Barking has many different causes, and because of this, can be an extremely difficult behaviour to control. Excessive barking is usually caused by some combination of the following:
Inherited drive - Any inherited behavior is extremely difficult to change.
Learning - Most dogs have learned to bark to get something, and it usually works. For example, each time your dog barks at the mailman, the mailman goes away, or if the dog spends the afternoon in the yard barking, someone will eventually yell at the dog to be quiet - and, some attention, bad or good, is better than no attention. Dogs that are taught to speak for food can sometimes develop a barking problem.
Territorial defense - Dogs bark when their territory is threatened. This is another inherited component of barking, and therefore is difficult to eliminate. It is seen when the dog barks at strangers (or squirrels) that approach the house or yard.
Play - Increase excitement levels associated with play can lead to increased barking.
Stereotypic barking - This occurs when the dog has developed barking as a way of dealing with conflict or stress. The dog then barks whenever they are in conflict, much as a person might bite their fingernails. This type of barking tends to be measured, almost a monotone and repetitive.
Separation Anxiety - The dog barks only when the owner goes out, as a way of relieving the tension and anxiety they feel when left alone.
Treatment of Problem Barking
Train the dog not to bark by eliminating any reward the dog might get for barking. You must totally ignore the barking - do not look at, speak to or touch the dog while they are barking. If you give in after the dog has barked for 15 minutes and shout at the dog, the barking has been reinforced and will be even more difficult to eliminate. When you start to ignore any behaviour that the dog has learned will get him a response, the behavior will increase in frequency and intensity before stopping completely (this is called an extinction burst). You should reward the dog intermittently with touch and food when they are not barking.
Train the dog to come, sit and stay. Then look for situations where you know your dog will start to bark. Issue a command just before the dog starts to bark. Reward the dog, within ½ second of the command, for responding to it. If you do this consistently, before the dog has a chance to bark, the barking will eventually stop. Punishment does not work. Shouting at the dog often encourages more barking.
Perhaps the easiest way to stop barking is to change the environment, if possible, to reduce or eliminate the dog's exposure to the stimulus which causes barking. If the dog barks outside, keep him in. If people walking by cause him to bark, put him in an area where he can't see them.
Debark surgery is not popular in Canada and many veterinarians refuse to do the procedure. You should be aware that after the vocal cords are cut, the dog is still able to make a whispery sound. Over time, the vocal cords will scar over and the dog's bark will get louder. For this reason, it is not a permanent solution.
There are a variety of anti- barking collars available. The most humane of these is a citronella spray attachment that spritzes the dog with an unpleasant, but non- harmful, citrus spray when barking occurs. This can be very effective in some dogs. Human activated shock collars are cruel and must not be used, due to the inconsistency of the shock application. The only humane shock collar to use is one with varied settings so you can adjust to the lowest level that is effective, a vibration sensor and a buzzer which goes off before the dog is shocked, but this must only be used as an absolute last resort if all of the above techniques have failed and you are unable to keep your dog unless they stop barking. Please Be sure to schedule a behavioral consultation with us first if you are considering this option.
Barking is an extremely difficult problem to deal with, but with work you can reduce or eliminate your dog's barking. Remember, it took the dog some time to reach the stage he is at, and it will take time to train him not to bark. We are here to help you in whatever way we can, so please call if you have any problems or questions.