The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists

Decoding Your Pet

Excessive Barking Part I: Why Does My Dog Bark?

An accurate "diagnosis" is crucial if you ever hope to solve the problem

Posted Sep 01, 2015

Liz Stelow
Liz Stelow, DVM, DACVB
Source: Liz Stelow

I recently had a case of a dog that barks excessively when the owner prepares to leave and while she is gone. The woman adopted the dog a few months ago and he started barking a month later. The neighbors in her condo complex are not overly pleased by this turn of events.

Barking is a normal means of communication among dogs. Humans can be the target of the communication, too, as we seem to respond very readily to it. In fact, studies have shown that the average human, when presented with the recordings of several types of dog barks (fearful/anxious, territorial, excited, begging, etc.), can accurately deduce the meaning.

Like so many other behaviors, excessive barking is generally a symptom of a larger problem, rather than an isolated problem behavior. Underlying causes can be anxiety, boredom, breed predisposition, something learned from another dog, attention seeking, etc. So, while many “solutions” have been developed, few of them work because they fail to ask and address the question, “Why is the dog barking?” A few popular no-bark “solutions” are anti-bark collars (citronella, shock, etc.), ultrasonic anti-bark devices, spray bottles, cans of pennies, and debarking surgery.

Why Dogs Bark

The reasons for barking and excessive barking are quite varied. “Acceptable” barking occurs as a warning of possible intruders or other dire situation, a brief invitation to come out and play (toward another dog or human), an expression of enjoyment during play, and a warning to approaching unfamiliar dogs that a fierce carnivore lives here. Although these barks sound different from each other (the forceful three-bark alarm when someone’s at the door vs. the high pitched excitement bark during play). But, what they have in common is that they are brief and transient, as the dog moves on to other behaviors.

The reasons dogs bark excessively are related to – but separate from – those listed above. These include:

  • Breed. I’m sorry to break it to you Beagle owners, but your dog will likely bark excessively. This is equally true of Cockers, Collies, Dachshunds, tiny terriers (Yorkie/Silky), Shelties, Dalmatians, and Miniature Schnauzers. It doesn’t mean that their barking cannot be controlled – just that resolution may be far more challenging.
  • Anxiety (Separation Anxiety/Noise Phobia/Confinement Anxiety). This type of barking occurs when the owners are not present; and these dogs desperately do not want to be alone. They are panicking, and use their voices to reach out to someone who might be able to help. The bark is often high-pitched, plaintive, and interspersed with whines.
  • Barrier Frustration. You’re in the house and your dog is outside (or vice versa); if this is a situation that upsets him, you may find that he barks until you are back together. This is separate and distinct from separation anxiety, in that, if you left the house completely, he might be fine.
  • Boredom/Social Isolation. The bored or isolated dog spends a lot of time asking if there’s anyone out there, or answering similar calls from other bored dogs. The bark is usually a friendly invitation, but can be very insistent and frequent.
  • Social Facilitation. Some dogs bark excessively when they hear other dogs barking. We’ve all heard this – a dog walks into the neighborhood and all the dogs start barking, even though only one or two can actually see the “intruder” dog.
  • Territoriality. The territorial dog barks aggressively, often in a low pitch with growling, when a person or dog approaches or walks past the house. The barking is not a simple courtesy warning to the owner; rather, it continues until after the person leaves. The challenge here is that the delivery person/meter reader/passerby always DOES leave, consistently rewarding the dog for his efforts; don’t underestimate how rewarding this can be. And, however fierce these dogs sound, many of them are acting out of fear of the approaching stranger(s).
  • Response to Environmental Stimuli. Technically, territorial dogs fit this category – but not all dogs responding to something/someone outside are trying to chase them away. Consider, for instance, dog that has seen a tree full of squirrels or the neighbor cat and can’t stop talking about it. These dogs are generally of a personality that finds many things exciting throughout the day.
  • Attention Seeking. These dogs bark to get the attention of their owners (usually) or other people who are consistently nearby (neighbors, for instance). This is the moral equivalent to the 5 year old child standing in front of his harried mother at the grocery store saying, “Mom, mom, mom, mom…” repeatedly. Dogs develop this kind of barking because they have been rewarded for it in the past, often by being scolded or yelled at; but, in their minds, any attention is good attention and yelling is good enough for them. This type of barking happens only in the presence of the owners or other human targets of the attention seeking.
  • Habit/Conditioned. Some dogs were raised in environments in which any amount of barking was perfectly acceptable (like a shelter) but now live in settings in which it is not (like a suburban neighborhood). Other dogs always go nuts when they hear the door bell or other specific noise stimulus.
  • Compulsive. Some dogs develop compulsive behaviors like tail chasing, light chasing, or fly biting. Others display their compulsivity through barking. These barking episodes are likely to happen whether or not the owner is home and are generally very unemotional and monotone in nature.
  • Old-Age-Related. Senior dogs suffering from cognitive dysfunction (a dementia-like condition) can bark constantly as one clinical sign of their cognitive decline. These dogs bark in a fairly monotonous way with no trigger at all. They sometimes cannot be aroused from their barking and are as likely to bark with or without the owner present.

Because barking is the primary means for dogs to communicate, you may guess that this list is not exhaustive and many dogs have more than one reason for barking excessively. If you need help determining which of these many reasons is the cause of your dog's barking, please find a veterinary behaviorist or veterinarian with a special interest in behavior to help you tease out the answer.

Coming up in our next post: Excessive Barking Part II: How Do I Stop My Dog From Barking?

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