Dogs bark and no owner should expect to have a completely silent dog!
Dogs don’t rely on vocal communication quite as heavily as humans do, but it still forms a major part of how they express themselves and their emotions to other dogs, and to their human family. Within weeks of acquiring a dog, owners will be able to identify their own dogs bark in the park out of dozens of other woofs, much as a parent can identify their own child’s cries in a playground of children.
The dog’s vocal repertoire is extensive and includes not only barks and other ‘woof’-type sounds, but also whines, yips, yelps, whimpers, grumbles, sighs, screams, howls and growls. And, of course, some celebrated dogs can even ‘say’ ‘sausages!’
A dogs’ vocalisation is usually helpful, communicating to the family if any visitors or strangers have arrived at the door, or if the dog hears unusual sounds outside the house, but frequent barking and howling for any reason that might be sensible for the dog can cause problems with neighbours. Most dogs give a perfectly acceptable warning bark if someone knocks at the door or passes close to the house and are then quiet when their owners respond. But some dogs continue to bark even if asked to be quiet, and continue to do so long after long after ‘the problem’ has disappeared. Some dogs are naturally noisier than others, most are noisier than would perhaps be natural because their barking is inadvertently reinforced by the their owners, and if you have more than one dog, they can often readily set each other off and happily bark to one another for hours!
If you have a noisy dog who won’t be quiet when asked or who barks and howls at night or when left at home alone, seek help with training him to address his underlying behaviour problem rather than shouting at him. He will just think you are barking along with him, or will feel threatened by you, which won’t help with making him into a quieter dog. Don’t be tempted by the thought of using a ‘quick fix’anti-bark collar either. Electric collars, or those that emit an unpleasant spray, are simply cruel - suppressing the dog’s natural behaviour and his need to communicate, whether it is convenient for you or not. The ‘unpleasant smell spray’ versions, if they work at all to stop a dog barking, continue to ‘punish the dog after he is quiet because the smell lingers in his very sensitive nose, and if you have two dogs, the barking dog can cause the quiet dog wearing the collar to get ‘blasted’. Dogs ‘treated’ with this type of equipment may become quiet but the underlying emotional reason for their barking remains and their frustration or insecurity will simply find another outlet, perhaps chewing the furniture, or worse licking their paws repeatedly or actually chewing at themselves.
Instead, try to find out why he is barking and address the cause. Is it to warn you about something? Is he barking out of frustration or boredom, or in order to get your attention? Is he barking because he’s been left for too long and is trying to call you back? Or he is in acute distress when he is left at home alone?
If, having assessed him, it is clear that he is barking for whatever reason when you are with him, he seems to get too excited and he just can’t stop, then it is very useful and actually usually quite easy to train him to be quiet on command. This involves teaching a ‘Shush’, which, perhaps bizarrely, is actually best done by first teaching him to bark on command.
- First, enlist the help of a training partner, who will stand by the front door.
- With you and the dog inside the house, in the sitting room, ask him to ‘Speak’, at which cue your friend should ring the doorbell or knock on the door. You might also be able to induce a bark by showing him, but withholding a favourite treat in your hand.
- Either of these approaches should prompt him to bark - and when he does, click (if using clicker training), give him a treat and praise him.
- With practice, he will learn that he should bark when you say ‘Speak’ regardless of whether someone knocks on the door. Practise little and often, in various locations, in order to generalise his learning.
Now that he’ll speak when you ask, it’s time to teach the ‘Shush’!
- Ask him to ‘Speak’ and reward him verbally when he does.
- Then tell him to ‘Shush’ and distract him with a high-value treat, such as a new squeaky toy or his favourite treat. When he stops barking (he can’t bark and investigate at the same time), praise him and give him the treat.
- Repeat the sequence, little and often, and you’ll soon be able to control his excessive barking. Of course you’ll never stop the first bark, but you should be able to teach him not to go on and on!
If he barks or vocalises for reasons that you cannot understand, or his vocal habits have suddenly changed, it would be worthwhile getting him checked over by your vet. If there are no underlying medical reasons for the change (pain, cognitive dysfunction syndrome, etc), then there could be a behavioural cause, and the vet will refer you to a professional pet behaviourist.
Barking in the car
Dogs may bark in cars to protect their temporary territory, especially particularly if the car is stopped and people walk past, or if they are left on their own inside when the car is parked. They may also bark as a result of feeling frustrated at not being able to chase the fast-moving traffic, or because they are on the way to the park, a likelihood that is increased if they only go in the car to go for a walk.
If despite training the ‘shush’ at home, your dog persists with barking in the car because of frustration or because he is protecting his territory, you may need to acclimatise him to ‘using the car’ for play, chewing chews in when it is parked at home so that the car isn’t just associated with the exciting events of going for a drive or for a walk. Start these games with the engine off and then progress to having it running. Then go for a very a short drive, but stop as soon as he barks (go somewhere quiet where it is safe to do so), only continuing as long as he remains quiet. This may require time and patience, but he will realise in the end. Resist the urge to talk to him and avoid eye contact throughout this process. To stop him being excited by the sight of people and traffic moving past him outside, you can also try covering his crate if he is used to travelling in one in the car (provided there is sufficient ventilation and the dog won’t overheat). Alternatively, provided he fits in the space properly, accustom him to travelling lying down in the rear seat footwell of the car, restrained to the seat frame him so that he is below window level and can’t see out.
The use of a pheromone infused collar or bandana, or spray in the car itself can also help calm him and reduce the likelihood or intensity of his barking and excitement. These products are available from your vet or at good pet stores. Work on the Speak and Shush commands in the car - with the help of a friend, if you are driving, but if it all proves too difficult, ask your vet to be referred to a behaviourist for help.
Safety first! It is very important that a dog is kept secure when travelling in the car, either in a special dog crate in the back, or attached to the seatbelts in the rear with a car harness, as any excitable behaviour can be very distracting for the driver and therefore dangerous.
The information contained in this article is not a substitute for individual veterinary or behavioural advice and is for information purposes only. You should always consult a veterinary surgeon if you have any concerns about your pet’s health. He or she will be able to take a complete medical history and physically examine your pet, to then recommend appropriate individual advice or treatment options. For detailed behavioural advice tailored specifically for your pet, we recommend that you contact a qualified pet behaviourist. For further details of local canine and feline behaviourists practising in your area and how they offer help for with problem pets, please contact The Coape Association of Pet Behaviourists and Trainers at www.capbt.org or the Association of Pet Dog Trainers at www.apdt.co.uk. Do bear in mind that while dog trainers can take you on as a client directly, pet behaviourists will always require a referral from your veterinary surgeon.