URBANA, Ill. — If you’re using a quick fix to stifle your dog’s excessive barking, you’re probably barking up the wrong tree.
An expert from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine advises finding out why your pooch is barking in the first place, so you can find solutions that address the underlying issues.
Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, said the first thing to consider when you notice a pattern of excessive barking is whether the behavior has a medical cause.
Rule out health concerns
See your veterinarian if the barking may be associated with any of these issues: sudden changes in behavior, aging, or anxiety.
If the barking arises suddenly along with other signs of distress, such as panting, pacing, whining, and lip licking, this change may indicate a health concern.
Senior pets may be experiencing changes in hearing, vision, and other perceptions of their environment that cause them to bark more than usual. Some pets may need medical intervention to treat excessive anxiety.
Taking a video of your pet’s behavior to show to your veterinarian may help determine a diagnosis of anxiety.
“Common behavioral prompts for barking include social reasons, such as barking in response to hearing other dogs bark, and territorial reasons, such as barking at the sight of a person or other dog approaching his home,” explains Ballantyne. “Other dogs may bark in distress or fear, for example, when left home alone or in response to loud noises.”
One often-overlooked solution is to remove the motivation to bark.
“If they are barking out windows at people or animals, consider covering the windows. This simple step often results in immediate improvement,” Ballantyne said.
If the barking is strictly behavioral and does not involve a serious anxiety issue, often times it is exacerbated by boredom or lack of stimulation. In young or especially active animals, make sure the dogs have something to do.
Daily walks or runs at the dog park will help keep them appropriately engaged.
“We want to look at what else is going on. What is their level of exercise? How can we give them more to do?” said Ballantyne. “Consider adding enrichment to their unstructured time by providing chew toys and puzzle feeders.”
Ballantyne highly recommends using positive reinforcement to teach your pet behaviors to replace the barking episodes.
“Use something that the animal enjoys, whether that’s food, play, or praise, to encourage your dog to focus on you and not whatever he wants to bark at,” she said. “Ask your pup to sit for a treat or get a toy when a stimulus that usually causes him to bark occurs.”
Some pets seem to bark only when on a leash and encountering other people or dogs. Dogs may bark in this situation as the leash restricts their ability to otherwise avoid encounters they may perceive as threatening or unpleasant.
Ballantyne recommends training the dog in a walk-like environment where you can control the appearance of the stimulus that prompts the barking.
Introduce the stimulus, initially at a considerable distance, while asking your dog to sit for a treat. Gradually decrease the distance as your dog becomes more focused on you and less focused on whatever he previously barked at.
Replacing the undesirable behavior (barking) with a more desirable one (sitting quietly) will teach your dog how to behave.
Problems with easy fixes
And what responses to barking does Ballantyne advise against?
Yelling to get the dog to stop barking, for one thing.
“At best, dogs may perceive that you are barking with them, but a worse outcome would be that you scare them,” she said. Even if the yelling temporarily interrupts the behavior, the dog hasn’t learned how to change the behavior or what you want him to do instead of bark.
She offers a similar criticism of tools marketed to assist in reducing unwanted barking.
“Gadgets such as citronella collars and shock collars at best may temporarily interrupt the behavior, but the problem is that they don’t teach the pet what to do and can have many negative side effects such as increased fear, anxiety, and aggression,” said Ballantyne.
When applied consistently, positive reinforcement and environmental adaptations to mitigate response to the stimuli are the best remedies for behavioral barking problems.