Dogs bark. It’s a fact.
It’s their way of communicating with us, so as much as we find it annoying, it’s only fair that rather than screaming “JUST BE QUIET” at them, we should take the time to understand what they’re trying to tell us.
Without properly understanding why your dog is barking, there is very little chance that you’ll improve the behaviour. Dogs don’t tend to bark for no reason, it might feel like they are, but most likely there is a reason why they need to vocalise their feelings. Once you have an idea why they’re barking, you can work out how to approach the problem.
Barking is a huge topic, it’s impossible to cover every possible reason for barking or every way to improve it, so it’s always advisable to seek help from a professional trainer or behaviourist who is able to work with you to look at why your dog is barking and what positive solutions will help. For this blog, we’ll look at some of the most common reasons for barking in the house.
Barking out the window
We have to remember our dogs don’t always think like us. We understand that when people walk past our house, they are very unlikely to pose a threat to us, they’re simply passing and minding their own business. However, to some dogs, especially guarding breeds, they will feel suspicious and fearful when they see people come near to their space. Barking is merely an expression of these feelings.
The problem is, it’s an incredibly self-reinforcing behaviour. To a dog it looks something like this … “Person coming near house *must warn them away with barking*, person keeps walking and doesn’t come any closer *barking was successful* REPEAT”. We know full well that person was simply continuing on their way, regardless of the dog barking, but to the dog – barking worked!
Now your dog has successfully warned away a few people who were passing the house, they will keep repeating the behaviour because it appeared to work. This can quickly spread to other things; they may start to hear noises which link to people being outside (e.g. car doors, people talking) and bark at these things. They may look for anything passing the house from other windows or from the garden and use the same method of barking to warn them away too. It doesn’t take long for strong associations to form and for the behaviour to escalate.
How do you deal with this when it starts to become a problem:
- Look for the early signs. If your dog is beginning to watch people passing the house but they don’t bark yet, start to call them away from windows and prevent them continuing to watch. If they can watch calmly then it’s not a problem but if you see any signs of them fixating a lot or any barking, then move them away and avoid them continuing to watch
- Manage the situation. Every time your dog practices the behaviour, they will be reinforced and the habit will be harder to break. Prevent them from practicing it by blocking access to any trigger points or covering windows so they can’t see out
- Work on the problem. With management in place, you can work on it by rewarding your dog anytime they see/hear a potential trigger. Set up short sessions where your dog can see out the window and you can reward every time they see something which may trigger barking. Keep sessions short because this can be stressful for your dog
- If they do start to bark, call them away calmly and reward away from the trigger point. It’s good to keep rewarding even if your dog is barking out the window because it will help to calm them more quickly. You won’t reinforce the barking behaviour at this point
- Encourage your dog to settle in places where they can’t watch out the window
Barking out the window won’t improve if you dog continues to practice it, you can train as much as you like but you need to prevent the behaviour being practiced first. If you’re not around to supervise and work through the problem then put your dog in a room or a crate where they won’t be triggered to bark.
Barking at Noises
Barking is a form of communication for our dogs so if they bark when they hear a sound, they’re likely to be communicating that they’re feeling worried about it. Unfamiliar sounds can often worry a dog, especially if it happens in the house, most dogs will habituate to the daily noises in their home environment, but a new sound can cause them to feel fearful. Some dogs don’t habituate to sounds so well, they can instead become more sensitive to them and increasingly alert to different sounds.
This is more likely to occur with sudden sounds like fireworks or thunder, with repeated exposure, some dogs will become more sensitive because the sound becomes associated with a fear response. In some dogs the same sensitisation can happen with other sounds too, especially if they’ve been linked to something scary happening.
