“I think I need to get a bark collar…”
These are words often uttered by new clients. They have been researching ways to deal with barking dogs and all too often this is the blanket solve all advice received from pet shops, dog friends, Dr Google or their own Veterinarian. Whether it be collars puffing citronella into a dog’s face when they (or another dog, trust me I’ve seen it!) bark, or those delivering an electric shock, owners look at them as an effective way to change the problem barking.
But do they really work? Will they fix the issue? Well first we should consider why dogs bark in the first place.
Why is my dog barking?
Adult wolves, the ancestors of our furry friends, hardly ever bark. It is a communication that is nearly always the sole haunt of their pups. During domestication studies have concluded we have selected for wolves with ‘baby’ like characteristics. Meaning we have selected for dogs that bark! On top of this, we have developed dogs with different barks as well as some that seem to bark with little or no stimulus!
Barking is a form of vocal communication, of which dogs have many forms – including whining, howling, whimpering and growling. It is used in a number of different situations, including:
- Being excited or playing
- When stressed or anxious
- During hunting or herding
- Sometimes it can mean there is a medical problem (such as cognitive dysfunction or doggy dementia, pain or a neurological problem)
- Attention seeking
- Because it has been reinforced in the past (e.g. when scared by someone approaching who has subsequently left).
- Territorial protection
So why is barking such a big problem?
Increasing urbanization has brought people into ever closer confines. With close living comes new problems, including the need for neighbourly consideration. Many people (especially neighbours it seems….) unreasonably expect dogs never to bark!
However for some dogs barking changes from something that happens every now and again to something that becomes more of a problem behaviour and can lead to distress for the dog, neighbours, family members and in severe cases council complaints.
So what can be done?
In short, usually a lot! But exactly what depends on the situation! As we have seen barking happens for a number of reasons. Therefore ‘problem barking’ is never a diagnosis only ever a symptom and so there is no one thing that can help each case – the approach needs to be individual. A bark collar (even a citronella one) placed on an already anxious or stressed dog could make matters worse not better, so please think twice before automatically reaching for it!
Is your dog receiving enough playtime or walking? Is it bored? Would a change in location help? – for example if the dog is barking in the back garden when you are out – could you leave it somewhere else? Could your dog be in pain? Is it suffering from separation related distress? Once you figure out why the barking is occurring you will be much more successful at stopping it! For some dogs the answer may be as easy as teaching a simple ‘quiet’ command, however for others, a more complex look at it’s mental health may be in order.
If your dog is barking excessively, then please contact Dr Julie, your local veterinarian or trusted dog trainer for advice on the next steps to solving the issue.
Dr Julie Ashton is a qualified veterinarian. She runs Life on Four Legs, a Veterinary Behaviour Consultation service, based in Sydney, Australia.