Barking is normal canine behaviour, but it can become inappropriate (if it happens too often and is persistent) or may be a symptom of a behavioural problem. In this case, barking is accompanied by other symptoms, which together indicate a behavioural or psychiatric disorder.
Normal barking is to be expected under certain circumstances, because it is part of a dog’s normal behavioural pattern (ethogram). It is essential for the dog’s well-being. There are of course individual and breed-related variations. In fact, some dog breeds don’t bark at all (Basenji), others bark very little (Nordic dogs, greyhounds) and some bark a lot (hunting dogs in general). It’s not unusual to find significant individual variations within all these breeds.
Like other forms of vocalisation, barking is a way of communicating. It means something, whether it’s used to greet their owner or ask him or her to play. It could also be a defence mechanism, a threat, a sign of distress, a warning or a need for attention. It may also be a sign of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) or hyperactivity.
While your dog is still a puppy, the best way to deal with barking is by prevention, before this behaviour becomes ingrained. Puppies love to explore and learn about the world and will bark at various times: when they want to play, get into a room, go outside, jump onto a chair, alert you to passers-by, etc. Any kind of behaviour their owner reinforces will eventually become permanent. Dogs are very susceptible to the laws of conditioning: if their owner responds to barking, either positively “Oh, what’s the matter Toby, why are you barking?” or negatively “Stop it, Toby!”, the problem will escalate.
With this in mind, it is up to us, as owners, to select the types of barking we want to keep and those we want to eradicate.
How do we avoid reinforcing this behaviour? By ignoring it COMPLETELY. Any learned behaviour will disappear if it is not reinforced – that’s the law of extinction. In other words, when a puppy barks, the owner should remain passive and totally ignore both the dog and the fact that it is barking. As soon as the puppy calms down, the owner can “come back to life” and let it out into the garden, for example. It’s worth mentioning that barking will obviously get worse before it goes away altogether. It’s like getting stuck in a lift and nothing happens when you press the emergency button. Your natural response is to keep pressing it again and again before resigning yourself to having to wait for help. (thanks to Sylvia Masson for the metaphor)
On the other hand, we should be aware that dogs can also reinforce their own behaviour at times. This can happen very quickly, for example when the postman ‘encroaches’ on the dog’s territory or another dog goes past the house with its owner. Dogs work by association of ideas: they don’t know that the postman is just passing by and will go away soon anyway, so they associate their barking with the postman’s departure. A dog will therefore conclude that “to make the postman go away, I just have to bark”. This strategy is self-reinforcing over time and the barking becomes more and more frequent and annoying “I’m going to bark at anyone passing by, whether it’s the postman or someone else”.
There are solutions for adult dogs that have already developed a barking habit and bark too often (several times an hour), but they depend on the context and a combination of physical and behavioural factors. Animal behaviourists will analyse these aspects with owners and suggest the most appropriate solutions in each specific case: normal but still annoying barking, nuisance barking, self-reinforced barking, stereotypical barking or barking that is symptomatic of physical or psychiatric illness.
Behavioural or mental health issues are managed by taking into account the full range of symptoms, using various types of treatment prescribed by the vet and performed by the owner. If necessary, the dog can also be given suitable medication to help improve its response to behavioural therapy.
In cases of nuisance barking, your vet is best qualified to understand your dog’s behaviour and should be your first port of call. He or she will be happy to answer all your questions and to work with you to find the most appropriate and effective solutions for your pet.
Dr Joelle Hofmans