Tuesday, 17 September 2013

SHUT THAT BLOODY DOG UP!!! - Inappropriate barking, why it happens, how to solve it.

Excessive or Inappropriate Barking...

Probably one of the number 1 complaints from non-dog owners about other peoples dogs, and one of the most frustrating problems for a dog owner to solve.

Barky dogs are annoying, to you, to me, to your neighbour to the man down the road who can still hear them at 3am.

For the dog owner, there is not just the annoyance of living with a barky dog, but the added pressure of knowing your neighbours are getting pissed off too. Maybe it is even worse than that, maybe your neighbours are making complaints, sending nasty stroppy letters or reporting you to some relevant authority.

What all this means is, when we have a barky dog, it is very very easy to focus on the symptom - the barking - and not the cause OF the barking. We are driven to 'shut that bloody dog up' and in some cases even actively discouraged from figuring out WHY, because after all, our neighbours actually don't care why, it is just very irritating to listen to!

However it is extremely important to seek out the reason WHY your dog is barking excessively or inappropriately, because attempting to treat just the symptom will not work in the long run. It might even create some bigger problems!

Why Dogs Bark:

  • Boredom
  • Loneliness
  • Fear - to drive something away
  • Frustration - seeing something exciting they cannot get at
  • Communication - dogs bark (and growl and howl and snarl and  yap and squeak and huffle) to communicate with us and to a certain extent, with each other

Why Dogs Carry On Barking...

  • Boredom - barking is in the absence of any other activity, self rewarding. The dog gains some enjoyment from repeatedly barking. Not a lot, but then if there is nothing else to do... anything is better than nothing.
  • Loneliness - barking will eventually 'work', in that someone will eventually reward the dog by coming back, by shouting at the dog, by in ANY way interacting with the dog. And the dog thinks 'ah ha! if I only bark long enough, someone WILL respond and I will know I am not entirely on my own!' The dog has no idea that someone was going to come home eventually anyway, he has no idea that the person shouting 'shuttup you bloody animal' wants him to shuttup - all he knows is, he wanted a response or someone to return and he got it, result!
  • Fear - some dogs bark to drive things away, this is particularly common in dogs left alone in front or rear gardens particular when there is a footpath or pavement the other side of the fence, and also in dogs left to look out of a window with a view onto a footpath.
    What happens is the dog barks at the sight of something, that something goes away, the dog is therefore rewarded for barking, because HE thinks, his barking made the person (or dog, or whatever) go away.
  • Frustration - this is very similar to the fear thing - the dog barks at things that are moving and exciting, people passing by, cars, wildlife etc. The barking often appears to make that thing move more (or so the dog thinks!) and so the barking is rewarded!
  • Communication - everyone needs to communicate and barking along with the other sounds listed, are some of a dogs ways of doing this. They actually communicate far more with body language, but we humans are desperately poor at reading this, and it is obviously no good for communicating with someone who is out of sight.

So, how DO I fix this problem... he is still barking!

Lets go back to why he was barking. Is he bored? Is he lonely? Is he scared or frustrated, maybe he is a combination of these things.

When does your dog bark?

If he is outside when he is barking, is he out there alone? Dogs actually aren't very good at amusing themselves shut out in a garden on their own. Most of the things dogs like to do outside either can't be done in your garden, or you don't want him to do in your garden. These are things like digging, running long distances, chewing things, chasing prey animals, killing prey animals...

Dogs also don't naturally cope well with being alone, so if your dog is outside and you are inside its highly likely he is going to want to be with you and will bark to get you to come back. If your dog IS spending a lot of time outside and thats not his choice, on his own, ask yourself why do you have a dog if you don't want to spend time with him?

If your dog is barking when he is indoors, again, why might that be? Is it when you are out, is he barking because he can't cope being left behind, is he shouting at things through the window?
Or is he barking when you are home, alerting you to the things he sees, or frustrated or fearful of the things he sees?

Some dogs are reactive to sounds, they will mooch about happily outside and then go nuts barking at something on the other side of the fence.

