A Quick Fix for a Barking Dog

Here is a simple way to temporarily control barking.

Posted Aug 20, 2020

This post has been revised on 8/21/20 with the help of readers and veterinary behaviorists.

Given that many of us are currently working at home and spending much more of our day near our dogs, it has now reminded people that dogs bark, and in some situations, they bark a lot. Normally, I don't have much concern about occasional bouts of barking from my dogs, but some folks find it to be very distracting. My friend and colleague Wilson called me in a state of great distress. "Chester [his Border Collie] is driving me crazy with his barking at the window or at the door," he told me. "I can't work when he is making all that noise."

I said to Wilson (using my best, calm, clinical psychologist, voice), "Tell me exactly what you have done so far and how Chester has responded."

"Well at first, I just told him to stop barking. I mean I sort of yelled at him something like 'No!' 'Stop that!' Maybe it got to the point where I was yelling, 'Shut up, dammit!'"

From a behavior point of view, I knew that that was a bad move. Here, we have a situation where the dog's human simply does not understand the basics of dog language. To a dog, loud short words—"No!" "Shut up!" "Don't bark!"—sound like barks.

Think of it this way: The dog barks to signal a potential problem. And you come over and also bark. This clearly indicates that you agree that this is the right time to sound the alarm. Apparently Chester read the situation this way and responded by actually increasing his barking.

Wilson continued, and I detected a note of guilt in his voice, "Next I went on YouTube where a guy demonstrated how you stop barking by standing next to the dog and using your hand to smack a dog under its muzzle — just hard enough so that the dog's jaws clap together for a moment. That shut him up for a few seconds, but when I stepped away, Chester was out of smacking range, and he began to bark again."

dahancoo / Pixabay
Source: dahancoo / Pixabay

Using punishment to control a dog's behavior is not the best choice, however despite that, if you consult Internet sources like YouTube most of the recommended techniques to control barking have a punitive aspect. Thus, you will find that water pistols and squirt bottles, lemon juice sprays, muzzles, adhesive tape, rolled magazines, rattle cans, and electric collars have all been suggested to stop the noise of barking. Sometimes these techniques work, often not. Even when they do work, they tend to be harsh and can damage the relationship between dog and human.

The dog is barking to sound the alert about something. He might be sensing danger and is attempting to warn others. He might be sensing an incursion into what he sees as home territory and feels that he is defending the homestead.

Whatever the reason, he feels that he is responding for the good of his loved ones. Imagine what goes through the dog's mind when his act of devotion is met by violence. It would be much like what a person might feel if they spotted smoke in a building and went to warn some friends that they should evacuate, only to be punched in the face and told to shut up.

Such aggressive actions in response to communications that were meant to be helpful are bound to damage future relationships between person and dog. Furthermore, these aggressive "corrections" only provide a relatively short-term solution to a problem that is easily solved if you understand dog communication patterns.

We already know that even though wild canines don't bark much as adults, they do bark as puppies. In the safety of the den area there is little harm in such noise. However, as the puppies grow older and begin to accompany the adults on hunts, such barking becomes counterproductive. A wolf puppy or adolescent who barked at an inappropriate time could easily alert potential prey that the pack was near, hence sending it into flight well before the hunters could attack. The barking could also attract the attention of other, larger, predators.

Wolf researchers such as Erik Zimen and others have observed that to stop this barking, a simple communication pattern evolved. It obviously does not involve any loud sound signal, since the major aim of the behavior is to stop the noise. This means that a wolf will not stop another's barking by barking back at it. The signal to stop should not involve direct aggression against the noisy individual. Nipping or biting the barker is apt to cause yelps of pain, growls, or dashing around to avoid or respond to the aggressor's physical violence. All of this noise and thrashing would be just as likely to alert other animals as the original barking itself. Therefore, the method that’s demanding "Quiet!" needs to be relatively quiet and not physically aggressive.

The procedure worked out by wild canines to stop barking is quite simple. The puppy's mother, or any pack member who is capable of exerting control, can give the signal for silence. To quiet barking, the mother places its mouth over the offender's muzzle, without actually biting or exerting force, and then gives a short, low, and breathy growl. The low growl will not be heard very far, and it is short in duration. Silence usually follows immediately. 

Humans can use some of this behavior as well. In a quiet, business-like, and unemotional tone, you simply say "Quiet." Say this with a hard stare. Depending upon the breed, it may take anywhere from two to several dozen repetitions to associate the calmly stated command, "Quiet" with an end to barking. The softly spoken "Quiet," mimics the short, low, and breathy growl.

Ilana Reisner, DVM, Ph.D., also suggests that “it can be very helpful to use a white noise machine, to cover the lower half of windows with temporary film, and to give the dog something to do with her brain, such as extracting frozen dog food from a Kong.”

It is important to remember that we specifically bred dogs to bark because it served as a useful warning signal. If your dog sounds the alarm at the approach of a stranger, or even at the sight of a cat outside of your window, don't correct him. If there is no cause for any action, just call him to your side and give him a quick pat or a rub. By barking, your dog is only doing the job of warning you, which humans designed him to do thousands of years ago.

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Erik Zimen (1981). The Wolf. New York: Delacorte Press.

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