Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Barking Dog Blues: Why Dogs Bark and What to Do About It

To control excessive barking you must understand what barking means to the dog.

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

One of the most common complaints that people have about their dog is that it barks too much, however one of the reasons why humans and dogs formed their working relationship is probably due to the fact that dogs bark. It started in the dim past when dogs began hanging around human settlements because primitive man was a slob, and would scatter garbage outside the camps. For dogs, that garbage was a free meal that didn't require hunting. The presence of the dogs was tolerated simply because they would dispose of the refuse, thus keeping the smell and vermin level down. Men soon learned that there was another benefit to having the dogs, namely that dogs would sound the alarm when dangerous animals or potentially hostile strangers approached the settlement. Since the dogs were always vigilant, human guards did not need to be posted throughout the night, thus allowing for more rest and a better lifestyle. It takes only a short journey to get from the dogs guarding the edge of the village, to a watch dog for an individual's home. Soon the dog's bark would serve the benign purpose of alerting the family to the approach of visitors (a sort of canine doorbell) or to warn of the approach of potential thief (a canine burglar alarm). It seems obvious that for personal and community security purposes, the most effective dog is one with a loud and a persistent bark A dog which barked loudly was kept and bred with others that also barked. One that did not bark was simply disposed of as being useless. In effect, one of the distinctions between wild canines and domestic dogs is that our domestic dogs bark, while wild dogs are seldom do.

Most problems with barking have to do with misunderstanding what barking is about. The most common form of barking is designed to sound the alarm or alert the pack. It really means something like "Rally around me and check this out! There may be a problem here!" It consists of bursts of two or three barks with a short interval between them. The dog simply wants the leader of the pack and the other pack members to observe what he has detected and make a decision as to the proper course of action. Unfortunately, when people are at home and such barking occurs their response is something like "No! Stop that!" which is a bad move.

Here we have a situation where the dog's master simply does not understand the basics of dog language. To a dog, loud short words like "No!", "Shut up!", "Don't bark!" and so forth, sound just like barks. Think of it this way, the dog barks to signal a potential problem. Now you (who are supposed to be leader of his pack) come over and also bark. This clearly indicates that you agree that this is the right time to sound the alarm and it will often lead to more frantic barking on the part of the dog.

The appropriate response is to recognize the message and answer it. To get up and obviously checking the window or door that the dog is barking at is the appropriate response. Remember sometimes the dog is correct and there is something that you need to respond to, however if it is a false alarm such as a car pulling up to the curb, or a delivery next door, simply reassure the dog with a calm phrase like “Good guarding, but we’re quite safe.” Give the dog a pat and bring him away from the door and have him lie down next to you. In most cases this is all that is needed, since the dog asked for the leader of the pack to check things out, he did, and there is no danger or need to defend the home.

Barking in public situations, often in response to seeing other dogs or people requires a different approach. Let me give you an example. While watching a beginner's dog obedience class a Border Collie, named Richard, began barking at the other dogs sitting in line across the room. Richard’s owner’s shouts of “No!” and “Quiet!” of course had no effect, for the reasons I already mentioned.

The instructor of the class (call him George) knew a little bit about dog communication, and decided to use a dominant threat to stop the clamor. His attempt to quiet the dog involved staring directly into its eyes in an accusing manner. Richard's ears folded back in a submissive manner and he lowered his body to show that he recognized the threat. His barking stopped, but only until George looked away. Once eye contact was broken Richard started barking again.

George’s next attempt was to take the dog and place him in sit next to his left leg. The moment that Richard barked, George's right hand shot up under Richard's muzzle applying a sharp smack which clapped the dog's jaws together for a moment and then, just as quickly, the hand returned to George's side. The scene repeated a couple of times -- bark, smack, silence -- bark, smack, silence. When George returned to the front of the class and was out of smacking range, however, Richard began to bark again.

In order to stop dogs from public barking many different techniques have been tried. I have seen water pistols and squirt bottles, lemon juice sprays, muzzles, adhesive tape, rolled magazines, rattle cans and electric collars all used to stop the noise of barking. Sometimes these work -- often not. Even when they do work they tend to be harsh, and can damage the relationship between dog and master and often only provide a relatively short term solution to a problem that is easily solved if you understand dog communication patterns.

Although wild canines do not bark much, 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 since the sound could easily alert potential prey that the pack is near. Barking could also attract the attention of other, larger, predators, who might have developed a taste for wolf meat. To stop this, a simple communication pattern has evolved. It obviously does not involve any sound signal, since the major aim of the behavior is to stop noise. The signal to stop should also not involve direct aggression against the noisy individual since 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 which is just as likely to alert other animals as the original barking itself.

The procedure worked out by wild canines to stop barking is really quite simple. The pack leader or the puppy's mother places its mouth over the offender's muzzle, without actually biting, and then gives a short, low and breathy growl. The low growl will not be heard very far, and it is short in duration. The mouth over the muzzle is not actually inflicting pain, so there is no yelping or attempts to escape. Silence usually follows immediately.

Humans can mimic this behavior to stop barking. With your dog sitting at your left side, slip the fingers of your left hand under the collar at the back of your dog's neck. Pull up on the collar with your left hand, while your right hand folds over the top of the dog's muzzle and presses down. In a quiet, business-like and unemotional tone, you simply say "Quiet." You repeat this silencing maneuver whenever it is necessary. Depending upon the breed, it may take anywhere from two to a couple of dozen repetitions to associate the calmly stated command, "Quiet" with an end to barking.

What you have done in this instance, is to effectively copy the way in which the pack leader will silence a noisy puppy or other pack member. Your left hand on the collar simply immobilizes the head. Your right hand serves the same function and communicates the same message as the leader's mouth over the noisy animal's muzzle. The softly spoken "Quiet," mimics the short, low and breathy growl.

Returning to the obedience class and the barking Border Collie, I signaled to George that I would silence the dog's din. Richard was in full frantic barking mode when I arrived beside him. I used the hushing signal that I described above, and a low voice saying "Quiet!" Richard only required three repetitions of this action to end his barking for the evening. I later learned from his handler that within a week, a low, matter of fact "Quiet!" became all that was needed to stop his barking.

Be sure, however, that you only use this procedure to stop a dog from barking when barking is unnecessary, as in an obedience class or a public place. Remember that we specifically bred dogs to bark, so if your dog sounds the alarm at the approach of 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 pet or a rub. By barking your dog is only doing the job which we designed him to do thousands of years ago.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark; Do Dogs Dream? 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

More from Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC
More from Psychology Today
More from Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC
More from Psychology Today