This is one of the easiest anti-social barking problems to solve - it is so simple. Teach your dog that these sounds now mean he gets a reward. Sound = treat, don't wait for him to react and don't withhold the reward if he does, its simple classical conditioning. It does mean you have to be out there WITH him, with high value treats and whilst you change his habit, you can't allow him outside alone (or he will practice the unwanted behaviour) but it does work!

Dogs who are left outside and bark through boredom or loneliness are a bit harder - you'll need to change the way you live with your dog to fix these to some extent. First of all, stop shutting the dog outside on his own. Next, make his life much more fulfilling, more walks, more play, more training and mental stimulation. Then if he does have to spend time outside on his own, ensure he has a warm dry shelter, plenty of interesting toys (toys you can stuff with food are good) and gradually reintroduce him to the idea of being alone.

Dogs that react to the view out of the window are THE easiest to fix, bar none. Simply remove the view, you can get very attractive frosted window films that are not hard to apply to your front windows, and are removable should you move. They cut out around 80% of the view (or more), meaning the dog can no longer identify things to bark at, but let in 95% of the light so you aren't left in the dark!
This will reduce 'barking out of the window' by 95% in just a day or so - and it only takes that long because some dogs are reacting to the sound as well as the sight (which you can address by classical conditioning as I outlined above!)

The hardest type of barking to fix is separation anxiety when your dog is left in the house alone - this requires a lot of work, and really will only be fixed with a lot of patience, time and kind methods. I strongly recommend you get a reputable, force free professional in if you think your dog has separation anxiety, but I can assure you, punishment will NOT fix the problem, only make it worse.

Why not just punish the dog for barking so that it stops?

If your dog is barking because he is lonely - is punishing him for it going to make him any less lonely? If it is because he is scared, how will punishing his fear help there?

Punishment carries its own problems, the first of which is how do you actually punish a dog for it to be effective.

Punishment requires good timing - the punishment MUST happen within a second or two of the behaviour occurring that you want to stop.
Punishment MUST be aversive, the dog must find it unpleasant, which seems obvious but this raises two further points:
1/ How do you know for sure that the dog will find it unpleasant? If you go out to punish a lonely dog barking in the garden, really no matter what punishment you give, the FIRST thing that occurred closest to his barking was... you, coming back to him! And that as I pointed out earlier, is a reward.

2/ How do you know how unpleasant to make it, if it isn't unpleasant enough then you are just being mean to your dog without effect, thats not training, thats just abuse. If it is TOO unpleasant then you will create some more problems, mainly that your dog will not trust you any more, he will want to avoid you and dislike you - that's not why you got a dog is it?

Much unwanted barking actually happens when the owner is not present, so how do you punish a dog when you are not there?

Well there are for barking, two main options.

1/ Bark activated spray collar.
2/ Bark activated electric shock collar.

Please note, in Wales the shock collar is  now illegal.

So, option 1 is a collar that you put on your dog and the sound of him barking activates a spray mechanism that sprays citronella scent up his nose. Dogs find citronella very unpleasant so asides from the initial shock of the spray sound, he gets a nasty smell, and a dogs nose is very powerful so this probably isn't just a nasty pong but a painful experience for him (ever smelt a REALLY strong smell like smelling salts? Or too much vinegar? Ouch.)

Whilst this would seem to be the answer, there are problems with it.

Firstly the spray collars can be activated by other sounds, for example another dog barking, the dog growling or coughing or sneezing. It would be horribly unfair to punish your dog for these things and if that happened enough it would make the punishment much less clear and effective.

Secondly, the punishment goes on FAR longer than the one second spray, because the dog can smell the citronella for a LONG time after the spray. This again makes the message you intend to put across much more vague.. is it barking he is punished for? Or is it something he did a few minutes later when he can still smell that horrible pong?

Thirdly - dogs are not stupid, some dogs figure out to twist the collar round so the spray jets off harmlessly at the back of their necks. Some dogs (a LOT of dogs) figure out that if they bark repeatedly for a few minutes, they can empty the collars spray unit and then it will no longer work.

