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Tales from the barkside

Tips for turning yappy hours into quiet times

All Animals magazine, September/October 2017

by Kelly L. Williams

A barking dog could be trying to tell you all sorts of things. Photo by Sanjagrujic/iStock.com; illustration by Paul Roberts/The HSUS.

In my childhood home, nearly any disturbance—a distant car horn, the creak of the mailbox opening—set off a cacophony of barking. Tamale the Chihuahua usually started it, with a series of high-pitched, frantic yips. Then Mistletoe, a miniature dachshund, joined in with her slower, deeper barks. Their combined noise built to a terrible climax that usually ended with (human) yelling.

Not the ideal solution, and we knew it. But we never took the time to explore why, exactly, our dogs barked as much as they did. And that’s the key to resolving barking issues, says Kenny Lamberti, HSUS acting vice president of companion animals. “Dogs bark for a lot of different reasons. They could be bored; they could be lonely; there could be stimulation.”

So if your canine companion voices her opinion more frequently than you’d like, take a step back and study the situation. Here’s how to start.

Rethink barking

“You wouldn’t get mad at a fish for swimming,” says Lamberti, but with dogs, “we identify things as problem behaviors that to the dog are normal dog behaviors.”

Barking, though occasionally annoying to human listeners, is an important communication tool for dogs. Before seeking help from a behaviorist or trainer, ask yourself whether the barking is really causing an issue. If it’s not actually bothering you or anyone else, it might not be a “problem” at all.

All dogs “have their own individual quirky personalities,” says Lamberti. Maybe yours just happens to be a loudmouth.

Become a PI (Pup Investigator)

Unfortunately, even a normal behavior can cause issues. “You have to call it a problem if someone is bothered by it,” says Sara L. Bennett, a veterinarian and behavior consultant in southwest Indiana. And if you live close to other people—in an apartment, for example—your neighbors might have something to say about your canine chatterbox.

If you need to reduce your dog’s barking, start by investigating what triggers it. Before joining The HSUS, Lamberti worked as a dog trainer. “One of the best things I used to tell people to do is get a little cheap 50-cent spiral notebook,” he says. “When your dog exhibits the behavior, just write down what you see and hear going on. And if you do that enough times, you’ll start to see a trend.” Maybe your dog reacts when the refrigerator compressor kicks on or when a neighbor runs the vacuum.

You can even enlist your neighbors’ help, says Bennett. Not only might they be home when you’re not, but it can reassure them that you’re working on the barking issue. “I think that helps with the frustration component from the neighbor’s standpoint,” she says.

Bennett experienced this for herself. During veterinary school, when she was gone for long periods, her puppy Ruby started frantically barking every afternoon. She set up video cameras but couldn’t catch the trigger. Finally, she asked a neighbor. “And she said, ‘Oh, my daughter gets off the school bus at 2:30!’ So my dog was hearing the school bus and barking.”

Whether you take notes, set up a webcam or rely on neighborly knowledge, the more information you can gather, the better. Bennett recommends identifying when the barking happens, how long it lasts and any possible triggers.

Come up with a strategy

The results of your investigation will guide your next steps. Maybe your dog is responding to a straightforward stimulus. “They’ve created an association behavior to it: ‘When the mailman comes, I bark,’ ” explains Lamberti. In that situation, “your job is to make a new, more appropriate behavioral connection to that thing.”

Take the case of the mail carrier. “Every time the mailman comes, you would create a little routine,” says Lamberti. Ask your dog to sit, lie down, shake—whatever she knows how to do. “And when they do, they get a hug or they get a pat on the head or they get a snack or they get their favorite ball.” Try to catch the behavior before your dog barks, so you’re replacing the old response (the barking) with the new one (sitting and getting a reward).

Simple environmental changes can reduce barking, even if you're not home when it happens.

If your work schedule means you’re not home when your dog barks, simple environmental changes could help. A white noise machine or radio could drown out triggering sounds. In the case of Bennett and her puppy Ruby, the solution was fairly straightforward: “We moved her crate to the other side of the house and we left a TV on for her.”

Dogs might bark if they’re bored or frustrated, which often happens when they’re home alone all day. Hire a midday dog walker if you can, and provide toys that will keep your dog’s mind busy. It’s best if such toys reward intermittently or for a specific duration, says Lamberti. A buster cube, stuffed Kong or an inexpensive puzzle- type toy will usually do the trick.

Separation anxiety (which Bennett notes is a behavior disorder, not a training problem) also drives some dogs to bark. Those first 30 minutes after you leave are “the hot zone,” says Lamberti. So a toy that distracts your dog for that half hour could turn your previously stressful departure into a positive event. “Then they focus on the toy for a while. And they get rewarded for it and they fall asleep.”

For more severe cases of separation anxiety, try changing the environment. “Sometimes the amount of space that they have can impact the amount of anxiety that they have,” says Bennett.

Some dogs feel more secure in a smaller, cozier area like a crate, while others do better when given free rein of the house. You can also try a white noise machine or calming music.

Experiment to find out what makes your dog most comfortable, and don’t make arrivals and departures a big deal—keep things low-key instead.

Bring in the pros

If you can’t solve your dog’s issue on your own, it might be time to call an expert. Your vet can recommend a behaviorist or trainer, or she might suggest medication. Bennett describes medication as “a temporary tool in our toolbox;” she uses it to reduce a dog’s anxiety as he learns that specific triggers aren’t so scary after all.

Regardless of the steps you take, remember that barking is a normal canine behavior and that all dogs are individuals. Some of those individuals (a certain Chihuahua and dachshund, for example) just have louder mouths than others.

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