How to control your dog’s barking

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How to control your dog’s barking

Five days after I moved into my suburban apartment, I received a nasty note from my neighbor telling me that my dog needed to be muzzled because he does not stop barking. I was horrified, terrified, and heartbroken. Horrified that I was the new kid in town and my dog was the neighborhood menace keeping everyone awake all day and night; terrified that I was going to be evicted because of his excessive barking; and heartbroken that Henry – who was never much of a barker for the two years I’d already had him and who had never received a noise complaint before – was possibly unhappy with this move and life-upheaval and hated me and all we (suburbia and I) represented.

Long (very, very long) story short, Henry isn’t and wasn’t an excessive barker. (My neighbor is, in fact, the neighborhood menace and the one who needs to be muzzled.) But for weeks, my boyfriend and I read every article, closed every blind, walked him down every block, turned on every TV, and put peanut butter in every toy to keep him distracted and mentally and physically drained. Why, you ask? Because when dogs are bored, lonely, and frustrated, they bark (and chew furniture and tear up the carpet). And since they were bred to perform a specific job (like herding), they can get easily bored now that they stuck at home, ruining your apartment and the earbuds of your neighbors.

So what can you do? First, you have to ask yourself, "Self, why is he barking?" Dogs bark for a myriad of reasons – they’re bored, anxious, excited, afraid, etc. In fact, Cesar Milan, best-selling author, public speaker, and star of the TV show Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan, believes dog owners need to be the pack leader: "Inevitably, excessive barking indicates there is a problem with the human, and not the dog; there is something not balanced in the pack, so the dog’s needs are not being met. The barking is the only way the dog has to tell you something is wrong."

When I was being told my dog was an excessive barker, I wasn’t around to hear what kind of barking he was doing - and my neighbor refused to talk to me – so I struggled trying to combat it. If you aren’t around to witness the barking and you are receiving noise complaints, ask a neighbor to help identify what kind of barking your dog is doing. Explain that you are trying to solve the problem, but since she doesn’t do it when you’re around, you’d like to understand what kind of distress she’s under so you can be better equipped to help her. You can also set up a camera (that’s what we did) to catch your dog in the act and see firsthand her body language and barking behavior when you’re not around. To help you find out why your dog is barking, check out this adorable, helpful infographic done by PetSafe that helps decode which bark best reflects your dog’s bark (like whether it’s prolonged with intervals or sharp and short at a mid-range pitch) and what it could mean.

Second, now that you know why she’s barking, here are some DOs and DON’Ts of how to control it.

Do

  • Stay calm. Your dog feeds off of your energy so if you’re unbalanced, your dog will mirror that negative energy and become unbalanced, too. Unbalanced = destruction.

  • Counter condition. Listen, when I’m stressed about work or mad at someone, I throw on some trash TV and get a big bowl of chicken tenders and let the nonsense of reality TV and fried food wash over me. I’m not saying give your dog a bowl of chicken tenders because then YOU will be too distracted by his diarrhea to worry about his barking, but I am saying we all need a little distraction from time to time, and that includes your dog. When you leave the house, if you put the TV on and give him toys filled with peanut butter or puzzle toys to keep his mind stimulated, he will be less likely to bark or destroy the house.

  • Exercise. In addition to mental stimulation, dogs need physical stimulation. Specific breeds are more active than others, too, so if you have a border collie, boxer, or Dalmatian, make sure he’s getting the exercise he needs.

  • Ignore. You need to CONTROL his barking, not CONDONE it. This rule is especially tough because as a dog owner, you want to chastise or coddle your dog for barking, and you can’t or he will win. Owning a dog is a lot like being in a relationship – if you give in, he has the upper hand. (And you never, ever, ever want him to have the upper hand so you need to be strong and play the game.) I kid, I kid, but for realz: if your dog barks for attention and you give in each time he does, he will know that that’s all he has to do to get what he wants.

  • Reward. But only when she’s quiet. If she starts barking, put down what is exciting her (leash, toys, food) until she is quiet. If she barks outside at people or fast-moving things like cars or squirrels, take her back inside until she is quiet so she learns that that behavior is unacceptable. Pretty much every dog wants to be outside so once she starts to correlate her unwarranted barking to being taken back inside, she will stop barking at leaves and harmless gardeners.

