Why Dogs Bark and What to Do when Barking Becomes a Problem

Why dogs bark
Dogs bark for many different reasons, but in most cases barking serves as a form of communication. Dog owners will generally recognise four different types of bark; warning, alarm, playful, and need. For instance, continuous fast barking is a warning, perhaps alerting that someone is entering their home territory, and long, drawn-out barks at a high pitch, with pauses between each one, indicate that a dog is in need and is possibly lonely.

It is very important for dog owners to try to establish why their dog is barking. Some barking may be completely normal, when someone knocks at the front door, but other barking may be associated with a need, such as separation anxiety. Bark control should not be used on dogs whose barking is a component of an anxiety or stress related condition. In these situations the cause of the anxiety needs to be determined and addressed.

Types of barking
With experience it is possible to recognise other cases of barking.

Cause of Barking Important History Character of Barking
Need, separation anxiety
Owner absent
Long, drawn-out barks at a high pitch and single tone
Repetitive compulsive behaviour
Barking out of a normal context
Repetitive, exaggerated, sustained barking at a single tone
Warning, territorial, and fear-based aggression
Triggered by a noise, a person, or an animal
The dog is highly aroused; the barking is difficult to interrupt. The barking will have a lower pitch and there may be growling
Alarm, surprise,
noise phobias
Pre-existing fear which triggers barking
The dog is highly aroused, the barking is high pitched and fast
Senility Senior dogs with other behavioural changes Barking of a single tone

When barking becomes a problem
If a dog’s barking is normal but unacceptable, then bark control may be a helpful solution. Not only do barking dogs disturb their owners, they also disturb neighbours. Increasingly local authorities are serving noise abatement notices and if the barking continues then they may prosecute dog owners under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Tenants could face eviction by landlords if their dog’s barking is becoming a nuisance. Unfortunately behavioural therapy to manage barking can take a long time to be effective and sometimes it is necessary to find a solution very quickly.

A typical type of behavioural therapy to manage barking which occurs predictably to a specific trigger is called counter-conditioning. This technique teaches the dog to respond to the stimulus that normally elicits barking with a new, more acceptable behaviour such as picking up a toy. Dogs which are food motivated can be taught to go to a ‘place’ rather than barking and wait quietly for a food reward.

When barking needs to be arrested quickly, bark control systems are very useful. Bark control systems are activated by the dogs bark; this is known as behavioural activation and is not controlled by the owner. They use an unpleasant stimulation to discourage a dog from barking. The stimulation is delivered automatically when the dog barks from a device on a collar, or an indoor device placed in the home, or outdoor device positioned in the garden. The outdoor bark control systems not only deter your dog from barking but they also deter neighbours’ dogs from barking too.

Some bark control collar systems have sensors that detect both sound and vibration so that it is only the dog’s bark which will activate stimulation and not environmental noises. Some collars automatically increase the intensity of stimulation if barking continues until it is successfully interrupted. This ensures that the lowest intensity of stimulation necessary is delivered to interrupt the barking. This technology can also remember what intensity of stimulation had to be delivered to interrupt barking and deliver stimulation at that level next time the dog barks. Ultimately dogs learn not to bark and avoid the stimulation completely.

Bark control solutions
There are essentially four bark control systems:

  • Spray stimulation uses an unscented or citronella scented mist which is sprayed forward to interrupt a dog barking
  • Static stimulation is the most extensively researched system and uses a pulse of static electricity which passes between two skin contacts on the underside of the neck
  • Ultrasonic and Sonic stimulation emits a harmless but annoying high frequency sound which is not audible to humans to distract the dog from barking. This type of stimulation is used by indoor and outdoor devices
  • Vibration stimulation utilises low frequency vibration that the dog feels on the underside of the neck not far from the ‘voice-box’ to interrupt barking.

Bark control systems can deter nuisance barking and so prevent stress for both owners and neighbours. They help to avoid uncomfortable situations between neighbours or tenants and landlords. Most importantly, they enable owners to keep their dogs rather than having to relinquish them because of nuisance barking. This is what makes bark control systems such valuable social tools.

Spray, ultrasonic, and vibration systems can be used in any situation. However there are situations where electronic collars that deliver static stimulation should not be used.

  • Dogs under 6 months of age
  • Pregnant or nursing bitches
  • Dogs with health problems, especially heart disease
  • Dogs that are unable to respond appropriately due to coughs or senility
  • Dogs that have aggressive tendencies
  • Dogs suffering from separation anxiety and similar anxiety related disorders.

Interrupting barking
Bark control systems are often very effective at low intensity stimulation. It is thought this is because the stimulation surprises the dog and ‘interrupts’ the barking. Interrupting barking often prevents behaviours that follow barking such as aggression. Where an undesirable behaviour is heralded by a bark, interrupting the bark can prevent the whole train of behaviour that follows. However because of this surprise response it is important that bark control systems are introduced slowly and carefully according to the instructions for each product.

There is a solution for every dog; however, always start by understanding what is causing the dog’s behaviour first. Seek advice from your vet if you are at all unsure.

David Chamberlain BVetMed., MRCVS.
Veterinary Consultant to PetSafe®

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