Excessive barking is the third-most-likely reason that a dog will be surrendered to a shelter. But exactly what constitutes excessive barking?
This question was asked of me by a colleague who was having a problem with her dachshund, Emily. Specifically, she told me that she had just received a visit from a municipal officer who'd received a noise complaint from one of her neighbors. It concerned Emily's barking during the day when her owner was at work and the dog was home alone. My colleague asked the officer about the definition of "excessive barking" and was surprised when he told her that there was no precise legal standard, and that the city never posted observers or deployed instruments to confirm or refute complaints. Without cracking a smile he told her, "We judge the loudness and persistence of a dog's barking on the basis of the loudness and persistence of the person making the complaint." This response astounded her because in her municipality, owners of dogs that bark excessively can be fined, and if there are repeat complaints the dog may be seized and destroyed.
When I checked the scientific literature I was surprised to find that virtually no studies had been conducted to determine how much the average dog barked on any given day. However a recent report published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior provides some useful information. This study was conducted by Elsa Flint, Edward Minot, Mark Stevenson, Paul Perry, and Kevin Stafford from Massey University in New Zealand. It is a rather small study involving 40 dogs recruited from veterinary practices in Auckland, N.Z., so we can look at it as a pilot or preliminary piece of research. The reason the sample size was small was because of some rather stringent conditions which were required of the participating dogs and the fact that the scoring, done by hand, was extremely tedious and time-consuming.
The dogs in this study all came from suburban homes with yards or gardens that the pets had access to when not indoors. Dogs from homes near high-traffic areas were excluded. The dogs had to receive at least 30 minutes of daily exercise. No dogs with a history of nuisance barking were included (defined here as owners having reported receiving complaints from neighbors or authorities about barking). No dogs with a medical condition that might affect their normal behavior were considered. And the canine subjects had to be left alone at home for at least eight hours each day.
The participating dog owners were provided with a sound-activated tape recorder. They were asked to turn the tape recorder on before they left the house and to state the time and date before they walked out the door and when they returned. In the end, the dogs were recorded approximately eight hours a day for five days, giving the researchers an imposing 1,600 hours of data to score.
I must admit I was surprised at how little the dogs barked: Typically each barked between four and five times over the eight-hour time span; the average length of each barking episode was about 30 seconds, so the total for the eight-hour time period averaged 129 seconds, or just a fraction over two minutes.
There were some differences depending upon the nature and characteristics of the dogs, with some barking much longer and more frequently than others. For example, younger dogs bark more than older dogs. Of the dogs that averaged over 21 barking episodes in an eight hour period, all were younger than five. But while older dogs barked less frequently, their barking sessions tended to be longer.
There was a sex difference as well. The total average bark time was greater for females than males. Of dogs with the longest bark times (averaging above 200 seconds per daily session), 78 percent were female.
The data clearly show that dogs left at home alone do not bark very frequently or for a very long duration on a regular basis. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that there were some days when particular dogs did bark more frequently or for longer durations than usual. This is to be expected since the environment around any home is not absolutely constant and there are atypical events (increased traffic, deliveries arriving, etc.). Still, this kind of variability points out the importance of monitoring a dog who is the subject of a barking complaint over a period of several days.
In an ideal world, authorities could use strategically placed sound-activated recorders to evaluate complaints. Some now available offer continuous recording of up to 500 hours. If an easy computer scoring method could be created, the data from these recordings might be used to confirm nuisance barking, or, where complaints are unfounded, the authorities could show the complaining individuals that the level of barking which concerns them is within the normal range for dogs, and hopefully encourage increased social tolerance.
Sadly, we do not live in an ideal world and so, at least in most venues, the action of the authorities are more likely to be based not on the sound of the dog barking, but rather on the loudness and vigor of those humans complaining about it.
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome
Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission