Article: Lack of Understanding Your Dog by Jacqui O’Brien

Dogs are sociable creatures and enjoy vocal communication. They soon learn to get our attention and what they want on demand, before we realise that we are being manipulated. We often inadvertently reinforce the undesirable behaviour. A successful cure or control of most problems will certainly mean modifying the owner’s behaviour towards the dog.

Problem Barking
It is important to understand that barking is not the problem, but the lack of control. There are probably more situations that a dog owner wants the dog to give voice than not. Before trying to cure a problem, we must understand the underlying reason for its occurrence. Barking, from your dog’s point of view, is quiet natural behaviour. Dogs have a repertoire of auditory communications. They range from whines, yelps and screams, grunts, growling, tooth snapping, through to barking and less common howling. These sounds are used in different contexts and associated with various behaviours.

Barking is used:

  • In defence of itself, or you, and your property
  • In play
  • As a greeting
  • When left alone
  • Calling for attention
  • As a warning

The domestic dog learns to use its voice in many different situations often with our help.

Some of the following may be familiar:
When your dog rushes to the front door barking – do you shout after it to “shut up”?
When your dog barks in the car at something – do you try to shout above the barking “shut up”?
When your pup/dog goes to the door and asks [yaps or barks] to go out – do you let it out and when it asks to come in – do you let it in?
When your dog brings a toy to you, putting it on your lap or at your feet then barks for you to play – do you pick it up, throw it for your dog and have a game.
When your dog is yapping or barking at something that is out of reach – do you get it and give it to your dog?

If your answer to any of the above is “yes” then do not blame the dog; you have actually reinforced your dog’s barking. When you shout “shut up” if your dog continues barking, it thinks that you are joining, thus reinforcing what he is doing. You have taught your dog that barking gets your attention and you respond to your dog’s demands.

There are going to be situations that you are pleased that your dog has given voice:
Your pup asking to go out to relieve itself.
Your dog warning you that a stranger has come onto your property.
It is difficult for your dog to be selective – it can bark once to give you warning or it can bark until an unwanted stranger leaves your property.

What to do
Keep calm and do not join in with your dog’s excitement. Do not shout commands your dog is going to learn to ignore. There are several ways commonly used to modify a dog’s behaviour:
Ignore your dog’s demands – which often works, because the dog gets fed up and shuts up. There is always the exception and they just keep on and on and on. The use of orienting stimuli to distract and interrupt unwanted behaviour, this can be sound or scent.

There are various applications on the market from gas-propelled and electronic alarms, some of which are ultrasonic, others very loud. Devices that automatically release water or citronella spray, at the moment the dog barks. The problem is that they are not selective and could stop the dog barking at all times; also they can be set off by another dog’s bark. Stress may be the cause of the dog barking and this will make the dog more anxious. The most useful would be a remote control mechanism so you can time its use – you are in control.

The use of a non-vocal conditioned stimulus to interrupt undesired barking, such as a few pebbles in a can or metal discs on a ring. To obtain the initial response it is thrown near the dog to interrupt the barking giving you a few seconds to give calm praise while the dog is quiet. Then the tin or discs are just rattled. This method will work, but it requires excellent timing, skill and a steady hand to avoid giving prior warning before its use, because this could make your dog apprehensive to your slightest movement.

Teach your dog to bark on command then teach it to be quiet. This takes a little more effort, but is more reliable being a positive learning process; your dog will enjoy learning a new trick and having your attention – it can be fun for you as well. It may seem strange, to teach the dog the behaviour you are trying to stop, but if you look at it logically, if you can teach your dog to do something, you have the power/control to also stop the action.