The reason these two things occur is because as I say - punishment doesn't address the reason WHY the dog is barking. The dog has a reason, that reason is still there, so he still needs to bark. Further more, if a spray collar actually does stop a dog barking, most dogs will do something else instead - options range from howling, digging, and chewing things up to actually escaping and running away or being fearful of going outside or wherever it is they wear the collar!

So, option 2, the electric shock collar.

Like the spray collar this is activated by the dog barking, and like the spray collar it can also be activated by other loud noises close to the dog.
The shock collars tend to come with a range of shock levels, it is up to you to determine which is appropriate for your dog and here you again have no idea what is enough, what is too much, what is too little and you risk getting it wrong and making the problem worse, or scaring the living daylights out of the dog.

Shock collars are the subject of massive controversy - as I say they are illegal in Wales, deemed not humane and theres a pretty big fine or potentially a prison sentence if caught using one.

The shock collar works by causing pain - there are no two ways about that, if they did not cause pain they could not ever work.

How much pain is almost impossible to tell - you can try one on your own arm (you'll note manufacturers state not to put them around your OWN neck... and the reason for that is that you can achieve some level of nerve damage or worse!) and it might tickle, or sting... or it might make you  yelp and jump.
One of the major points to take in when thinking about trying a shock collar on yourself, is this though - when  you try it yourself, you know what is going to happen, you know why it is going to happen and most importantly, you know WHEN it is going to happen, because you are in control of it.

Pain that is expected and predictable is much more easily tolerated than pain that is unexpected and unpredictable - you can grit your teeth and bear it when you get a jab from a Doctor, but if someone randomly stabbed you with that same needle you would jump and yell out!

With both the shock collar and the spray collar, one of the selling points is that the unpleasant event is not associated with you, the dog does not know that you caused it. The idea is that he figures out HE caused it, but that unfortunately is not guaranteed to be the case.

If your dog sees a cat, barks, and gets a zap from the shock collar - is he going to realise it was his bark that did it? Or more likely, is he going to think the CAT caused it, because after all, he was focusing on the cat at the time, the bark was a sub-conscious reaction not a planned out action.

There have been plenty of cases where dogs wearing shock collars have become too scared to go out into their yards, or have become dangerously aggressive to cats, other dogs, whatever it is they bark at.

There are other unpleasant side effects too - just as with the spray collar the dog could quit barking and take up digging or biting at the fence or chewing things or escaping.

The collar unit can malfunction and cause nasty burns on the dogs neck, or the batteries can die and your dog learns that sometimes he CAN bark (and if you learn that sometimes a thing works, thats actually more reinforcing than learning that it 'always' works! Just look at how many people are addicted to gambling on fruit machines as opposed to people addicted to buying from vending machines!)

So, for lots and lots of reasons, punishment here is not the answer, it carries big risks of failure, of hurting your dog, damaging your relationship with your dog, and making the problem worse.


Anonymous said...

my problem is when the postman or a flyer pusher comes to the house while I am at work, I have two dogs they are fine when I am at home they are fine when I am out unless someone has been to the door, my neighbour appreciates that dogs will bark when someone comes in the garden but it gets annoying if after a couple of hours they are still barking. That is my two once they have been triggered and start they won't stop until I or another family member gets home so if I am working 8am to 2pm and the postman comes at 11am they will bark from 11 until 2.30 when I get home

Ems said...


My advice in a case like that is either, leave the dogs somewhere that has no access to the door with the letter flap in it, and leave some music or radio on to muffle the sound. You could also look at deadening the sound from your letterflap.. some are louder than others.

The alternative is to have a mailbox on the outside of the house, which works well as long as the dogs can't see the person approaching of course - if they can then you need to solve that as well.

Once you have a management strategy of either option above in place, then you can work on classically conditioning the dogs to associate the sound of things like people approaching, clacking the flap, squeaky gate (whatever sounds trigger their behaviour) with food rewards. You do need to do the management first as when you do the CC, you need to be totally in control of the trigger (or in your case, present!)

The counter conditioning (CC) is pretty easy, you pair the sound with a high value food reward until the dog starts to hear the sound and actively look for the reward rather than react. Then you can fade the food reward to just sometimes instead of every time, then generally all you need do is give them a reminder every so often that these sounds do still sometimes mean yummy treats.

