Kersti Seksel, BVSc (Hons), MRCVS, MA (Hons), FACVSc (Animal Behaviour), DACVB
Barking is a common presenting complaint yet it is a nonspecific sign, not a diagnosis. It may be exhibited in many contexts and the underlying reasons need to be addressed if the problem is to be resolved. Dogs bark as a form of communication. They bark when excited, as a greeting, as a warning, when they are fearful, in pain, anxious and when they are not sufficiently stimulated, either mentally or physically. Since dogs became domesticated some dogs have been specifically bred for this trait and hence are highly motivated to bark.
Behaviour is influenced by three main factors.
1. Genetics: A dog's predisposition to exhibit a behaviour.
2. Learning: A dog's previous experience.
3. Environment: The particular situation at that time.
All three will contribute to the likelihood of a dog barking. Generally when people discuss barking they are implying that the behaviour is abnormal as it is problematic to the owners or neighbours but in many cases it is not abnormal just socially unacceptable. That is, the behaviour (barking) itself is normal, but the owner may not understand why it happens or not have the skills to manage their pet's behaviour in the circumstances. Barking may be a problem to the owner in the context in which it occurs, yet may be normal for the animal to perform in the same context. However, there are occasions when even normal behaviours such as barking, may be considered abnormal, for example, when it is carried out at inappropriate times or to excess.
A diagnosis is always essential before offering advice about behaviour and the behaviour should always be considered in the context in which it occurs. As barking is a non-specific sign it is even more important to determine the underlying cause(s).
Some Reasons for barking
Dogs that have separation anxiety are overly attached to people, generally their owners. They are very likely to vocalise when left alone or when they do not have access to their owner. They may also become destructive and eliminate indoors when they have no access to human company.
Some dogs have learnt that the one very effective way of getting attention is to vocalise. Even if the attention is negative it is better than no attention. Dogs can also be intermittently rewarded for barking. For example, if a dog is allowed inside the house when it barks to prevent neighbours complaining or because the owner can no longer tolerate the noise it has now learnt that barking brings attention as well as the pleasure of being allowed inside. It is now even more likely to repeat the behaviour and to be even more persistent in barking.
Dogs are known to bark at things that frighten them or they are unsure of including people, other dogs as well as inanimate objects, such as plastic bags, garbage bins and planes. Inadequate socialisation can also be a factor in this fear response.
Although most yards are adequate for the needs of the human occupants there is often minimal mental or physical stimulation for the dog. This may be manifest by a highly aroused dog that will bark at anything and everything, including falling leaves and shadows as well as possums or cats moving within the dog's environment.
If the dog is in pain or any physical discomfort, it is more likely to vocalise. Additionally, older dogs may have disturbed sleep-wake cycles and increased vocalisation when they become senile (canine cognitive dysfunction).
Once the predisposing factors have been determined then appropriate action can be taken to limit the barking. However, it is important to stress to owners that barking can never be totally eliminated, nor should it be, for the welfare of the dog.
When the behaviour is normal but inappropriate the approach is to teach owners about the natural behaviour patterns of dogs and they then either learn how to modify the behaviour, how to modify the environment or learn to accept the behaviour depending on the individual case. If the behaviour is due to medical causes, they need to be treated concurrently with the behaviour problem and if the behaviour is abnormal then a behaviour modification programme, sometimes combined with medication, should be initiated.
Separation anxiety is a serious, and often under estimated, cause of barking. Treatment is multi faceted and may involve changing the cues that now trigger anxiety, graduated departure techniques, desensitisation and counter-conditioning and teaching relaxation exercises and cues to the dog. Anti anxiety medications, in combination with behaviour modification, appear to lead to successful resolution 2-3 times faster than behaviour modification alone.
Many things can help to decrease a dog's territorial response. Obedience training may help to modify some territorial behaviour. Additionally, desensitisation and counterconditioning can help decrease a dog's reactivity to the various arousing stimuli. Confining or crating dogs, can help as the triggers are less audible or accessible.
Placing the dog in a sit or down stay and then rewarding, can be useful for short term control such as when visitors arrive. Using a head collar such as a Halti or Gentle Leader can also give owners more control. The dog needs to learn to be calm initially when there are no distractions, then distractions should be gradually introduced, as it is impossible for the dog to obey or learn new behaviours when it is very excited or aroused.
Dogs often learn to bark in response to certain cues. For example, a dog that rushes out to bark at the postman every day may have learnt to identify the sound of the postman's motor bike. In this case the dog is trained to be relaxed and quiet as the postman proceeds up the street. Initially, the dog may be taught to sit quietly at the other end of the house as the postman approaches. The dog is rewarded for being relaxed and quiet instead of barking. Each day, provided the dog is sitting quietly, the dog is brought closer and closer to the postman. Thus, the cues that previously led to barking can be modified and an alternative response, sitting quietly, adopted in the same circumstances.
The first step in treating fearful dogs is to reduce the dog's exposure to fear-provoking situations. Then, desensitisation and counter-conditioning techniques can be used to modify fearful barking. In some cases, anxiolytics may also be needed to further reduce the fear and anxiety.
Many options are available to enrich the dog's environment. Exercise and obedience training are important components. Off lead exercise, ONLY if the dog is trustworthy, is ideal. However, if the dog will not come when called then allowing the dog to walk on a long lead can also provide mental stimulation in the park. Obedience training and agility training are other useful methods of providing mental stimulation. The amount will vary according to breed, age and health.
Toys such as Kongs, Treat Balls, Gumadics, Aussie Dog Thongs, Buster Cubes and Boomer balls are excellent toys for dogs. Playing interactive games, (chasings, hide and seek), with other dogs or with people is also helpful in providing mental and physical stimulation and decreasing barking. It helps to have a set time each day that play occurs so that a routine is established.
Obedience exercises can be useful in controlling barking due to excitement. The dog can be taught to sit and perform a trick, such as roll over or give me five, when the owner arrives home. However, this type of gleeful barking is often only short in duration and socially acceptable and no treatment is usually necessary
Any animal in pain should receive immediate veterinary treatment. Several medications as well as dietary options are now available to help treat Canine cognitive dysfunction.
Several are available but none of these address the underlying causes of barking, just try to decrease the signs. These include citronella, ultrasonic as well as electric shock or stimulus collars. The collars should not be used in cases of separation anxiety as punishing anxiety may make it worse. In a study conducted at Cornell University, USA, electronic collars were found to be less effective than citronella collars. Additionally, in some dogs the electronic collars have been reported to elicit an aggressive response and should be used with great caution.
Debarking involves surgery of the vocal cords. The dog is still able to bark, albeit, with a different tone and volume. It does not address the actual cause of the problem and hence, the dog may still be anxious or in pain, just unable to vocalise adequately. All other avenues should be addressed first.
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