  • Teach your dog the "quiet" command. Once you teach your dog when to bark, you can teach him when to stop. The Humane Society of the United States says, "It may sound nonsensical, but the first step of this technique is to teach your dog to bark on command. Give your dog the command to ‘speak,’ wait for him to bark two or three times, and then stick a tasty treat in front of his nose. When he stops barking to sniff the treat, praise him and give him the treat. Repeat until he starts barking as soon as you say ‘speak.’" Once he’s mastered that, you can teach him to be quiet on command. With your pup, head to a quiet, calm place and tell him to "speak" and when he starts barking, say "quiet" and give him a treat and praise him. Repeat until he stops barking as soon as you say "quiet."

  • Desensitize. Slow and steady wins the race, even when it comes to dog training. Try leaving her alone for five minutes while you go into another room and close the door. Give her a toy or treat to distract her and demonstrate that you leaving can be a good thing. Next time, leave her for 15 minutes and then 30 minutes and then an hour, always staying calm and not making a big to-do out of it.

  • Seek professional help. If books and advice and training and articles (specifically, this article) don’t seem to be working, consider hiring a professional. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) suggests hiring a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or a veterinary behaviorist: "If you can’t find a behaviorist, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, but be sure that the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she or he has education and experience treating compulsive behavior, since this kind of expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification." Check out this ASPCA article for more tips on how to find a behavior expert.

  • Consider alternative options. For some dogs, it’s their owner leaving that breaks their heart; for others, it’s being left alone with no interaction all day. If your dog continues to struggle with separation anxiety and barks nonstop, consider taking her to work (if your company is dog-friendly, obviously), dropping her off at friend’s house, or enrolling her in doggy day care. Dog walkers are another great option, too, especially if your hours are long. You can hire a dog walker to come as often as you’d like, and it will help break up the day for your pup, especially because it can feel like an eternity for her. Check out dogwalker.com for a dog walker or petsmart.com for a doggie day camp near you!

  • Research bark deterrents. Bark deterrents like e-collars, muzzles, and citronella collars should only be considered as a last resort. Training is the best long-term solution, because, while collars can be effective, they are mostly unpleasant and inconsistent. ASPCA says, "Most often, these are collars that deliver an unpleasant stimulus when your dog barks. The stimulus might be a loud noise, an ultrasonic noise, a spray of citronella mist or a brief electric shock. The collars that deliver noise are ineffective with most dogs. One study found that the citronella collar was at least as effective for eliminating barking as the electronic collar and was viewed more positively by owners." Besides being unpleasant for your dog, the main issue with anti-bark collars and deterrents is their unreliability. Dogs aren’t dumb (although they tend to do dumb things), and they can easily become "collar-wise" and learn to not bark while wearing the collars and go right back to barking as soon as the collar is removed. What’s more, since the collars work on a microphone system to pick up and correct the sound of his barking, if there are other dogs in the neighborhood (or in the house), any dog’s bark can activate the collar and your pup could be punished when he’s not at fault.

Don't

  • Remove her vocal chords. Pretty gnarly, huh? Not only is debarking inhumane, it can cause immense anxiety for the pup since barking (like talking) is her primary form of communication. Do not do it.

  • Cause a ruckus. You are not Beyoncé. You do not need fanfare. When you leave and when you return, do not make a big deal out of it. If you do, your dog will anticipate your return and get frustrated and bored (and bark and be destructive) until you return. Milan says, "This is one of the most difficult things for dog lovers to grasp. When a dog returns to its pack, they are not greeted with excited barking and jumping. Sometimes, there will be sniffs and tail wags, but most of the time it’s no big deal when a dog comes back to the pack. Unfortunately, we humans tend to make a big deal out of coming and going from home, and this puts your dog in the wrong state of mind."

  • Encourage his barking. If you play the game of "Who’s there?" when he barks at other dogs or people outside, you are only enabling his behavior and letting him think it is acceptable and fun.

Ready to pull your hair out? Don’t fret. Yes, barking is annoying and can drive you (and your neighbors) crazy, but it can be resolved. By following these tips, consulting your vet, and spending time with your pup, I’m confident you can get to the root of why she is barking and take the correct steps to combat it. If not, I will give you my address and, together, we can terrorize my neighbor and show her how barking dogs really get down.

Image: Toshihiro Gamo