- Ultrasonic bark deterrent devices rely on creating discomfort or fear in dogs to modify their behavior.
- Aversive training methods are broadly considered harmful to dogs and unnecessary for effective training.
- Bark deterrents punish dogs indiscriminately and create a landscape of fear for all dogs in the vicinity.
- By advocating for a ban, we can pave the way for a future where dogs are treated with kindness and respect.
In recent years, there has been increased attention to the ethical treatment of dogs and the importance of positive, force-free and fear-free training methods. While strides have been made to ban shock collars in some countries, another aversive training tool remains widely available: ultrasonic bark deterrents. Bark deterrents have, in my view, become even more insidious than shock collars, precisely because people largely believe they are benign. I’ve written about the dangers of ultrasonic devices in a previous Psychology Today blog; now I’d like to go further and make a case for their prohibition. As an advocate for the well-being of dogs, I believe it is time to recognize the negative impact of ultrasonic bark deterrents and take a stand against their use.
Understanding Ultrasonic Bark Deterrents
Ultrasonic training devices capitalize on a band of sound frequency available to dogs but inaudible to us. Remote bark deterrents are freestanding units, usually about the size of a small birdhouse, which can be attached to a fence, wall, or tree, or can be placed on a flat surface. The unit has a microphone that detects the sound of a dog barking, which then triggers the device to emit a sharp, high-frequency pulse of sound. The idea is that the unpleasant sound will startle or irritate the dog, leading them to stop barking. While this may sound like a seemingly harmless solution to a common problem, the reality is far more complex.
The Problematic Nature of Aversive Training
Within the framework of dog training theory, ultrasonic bark deterrent devices would be categorized as a form of “positive punishment” and, more broadly, as an aversive training method. Aversive training methods rely on creating discomfort or fear in dogs to modify their behavior, with the idea being to reduce the occurrence of a behavior by associating the behavior with something bad. Bark deterrents deliver an unpleasant stimulus (a “punishment”) whenever a dog barks. While the immediate goal might be to stop excessive barking, the long-term consequences can be detrimental to the overall well-being of the dog.
There is broad consensus among veterinary organizations, humane organizations, and animal advocacy groups that punishment is rarely an appropriate method for behavioral modification in companion animals because of the significant potential for harm. A position statement by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, for example, recommends against the use of punishment—including ultrasonic bark deterrent devices—because of “the potential adverse effects which include but are not limited to inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people interacting with animals.”1
Negative Impacts on Dogs
The use of ultrasonic bark deterrents can have various adverse effects on dogs. Psychological risks to dogs are, in my view, the most serious concern. Sustained exposure to fearful stimuli, especially stimuli that are unpredictable, leaves a dog in a state of chronic hyperarousal, setting off a cascade of neurological “danger” signals. Chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to anxiety and depression, to the development of phobias, and can hinder a dog’s ability to be happy and engage in normal daily activities.
Because the punishment occurs in response to a whole range of different barking behaviors (greeting, territorial defense, play, alarm), the dog cannot consistently link the aversive stimulus with a particular behavior. Even worse, ultrasonic devices are activated by what you might call “false signals.” The microphones, although programmed to pick up the general sound signature of a dog bark, are relatively inexpensive and unsophisticated and thus not very discriminating. They will pick up a variety of false signals, including the sound of wind, human voices, and other animals, each time delivering an ultrasonic punishment to all dogs in range. An ultrasonic bark deterrent thus creates what you might call a landscape of fear: the dog is subjected to frightening stimuli at seemingly random times, in random places, when doing random things, in effect making the dog’s entire world feel unsafe. The dog can never get things right and will feel that his or her environment is unpredictable and terrifying. This can cause distress, can lead to fear and anxiety-related disorders and phobias, and can also lead to increased aggression, putting humans and other dogs at risk.
An Indiscriminate Tool
Ultrasonic bark devices are crude tools expected to do precise work—which they cannot deliver. These devices cannot discriminate one dog's bark from another, so all dogs within active range of an ultrasonic device will be punished when any of them bark. In a multidog household, or in a neighborhood with dogs living in proximity, all dogs (and perhaps all cats, mice, rabbits, and other animals who can hear the ultrasonic noise) will suffer from the effects of the device.
Use by Third Parties
The ability of a third party (not the dog’s owner) to install a bark deterrent that reaches into a neighboring dog’s home space is one of the most insidious aspects of this technology. Dog owners may have punishment-based “training” imposed on their dog without their consent. Moreover, some bark deterrents on the market come with an additional hand-held remote that can be pressed to activate the device and deliver a pulse of sound. A third party is essentially able to punish a dog at random, potentially even when a dog isn’t barking. It makes the device into an invisible weapon that can be used against dogs.
A Call for Action: Banning Ultrasonic Bark Deterrents
Several countries have already taken the necessary steps to ban shock collars due to their harmful effects on dogs. (Sadly, the U.S. is lagging in these efforts.) It is time to extend this ban to ultrasonic bark deterrents as well. These devices perpetuate an outdated and harmful approach to training that has no place in our modern understanding of dog behavior and welfare. Instead of relying on aversive methods, we should embrace positive reinforcement techniques. By rewarding desired behaviors and using kind, force-free training methods, we can build trust, strengthen the bond with our dogs, and address barking issues in a humane and effective way.
Education and Responsible Ownership
Alongside advocating for a ban on ultrasonic bark deterrents, we must prioritize education. Pet owners need access to reliable information and resources on positive training methods, behavior modification, and understanding their dogs' needs. By empowering dog owners with knowledge, we can foster a culture of compassionate and enlightened dog care.
We have made significant progress in recognizing and promoting the ethical treatment of dogs. It is time to take the next step and acknowledge the detrimental effects of ultrasonic bark deterrents. By advocating for a ban on these aversive training tools, we can pave the way for a future where dogs are trained and treated with kindness and respect.
American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, Position Statement on The Use of Punishment for Behavior Modification in Animals. https://www.sfanimalcare.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Why-We-Dont-Pun….