How to stop your dog from barking
A reader recently contacted me with a question about their cross-bred collie: how can they stop him from barking so much? Jack is a calm, quiet dog in the house, but whenever he goes into the back garden, he barks loudly. He'll do this at any time of day - morning, noon or night. Jack's owner finds this annoying, and the neighbours are also irritated. How can they shut him up?
The key to getting animals to be quiet is to work out what's causing them to be noisy in the first place.
Why do dogs bark? The simple reason is that they want to draw attention to something that's happening. Often, the aim is to alert the rest of the pack: dogs act as sensitive intruder alarm.
This is one of the main features of dogs that makes them appealing to humans as companions. When I was working in the slums of Delhi recently, dogs were not kept as pets in the same way as we keep them: they lived on the street. But even there, the local people appreciate the security of hav ing a dog in the vicinity: if any strangers pass through the slum at unusual times of day or night, the local dogs bark. People are then immediately alerted to the fact that there is a potential robber in the area.
Here in Ireland, we value dogs for the same reasons: if your dog barks, you know that something's going on. The problem is that dogs bark at other times too. So can dogs be trained to bark when we want them to bark, and to be quiet at other times?
Ideally, this is the answer, but it isn't so simple: it can be subtle enough to tell the difference between 'good' times to bark and 'bad' times to bark.
So what can be done? I have three tips for dealing with barking dogs.
First, give your dog something to do other than barking. Many dogs bark because they are overflowing with excitable energy: barking gives them some sort of release. If a dog is well-exercised, he's far more likely to want to relax in his basket and have a quiet snooze. You can also encourage him to be quiet by giving him activities to occupy his time, such as food-stuffed toys to chew on (give him part of his daily meal in this form).
You can also buy food-releasing puzzle toys, so that the dog has to learn to push a lever one way, then push it another way, in order to get to the prize of food. These types of mental agility toys can help to keep a dog thinking, distracting them from random barking.
Second, manage your dog properly so that you avoid situations where he's likely to bark.
If he always rushes down to the bottom of the garden to bark at a cat, don't let him outside at times where there's likely to be a cat there, and certainly don't let him out at times of day or night when the noise will irritate a neighbour.
If your dog always barks loudly when visitors arrive, put him into a separate room, with something to do (such as that food stuffed toy) when visitors are expected. I knew one dog that barked ferociously whenever he saw people walking past the garden: the problem was easily solved by putting up plastic screening on the garden chainlink fence so that the dog could no longer see out. When he could no longer see people, he no longer wanted to bark.
If your dog just stands in the back garden barking for no particular reason that you can see, find a different place for him to spend his time, and give him something else to do. Careful analysis of your dog's barking behaviour is the key: don't just get cross with him for doing something that's a natural behaviour.
My third tip is the trickiest: you can train your dog to bark on command, and to be quiet on command. This takes time - perhaps fifteen minutes twice daily for a month - and most people are not sufficiently dedicated to achieve this.
Teach your dog to bark by setting up a situation where you know your dog will bark, and after a couple of barks, say 'speak' and give a reward.Then teach your dog to be quiet, by consistently saying the 'quiet' command immediately after your dog has gone quiet after barking, and give a treat.
Clicker training can make it easier to teach these commands, and for most pet owners, the help of an on-the-spot professional dog trainer is invaluable.
As a training aid, you can buy anti-bark collars that contain a sound-sensitive chamber: when the dog barks, a jet of lemon-scented spray is squirted towards the dog's muzzle. This interrupts the barking and will quieten a dog in the short term, but it's only successful if combined with other behavioural interventions: there is no quick easy fix to excessive barking.
I'm also often asked what to do if a neighbour's dog barks too much: the answer is that you need to persuade them to take the above type of measures, and if they refuse to do it, you may need to make an official noise complaint via your local authority.
Whatever you do, don't get cross with the dog. It isn't Jack's fault that he barks 'too much'. He's just being a dog, and you can't blame him for that.