins rather than let it develop for months or years before seeking help.
To safeguard the welfare of your pet and to be confident that your own concerns are treated respectfully, DEFRA and the Government refer to the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) with respect to trainers and behaviourists and you can find them at www.abtcouncil.org.uk/ and within this organisation you will find members of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (UK), the Canine Behaviour and Training Society and ASAB Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourists and these organisations can also be contact directly via their respective websites.