My short, tongue-in-cheek answer to the question, “Why does my dog bark so much?” is that they’re a dog and that’s one of the ways they communicate. But that answer doesn’t usually help and doesn’t make for an interesting blog post. So let’s dive in a little further, shall we? Starting with a few fundamental pieces of information about barking that will help you figure out where to go from here.
Barking is a form of canine communication
I already mentioned that barking is a form of communication. It’s a natural, normal, species-typical behavior for dogs. And while I know it can be frustrating, it’s not “bad” behavior, per se. I appreciate that my dog barks to tell me he wants to come inside or barks when someone approaches the front door. I was less enthused when he would bark and lunge at people, dogs, and loud/large vehicles that passed by us when I first adopted him.
All of this is to say that barking in and of itself is not necessarily the problem. It’s simply a form of communication and sometimes can even be a symptom of the real problem. When clients come to me asking how they can get their dog to stop barking, I ask them to describe the situations in which they don’t like their dog barking, or want their dog to bark less. Then I ask them in what situations they do want their dog to bark. Most of the time they have at least one situation where they do want their dog to bark or at least where they don’t mind it.
I bring this up first so you can keep that in mind as you read on about why dogs bark and what we can do about it. Sometimes the answer is- nothing! Let them be their doggy selves! And that’s okay. If both you and your dog (and neighbors within earshot) are happy and healthy then you don’t have to do anything.
When a behavior is continuing to happen, that means that it’s working for the individual performing it. Why bring this up? Because very frequently I hear, “My dog is barking for no reason.” The laws of behavior say that that can’t be true. Behavior happens for a reason.
Sometimes the reason becomes clear when we look at the consequences of that barking. Fido barks and the scary person moves further away. Fluffy barks and their favorite person moves closer. Rover barks and their person joins in the ruckus with them!
Other times it can be more difficult to figure out what your dog is getting out of barking. That could be because we’re not experiencing the consequences as our dog does (i.e. they have a different sensory experience than humans do), we’re not yet proficient in observing behavior objectively, or the consequence is something that they are experiencing internally (e.g. barking is fun!) Working with a professional who is proficient in observing behavior objectively can help with some of this, however, there will be times when we just can’t know what’s going on without being able to speak a human language with our dog.
5 reasons why your dog is barking
Now that we know some fundamentals about barking- it’s a species-typical behavior used for communication and your dog is getting something out of it- we can look at some common reasons why dogs bark.
Oftentimes dogs bark because we respond to it. Remember- it’s a behavior that works! And even negative attention can still be attention. Only the learner gets to decide what is reinforcing to them and for some dogs that can include being yelled at or asked to be quiet.
Joyful exclamations are not just for humans! Sometimes our dogs are so excited that they can’t contain themselves.
3. Fear, anxiety, aggression, or a startle response
While these are all different, I lumped them together because they share the same common core issue: discomfort. Many dogs learn that the best way to get something scary or unsettling to go away is to tell it to do so.
4. Medical conditions
There are some medical and cognitive conditions that can increase vocalization and some dogs bark when they get injured. Physical discomfort, not just emotional discomfort, can lead to barking!
5. It’s fun, a habit, or some other reason we’ll never know for sure
I put this as a catch-all category for when dogs bark and we don’t get to know the reason until we can teach them to speak a human language. Behavior is complex and sometimes we just have to accept that while we might not know the reason, we can still modify the behavior.
How can I tell why my dog is barking?
While barking is a form of communication, it’s not the only one. Dogs primarily communicate through their body language and that body language will give you some insight into why your dog is behaving in a particular way. Here are some questions to think about when it comes to figuring out why your dog is barking:
- What does their body language look like? Are they loose and wiggly or stiff and tense? Are there other stress signals?
- What are they barking at?
- What does their bark sound like? Low or high pitched? Fast or slow tempo?
- What usually happens after they bark in this particular way? Do you pay attention to them? Does something move closer or farther away?
Remember to look for all of the communication signals- not just the vocalizations- in addition to what they’re getting out of the behavior!
How can I teach my dog to bark less?
Get ready for the standard dog trainer answer that annoys pet parents: it depends. As we discussed, there are a lot of different reasons why a dog barks in the first place. The answer to how you can teach your dog to bark less is going to depend on why they’re doing it in the first place. For example, if you have a senior dog undergoing cognitive decline which is causing them to vocalize more, a dog trainer isn’t the answer. Your vet is. On the flip side, if your dog is barking aggressively at people who enter your home, your vet isn’t the answer. A behavior consultant who specializes in behavior issues is.
Let’s look at the broad strokes of where to start with each of the above reasons:
- Attention-seeking: make sure you’re meeting your dog’s needs before they feel it necessary to tell you about them. Asking for attention isn’t a bad thing. I very much appreciate when my dog let’s me know he is having tummy trouble and needs to go out in the middle of the night! I don’t want to eliminate attention-seeking behavior entirely. I want it to happen in a way I find appropriate (aka I don’t find it annoying), and it’s much easier to do that when we have a successful enrichment strategy first. More information about that in this blog about meeting my Winter Oso’s needs.
- Excitement: provide appropriate energy outlets while teaching calming skills. Anyone who has spent some time with elementary school-aged children knows that being calm is a skill and one that takes quite a while to learn. Once again, it’s far easier to teach that skill when we’ve addressed our dog’s needs for an appropriate energy outlet when they’re excited.
- Fear, anxiety, aggression, or a startle response: the first step here is management. By that I mean arrange the environment so as to prevent your dog from being exposed to the thing they’re barking at. Both you and your dog will get some relief! The second step here is to work with a professional who is skilled in working with pups with these particular issues. Anxiety and skill-building are different things, as any human with anxiety would tell you. Successfully and safely working through these issues to help your dog feel more comfortable and confident isn’t necessarily intuitive and can have a large margin for error if you’re not sure what to do.
- Medical conditions: with any behavior, especially those that crop up suddenly, we recommend speaking with your veterinarian first. You may not know how medical concerns could impact a particular behavior, but your vet should! Check out this blog post about medical issues impacting behavior if you’re interested in learning more about this topic.
- It’s fun, a habit, or some other reason we’ll never know for sure: this is another one where I recommend working with a behavior professional, if only because the answer is going to be so dependent on the situation that it’s difficult to provide a solution in a blog post.
- Determine if the barking your dog is doing in a particular situation is actually a problem. Is it bothering you or your neighbors? Is your dog distressed or upset? If it’s not a problem for you or your dog, hooray! If it is, continue to the next step.
- Observe your dog to figure out why they’re barking. We need to know why they’re doing it in order to figure out what the next step should be. Watching your dog’s body language in addition to what’s happening in the environment will give you some insight. Make sure that you’re staying objective in your observations, by breaking through stories you’re telling yourself about your pet.
- Once you know what the reason is, use the above first steps to get started! And, remember, behavior professionals exist to help you through this process. You don’t have to go it alone!