Wednesday, January 11, 2012

All About Barking - Part 1

Last year in November I talked about why many dogs bark when the doorbell rings, and what to do about it. Of course, that is not the only reason why pooches yap it up.

Why do dogs bark? Because it is a normal part of their communication, that’s why. Anatomically, it is impossible for a dog to say: “Heya Bob, can you git over here and open that door? I gotta pee.”
Dogs’ vocalizations, for the longest time in our common history, came in handy. The watchdog let humans sleep restfully at night, and the guard dog deterred two- and four legged intruders from entering home turf. Barking benefitted us, and because we humans are so clever in manipulating environments to our liking, we selectively bred for that. Bred dogs that announce an unfamiliar noise or trespasser, announce that they found game, vermin or the scent of it, and vocally “tell” livestock animals where to go.
Nowadays, the behavior we once desired we don’t want any longer. Many of our modern dogs live in urban and suburban neighborhoods and are bombarded with sounds and motion all the time. Their endless announcing is bothersome at best, and a real problem at worst.
Dog owners and neighbors of dog owners want it stopped, and dog pros and manufacturers, sniffing easy money that can be made, eagerly produced a variety of ways to stop it - most unpleasant or painful for the dog, and typically unsuccessful. Unsuccessful, or counterproductive because constant sound and motion stimulation can make the dog irritable and permanently fired up, and punishing, intimidating or throwing something at him – making more noise - disquiets him even more.
The good news is that, like any other problem, excessive barking too can be modified in a dog friendly fashion.
Barking is dogs' default form of expression, some breeds more than others, and they do it for a variety of reasons, which I’ll discuss. All of them, or at least all I can think of, in this post and the next one.
One common motive is to be let outside, or back into the house. Because people like a housetrained dog, they initially obeyed the vocal request and opened the door, and each time that happened they reinforced the behavior they don’t want. The dog learns that barking works and will do it again, and soon not just when he has to potty, but whenever he is bored and wants your attention, check out a noise, or dig up the flowerbed. The catch is that, especially with a puppy or newly adopted dog, you don’t want to ignore the bark, because if he really has to go and nobody opens the door he’ll piddle on the rug, and thereby learns that there is an “appropriate” inside voiding spot.
There are two solutions to the dilemma: One is timing the dog and giving him ample opportunities to go outside. You decide, and before his bladder is so full that he can’t hold it any longer, you prompt your pooch to follow, then open the door and go out with him and mark “potty” when he does it, thereby putting it under command control. That is how we do it in our home.
The other is to hang bells at the door. A dog can’t say: “Heya Bob…”, but can learn to touch a set of bells with his nose or paw to signal that he wants the door opened. You might wonder what good that does? Instead of barking, he’ll now ring the bell nonstop, which is just as annoying, right? Wrong. You can’t remove the dog’s bark, or at least not without cruel surgery, but you can remove the bells and convey that you are temporarily unavailable. With consistency, you are teaching your dog an acceptable way to signal that gets him the desired result, but at the same puts you in control. Brilliant, eh – like we say in Canada. I wish I had thought of that, but the credit belongs to Suzanne Clothier who shared that, and many such wisdoms, at a seminar I attended a few years ago.
And, by the way, when you are available, it doesn’t matter why your dog wants to go out; if he really has to go pee, or wants catch a whiff of fresh air, bake in the sun, or play. You should open the door because he can’t and needs your help. Said that, I am not a fan of leaving a dog outside unsupervised for long, and also keep in mind that if he continuously pesters you, he might be bored and could benefit from mental and/or physical stimulation.
More about that, over-stimulation, excitement and anxiety in Part 2.


  1. Excellently written. I can't wait till part two. Don't stop writing we need more of you.