Barking up the wrong tree

Posted on: 7th July, 2014

Category: Health & Lifestyle

Contributor: West Cork People

Claire Pirkle is a qualified Guide Dog Mobility Instructor and a Certified Training Partner with the Karen Pryor Academy. She is also a Family Paws Parent Educator.  She has an MA in Philosophy and lives in Ballinspittle with her two-legged and four-legged family members. Claire advises on understanding what your dog is trying to say when it’s barking excessively.

Dogs bark.  It’s what they do.  Some dogs bark a lot, some dogs seem to bark just because they can, and some dogs bark only when they absolutely need to. But most dogs bark at some point in their lives. Emitting sounds is one of the ways dogs communicate. A low-frequency grumbly pitch, for example, means go away, while a high-frequency bark means someone please come closer!  To humans, on the other hand, it can be downright rude. It’s irritating and can get under the skin of even the calmest dispositions. We are mortified when our dogs bark at other dogs on the lead or when our neighbours report that our dogs have spent the last two hours barking seemingly without taking a single breath. While we love our dogs, their unnecessary barking can drive us over the edge, or literally, in some sad cases, right to the animal shelter.

As a dog trainer, I get a lot of calls seeking advice about how to stop excessive barking. In most cases, it’s actually the wrong question to ask. A better question is ‘how can I better understand what my dog is trying to say?’ Barking is information and getting to its source is the most reliable way to quiet our dogs.  If, for example, the cause of barking is anxiety over seeing other dogs, using a ‘quick-fix’ method can often lead to future problems. Just like in humans, repressed anxiety usually pops up somewhere—and with our dogs, it’s often in an undesirable way, such as overexcitement over the neighbour’s kids or a growl at our mother-in–law’s toy poodle.

To get to the causes of our dog’s unacceptable barking, I advise dog owners to play ethologist for a week and keep a record of every time their dog barks.  Note the date, what time the barking starts, what time the barking stops, describe the tone of the barking (low-pitched, high-pitched, whining, howling, grumbling, growling), and what the dog is doing, and so forth. Even if owners think they know the cause, keeping a record can often reveal subtle nuances such as the passing of a big truck whenever their dog barks at children. After a week of good record keeping, there should be enough information to move on to the next stage: solving the problem.

The next stage really depends on what your records reveal. Dogs bark for many reasons, including showing excitement, gaining attention, expressing fear, guarding something of value, and showing frustration, among others. Different reasons will require different solutions, and will vary depending on whether you choose to manage the situation or train your dog to do something other than bark. For example, if your dog goes crazy with excitement every time a visitor comes, you may decide the easiest course of action is to manage the behaviour by putting your dog behind closed doors before your visitor even makes it to the front door. Or you may want to train your dog to ‘find his toy’ when there is a knock at the door. This approach channels your dog’s excitement while also providing something else to occupy an otherwise vocal mouth. Both are good options.

Barking out of fear is a different matter altogether. It is one of the most common causes of barking and can evoke any combination of fear, panic, frustration and anger in both owner and bystanders. Natural human instincts cause most of us to freeze, sweat, and give out to our dogs pretty much in the same moment. As counterintuitive as it may sound, this is probably the worst possible road to go down. Even if reprimanding works on an immediate and localized level (read: dog shuts up!), it is often at the expense of long-term results. If reprimanding doesn’t work, it often causes the barking to get worse.  And no matter what, it always risks harming the human-animal bond many of us cherish with our dogs.


So what do we do instead?

The very first thing we need to do in all circumstances of barking is to change the way ‘we’ naturally react. We need to re-condition ourselves to remain calm when dogs bark. These feelings also need to be reflected in our body movement. As expert readers of body language, dogs are influenced by our physical presence. Your physical body should stand tall with good posture, and your body movements should be fluid, intentional and trusting.  The message we want to send to our four legged friends is ‘Hey, we got this.  There’s nothing you need to worry about.’ The good news is our mind often follows our body’s lead. So going through the physical motions will usually help us bring about a different emotional response. From now on take a deep breath and think ‘body confident’ every time a dog barks.

Next, but certainly not less important, is to have a plan. This can be a management plan or a training plan. Training plans will vary in length and duration according to cause but generally require at least three weeks of consistent implementation—if not more. Although it requires more from you, training comes with the added benefits of mental stimulation for your dog (and you!) and quality time spent with your dog. If training seems too overwhelming, managing the situation is always a good option. Management plans need to be practical and realistic. If your front door opens into open plan living, it is probably impractical to put your dog behind closed doors before visitors arrive.

While each cause of barking requires a different approach and should be evaluated individually, barking should never be punished. Punishing a dog for barking is like punishing a baby who is crying. Without common language, we cannot be absolutely certain what emotions are going on inside our dogs. Most human-dog relationships cannot afford that risk.

There is no doubt that barking can drive a person to tears. But if you own a barker, don’t despair. With a bit more understanding, a practical action plan, and whole lot of patience, it’s possible to enjoy a quiet life with even the loudest of our canine friends.


Claire holds regular workshops including; Dog Talks (Community Workshops), The Family Dog (Workshops for Parents) and Coaching for Dog Training Instructors

Visit for more info or call/text Claire on (086) 869 3017 to make an enquiry.


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