Barking is normal communication behaviour of dogs and territorial defence barking is an important function of many dogs. However in modern urban communities, persistent and loud barking is generally undesirable. Barking is a common problem and one which results in many complaints. Irregular infrequent barking is to be expected of all dogs but complaints usually occur when dogs bark frequently and noisily. Neighbours are usually the source of complaint although owners may present to veterinarians because their own dog's barking has become unbearable. It is important to determine if the dog that is being complained about is actually the barker and to quantify how much barking it is actually doing.
The most common reasons why dogs bark excessively are territorial barking, attention-seeking barking, separation anxiety complex, fear, canine cognitive dysfunction, a learned (trained) behaviour, and part of a group behaviour. Dogs may bark excessively for more than one reason. It is important to determine the cause of excessive barking as there is no generic treatment for the problem. The treatment depends on the motivation for the barking.
Diagnosis of Motivation for Barking
Diagnosis is based on a series of questions including:
Where and when does the barking occur?
Who or what is the target of the barking or the trigger for it?
Is the owner present or absent?
How does the owner respond to the barking?
How does the dog behave thereafter?
Is the barking continuous?
What other behaviour does the dog show when barking?
Territorial Aggressive Barking
This occurs at the boundary to the dog's territory (fence, gate, window) and often is triggered by the sight of pedestrians walking by the property or visitors entering the property. When the dog barks and the pedestrian moves on or the visitor leaves, the barking is reinforced. Treatment consists of treating the underlying territorial aggression. Firstly safety must be ensured. The dog should not have access to unfamiliar people or dogs while it is unsupervised in the area it considers its territory. The triggering stimulus must be removed from the dog's sight by putting up opaque barriers or fences, or closing the blinds so the dog cannot see the triggering stimulus. Putting the dog in a crate, in the garage or in a kennel and run where it cannot see the triggering stimulus may stop the barking problem. The dog initially should not be allowed to greet people. When barking, the dog should be called away from the site and placed in a crate or kennel. The dog should be desensitised and counter conditioned to the stimuli which trigger the barking. Friends can be used as decoy stimuli to train dogs not to bark at people on the boundary fence. They should not move when barked at and the dog is then called to its kennel or crate.
Attention Seeking Barking
This occurs when the dog's owner is present. The owner responds to the dog barking and inadvertently reinforces it by taking the dog indoors or telling it to be quiet. The owner trains the dog to bark as it learns that it will get attention when it barks. There are two main ways of treating attention seeking barking. The first way is to ignore the barking. This approach takes time and may not be successful. An alternative treatment comprises consistent punishment of the behaviour (vocal, tin with stones, water spray, air horn) followed immediately by reinforcing an alternative behaviour (come and sit) and giving the dog attention when it is calm. A head collar may be used to stop the barking and to reinforce sitting. One of the problems with punishment is that for some of these dogs any attention is considered a reinforcer so scolding the dog or otherwise punishing it may increase the barking. In addition to either of these options the dog can be taught to bark and to go quiet on command.
Separation Anxiety Barking
The preferred person (PP), usually the owner, leaves home and the dog becomes is anxious. It barks usually soon after the PP leaves and may bark continually or in bouts until fatigued. If observed, the dog remains anxious even in between the barking bouts. The dog usually does not bark when owner is present but is very attached to the owner and will probably follow them around especially after the PP comes home. Howling when alone is different from anxiety barking and usually occurs infrequently. Affected dogs should be taught that they don't need to be distressed when alone. Initially teach the dog to sit and stay; ignore demands for attention; teach the dog to be calm. In some cases it will be suitable to use anti-anxiety medication to help the dog through the anxiety problem. Desensitize and counter-condition the dog to the cues that tell the dog that the PP is preparing to leave. Departures are practised by the PP with the dog relaxed. Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP®) is useful to help the dog to relax. Ensure that the dog is safe and that the environment is as pleasant as possible when the PP is away. For example if the dog is destructive to itself then a dog minder may be needed temporarily.
Fear Aggressive Barking
This is directed towards an unfamiliar person, animal or item. The dog may lunge towards the feared person or very commonly they will be barking or growling at the subject while moving backwards. Treat by desensitizing and counter-conditioning the dog to the feared object or person.
Cognitive Dysfunction (Geriatric Dog) Barking
This occurs in geriatric dogs that are going senile. The cognitive dysfunction syndrome can be treated in many cases through the use of medication and sometimes nutraceuticals such as antioxidants.
Howling or Barking When Left Alone
This is not separation anxiety; typically the dog has shorter and less frequent bouts of barking than does a dog with separation anxiety and also the dog does not show signs of anxiety but instead rests, explores or plays in between barking or howling. These cases often respond well to more stimulation both when the owner is present or not. Extra exercise and tasks are very useful.
A group of barking dogs is more difficult to deal with than individual dogs. Barking may be triggered by dogs in the locality (e.g., at a boarding kennel) and this is also difficult to manage.
Anti Barking Collars
These collars are triggered by the act of barking and either produce an electric shock, an unpleasant noise or smell, or a blast of air. They are punishers and work by punishing the act of barking. Some authors suggest that citronella collars may be more effective than electric shock collars or a scentless collar. Beaudet (2001) found that scented and unscented collars worked equally effectively with about 80% of owners being satisfied with the outcome. Anti-bark collars are commonly used to treat barking but while being effective short-term treatments many dogs start barking again after some time as dogs habituate to them. This is because punishment works best when followed by a behaviour that is acceptable and reinforced. Thus when a collar is triggered to punish the barking and the barking stops then the owner should call the dog to him or herself and ask it to sit and reinforce this behaviour. This is usually not done as the collar is left on the dog all the time. Anti-bark collars work best when used intermittently.
In one study the majority (97%) of dog owners who used anti-bark collars were satisfied with them and 30% thought their dog was calmer afterwards. It has been found that wearing a collar did not affect plasma cortisol levels suggesting that they are not stressful.
Opinion on the use of anti-bark collar is sharply divided. Some veterinary authors support their use but others don't. Apparently some dogs that move to a particular location to territorial bark may associate the location with the punishment and avoid the place, but continue to bark and be punished and do not learn what the punishment is for. Anti-barking collars may also increase the level of territorial aggression by associating trespassers with a painful experience. Some believe that anti-bark collars should not be supplied to the public and not used until the motivation for barking has been identified. Their use is contraindicated in the treatment of separation anxiety or in fear or anxiety related barking. Perhaps if there is agreement, it is that these collars should not be used alone without other management and training practices to reduce problem barking.
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