When it comes to barking at noises, it’s important to remember this behaviour is usually linked to fear. These sounds will have worried your dog at some point and he may still feel fearful when he hears them, or he now has a strong association with barking even if the initial fear has reduced. You can use a combination of management and training to help improve the behaviour:
- Management isn’t always straightforward since you can’t just sound-proof your house and prevent your dog being exposed to any noises, but you can provide them with a safe place to go to. A crate (if your dog finds it comforting) is a great option, especially covered with a blanket to help reduce the noise exposure. Alternatively, a room which has less exposure to noises can be a good option
- Encourage your dog to spend several durations of the day in their safe area, here they should be able to sleep without being disturbed by sounds. It gives them a break from sound triggers and a chance to rest and relax
- Playing the radio or white noise sound machine in your dogs’ safe room/space can help block out some of the noises and allow them to relax more
- When your dog does hear a sound which may trigger them to bark, you can reward them with a treat before they start barking or verbally acknowledge the sound (e.g. say ‘good’ when they hear it). This will help pair the sounds with something positive and break their focus from it before they escalate to barking
- If they do bark, remember they’re worried so don’t shout or tell them off, calmly call your dog and encourage them to focus on something else (e.g. settle on a bed)
- Aim to do some more focused training where you play various noises and pair them with rewards. This is a gradual process and should be started with sounds at a low volume before gradually increasing it. Your dog should be relaxed throughout and not reacting, if they react then you know you’ve played it too loud or gone too fast!
Barking at noises in the house can be one of the most complicated problems to live with because it’s so difficult to create an environment where your dog is never triggered to bark. You need to apply lots of methods and management in order to improve the behaviour and it’s often a long process before you start to see progress.
Barking for Attention
To complicate matters further, attention barking can creep in quite quickly if you have a dog who already has a habit of barking at noises or events in the house. It can become hard to distinguish the two and it’s not unusual for the behaviours to become linked.
If you have a dog who barks at noises or barks out the window, you still need to work through those behaviours to address the underlying fears which have led to the barking. However, it’s also important to be aware of how attention barking can develop and watch for the signs of this.
When you start rewarding your dog for seeing/hearing potential triggers, you need to aim to progress away from food rewards as soon as possible, and use verbal praise too, otherwise the expectation of food rewards all the time can lead to attention barking or frustration when food rewards don’t happen when expected. There is a balance between pairing scary sounds with rewards and not creating a dog who wants rewards all the time.
Attention barking can start for many reasons, sometimes it’s because your dog is over-tired or over-stimulated, sometimes it will be because they’re bored and under-stimulated, and sometimes it’s because they’ve simply learnt barking works. Barking tends to get our attention and it often causes a reaction from us, whether that’s us asking ‘what’s wrong’, pandering to their needs, or shouting at them to be quiet. A reaction is a reaction, good or bad, your dog probably doesn’t care as long as it gets your attention!
- Ask yourself why your dog is seeking attention? Have you inadvertently rewarded them for barking at you? Are they bored? Are they tired?
- Ignoring attention barking rarely works, your dog will just try harder and if you give in after a duration of barking, your dog will learn that it’s worth barking longer or louder because you’ll eventually give them attention
- Use time-outs where you remove yourself or your dog from the room but apply a one-bark-and-out rule. Waiting any longer will only allow the behaviour to be practiced more
- If your dog barks at predictable times (e.g. mealtimes), remove them from the event and give them a rest in a different room. Or give them another activity either in the same room or elsewhere if needed. Anticipate these moments and take action before the barking starts
- If your dog is genuinely bored and barking because of this, you need to give them more regular activities and productive outlets for their energy. For example, scent-work, enrichment or chews
- All dogs need regular rest time, so don’t feel they need constant stimulation, having time out to sleep is equally important. Put them in a quiet room or crate regularly for a sleep if they’re unable to regulate this themselves
Attention barking often links to other problems, so it’s important to consider what may be causing the barking and then address those issues. Simply trying to ignore the behaviour is unproductive and can just create an even bigger problem. You need to handle attention seeking carefully to avoid inadvertently reinforcing the behaviours you’re trying to stop but often small adjustments to your dogs’ routine or how you interact with your dog can make a big difference.
When trying to improve any barking behaviours at home or in the garden, the key is to limit opportunities for the behaviour to be practiced, and encourage more desirable alternative behaviours.
If your dog barks in the garden, you can use the same approaches as above by rewarding when they hear/see potential triggers, and limiting their access to the garden when you’re unable to supervise. You can also attach a longline in the garden so if they do start to bark, you can quickly call them inside and use the line to help if needed. In the same way you could move your dog away from the window if they are becoming fixated on distractions passing the house.
Remember shouting at your dog to stop isn’t productive, they won’t understand what you’re trying to communicate and it could add to their fear or confusion. Instead you need to manage their environment and provide places where they can settle without being triggered to bark. Your dog may benefit from more activities and stimulation, or they may need more rest time. A tired dog isn’t necessarily a happy dog, and over-tiredness can create even more barking problems, so finding a balance is important.