Barking is a normal, natural response for dogs but it can be a noisy problem for your neighbours. Kristie Bradfield discovers how to get a little peace and quiet.
Barking is just like talking: it’s how dogs communicate with their owners, neighbours and other dogs. While some barking is normal, it becomes a problem when it doesn’t stop. It can be frustrating for everyone, including your dog. The good news is that there are things you can do to break the habit.
Queensland dog trainer Tenille Williams says dogs can bark excessively for a number of different reasons. “The most common reason I see is boredom, followed by lack of socialisation and separation anxiety,” she says. “When a dog is bored and decides to bark at everything and anything, it’s highly rewarding to them, and so the cycle continues into a habit quite easily.”
Boredom is perhaps the most common reason why suburban dogs bark excessively. Left home alone for long stretches of time, these dogs have very little to occupy them. When faced with boredom day after day, it makes perfect sense for them to try communicating with the world.
Boredom busting isn’t an expensive exercise and Tenille says there are plenty of toys and puzzles to keep dogs entertained for hours. But a lot of owners make some rookie mistakes. “Sometimes people try these toys and put some kibble inside. This falls straight out and it’s all over in a minute,” she says. While loading up the KONG isn’t exactly rocket science, there is a knack to it. “The first key is to use food that sticks inside. You can still use your dog’s kibble, but ‘glue’ it together with some pet mince or similar.” For the hotter months, Tenille suggests freezing the toy with food and a little chicken or beef stock inside to provide a doggy ice block that lasts even longer and keeps your dog cool.
Food puzzles are a fantastic way to alleviate boredom, but they won’t work if you just fed your dog. “Feeding beforehand is the most common reason that dogs quickly lose interest in these food puzzles,” Tenille explains. To maximise the toy’s effectiveness, the dog trainer suggests splitting the meal into several mini challenges across a selection of different toys and puzzles. To eat, your dog must solve the puzzle. The harder the puzzle, the less he will bark excessively.
It’s important to remember that these food puzzles only work when the toy and tasty treat inside are highly valued. If you regularly feed your dog the same food you put inside the puzzles, she’ll be less inclined to work for it. The same goes for the toys you use. Tenille says it’s important not to leave the toys around the house or the yard. “Keep their value high by only offering the toy when you leave. Also, have a few different options that you can rotate from day to day.”
Some dogs have difficulty processing particular stimuli such as other dogs, cats, bike riders or the postie. When confronted with these things, the dog doesn’t know how to react, so his response is generally an overreaction borne out of excitement, frustration or fear. Reactive barking is very common and can be a result of poor breeding or a lack of socialisation. “Socialisation is a hot topic that is widely misunderstood,” Tenille says. “Puppies have a critical window of time in which socialisation is very important. Both a lack of socialisation and incorrect socialisation can cause reactivity problems.”
Socialisation isn’t just about puppy play dates. The lessons learned and the experiences encountered will shape your dog’s whole life. “Socialisation is about learning how to deal with the human world confidently and calmly,” Tenille explains. She suggests exposing your dog to many different environments, sounds, noises, people and animals. It is very important that these experiences are positive and that your dog is calm and in control. “Getting this right in puppyhood before 16 weeks of age can definitely make a major difference to the way your dog reacts to things as a dog, including how much they bark,” Tenille says.
Tenille suggests that owners of older dogs with reactive barking issues should consult an expert trainer. “Don’t give up on your dog! There are lots of reasons dogs bark and a trainer will be able to help you get to the cause of the issue.”
Getting along with the neighbours
Stand in your backyard any afternoon during the working week and there is a very good chance you’ll hear the bark of an anxious dog. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety get very distressed when their owner is away from home for any length of time. Some may react by being destructive, others may look for ways to escape and others will bark incessantly. It’s this reaction that can cause big problems, especially with the people living around the dog. Animal behaviour consultant Alisa Sannikova says that there are a few things you can do to keep the peace.
“The simplest solution is to get your dog out of the area altogether,” Alissa says. She suggests enrolling your dog in doggy day care or hiring a dog walker to get them out of the yard. For these solutions to work, it’s important to know what triggers the barking. “Set up a webcam or a sound recorder to determine the time of day your dog is most likely to bark. You can then schedule an interruption when it would be most useful.”
Alissa says the second solution is to remove the triggers. “For dogs barking in backyards, keeping them in the house during the day will often reduce most of the noise,” she says. “Visual triggers such as birds can be removed by closing blinds or covering windows in fogging film, while sounds can be covered up by a loud radio or white noise generator.”
If your neighbour has approached you about the barking, Alissa suggests being proactive. “Be approachable and let your neighbours know that you are aware of the problem and what steps you are taking to resolve it. Most people will be happy to let you know directly if the barking gets worse. In this case, you find out if your strategies are helping within a day or two, rather than weeks later from an official letter.”
If you have exhausted all the simpler options with no luck, the next step is to get some professional help. “With positive-reinforcement methods, it’s possible to pinpoint the source of the problem and reduce the dog’s need to bark in the first place.” And this would be music to your neighbours’ ears.
Is exercise the key?
Are you exercising your dog enough? The RSPCA suggests taking your dog for a long walk in the morning before work. Just like with humans, exercise is a great way to reduce anxiety levels in our furry friends. When anxiety is reduced, problem barking is also reduced.
Got advice to share?
Have you helped your dog conquer problem barking? Share your story on our Facebook page.Make sure your furry friend is always looked after at our DOGSLife Directory