IF your dogs are lacking in mental or physical exercise though, you have to up that as well, because dogs with time on their paws and idle minds will FILL that time devising their own 'jobs', and yelling at people approaching the house is a fine fine job to do in a dogs eyes!

Anonymous said...

Hi; my friend Kim sent me over here, as I have an issue with a barking dog. It isn't the barking that bothers me, but the fact that the owner is home all day and either ignores it completely or swears bloody murder at it! The poor thing is so distressed and angry-sounding and it upsets me so much that nothing is being done to find out what she finds so upsetting. I would guess boredom and loneliness both, as she's out in the garden most of the day, knowing that her owner is home but is paying no attention to her. It's really quite heartbreaking.

I didn't want to make any sort of official report, but was forced to after trying to reason with the owner. She advised me to "get up earlier" "get a job" (I'm disabled and cannot work outside of the house!) or "buy some earplugs". She simply would not accept that this is an issue she could solve relatively easily and anyone daring to say anything to her is the one in the wrong.

I found out today, from the council member handling the case, that the owner has bought an anti-bark collar. Why would you even do that if you're home to train the animal yourself?

I am genuinely concerned about this dog and the way it's being treated; do you have any advice for me please?

Ems said...

Oooh frustrating!

Giving her the benefit of the doubt (to start with, though her comments to you make me not want to do that!), I would hazard a guess that she doesn't know what to do, and not just about the barking but even, how to LIVE with the dog.

Dogs tend to live outdoors for two reasons - 1/ working dogs who spend most of their day working and their time kennelled outside asleep 2/ Dogs owned by people who don't have a clue or didn't realise the work involved, or plain don't give a toss!

Someone has quite probably told this person that an anti-bark collar (most likely a spray one as the electric ones are damn expensive!) will fix the problem immediately with v little effort from her - the problem is that currently thats perfectly legal, and initially at least, it is likely to 'work' (as in, to begin with, the dog will shut up).

As to what you can do - I would try to find your local dog warden, and see if they are useful, some are, and sadly some are as useful as a chocolate teapot.

If you get a useful one they MAY try to talk to the owner and recommend ways to keep the dog quiet, that would be a good first step.

The next step would be to make an official complaint to environmental health on the grounds of noise nuisance. For it to qualify as a noise nuisance though, the barking must be happening at unreasonable times (normally pre-8 or even 7am and after 11pm) or for an unreasonable period of time, so 5 minutes of constant barking would count, but a dog barking for 2 minutes at a time, every 15 minutes quite possibly wouldn't!

The other option is to speak to the RSPCA BUT, although the most recent animal welfare guidelines does include things about animals having to have their needs met (so for dogs, company, shelter, exercise etc would count), they are not very good at actually acting on that. If the dog has the basics of shelter from the weather, and access to water, and looks to be being fed regularly they are unlikely to take action - though they MIGHT go and speak to the owner, same as the dog warden..

I have dealt with a slightly similar issue, by engineering a relationship with the teenage daughters of the owner and explaining to THEM why their dog barks and how to train him, but I appreciate, thats not an option for everyone!

dog barking said...

Prevent inadvertently rewarding your dog for barking. This may happen in many ways.Comforting, treating or cuddling them to make them stop. This actually encourages this behavior an makes the dog assume that you are pleased by his/her actions.

Ems said...

dogbarking - if a dog is barking for your attention, then yes you are right, those actions could well be rewarding the barking...

But it isn't as simple as 'don't reward your dog for barking' if he is attention seeking - dogs don't attention seek for no reason. They attention seek because they are not getting enough attention/the right sort of attention, that they need.

So to address a problem like THAT you also need to look at what/how you are giving your dog attention and increase the stuff he does, ie, the attention and one to one time he gets, with you.

If a dog is barking from fear or anxiety, pairing the trigger for the behaviour with a high value reinforcer will not reward the behaviour but will change the underlying emotion that caused it. It is not possible to reinforce fear by doing something or providing something nice.