From Yelping to Howling: What Your Dog’s Barking Means – and How to Get Him to Quiet It | Dogs
Jhe interview begins in awkward silence, as we watch each other from our comfortable armchairs. It’s not exactly Frost/Nixon, because it’s a dog. Standing on furniture should be a treat for him, but we lost that battle a long time ago.
I repeat my question: “Why are you barking so much?”
Oz, our Hairy Maclary-like lurcher, tilts his head a little, but remains silent. Maybe if I pretended to be a delivery driver and knocked on the door, he would talk. Or if I screamed and barked like a fox in the night. Or drive a motorbike in front of the house. Then he would be in fits of hoarse barking loud enough to shake the whole neighborhood.
When does he bark too much? And what can I do to help him calm down a bit? It’s a question many of us are asking, with dog ownership soaring since the pandemic began. “Some people can be very intolerant of their dog’s barking, especially if they get complaints from neighbours,” says Ryan Neile, behavior manager at animal welfare charity Blue Cross.
I decided to sit down with Oz to try and figure out exactly what his barking is telling me – listen to his barking and figure out what I’m missing. So, first off, what exactly is a barking dog trying to accomplish?
Before writing a book on canine cognition, I grouped the barks into a box called “attention-getting device” and left it at that. I had taken a dog’s bark as a “HEY!” short and high-pitched, evolved to draw attention to situations in which there is uncertainty – a sudden noise to alert their owner to danger. But now I see that idea is a bit demeaning, because there are so many different styles of barking. Oz has a delivery driver bark, for example. In the words of canine scientists, the delivery driver’s bark is a “harsh, low-frequency, unmodulated” noise – deep and low, in other words. Its depth tells outsiders the tale (or the lie in this case) of a big dog with a deep chest that probably has sharp teeth, so you better run away.
Oz has another bark for the family when he wants our attention. If, for example, his ball has rolled under the sofa, he opts for a higher throw. No less noisy or urgent, just less… foreboding. He has other barks. Sometimes, while playing, Oz can let out a few quick yelps at other dogs: “Hey! Play!” he seems to say. Often this works; the friendly dogs come and Oz has a lot of fun.
So while it’s loud and a bit boring, I wouldn’t want to deprive Oz of its natural means of expression. I just want him, once in a while, to calm him down a bit.
“Barking is normal behavior for dogs, so you can’t expect them to bark at all,” says Dr. Zazie Todd, author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy.. She advises exploring the situations in which the dog barks and thinking about practical solutions.
Is it the doorbell? Set up predictable situations, such as having friends around, where you can teach better behavior (expect this to take practice and lots of rewards). Is it when the neighboring cats walk past the window? Try adding a screen to the window. Is it the sound of other dogs barking? Try leaving the radio on. Is it when you leave your dog alone? Build up to such periods slowly, working gradually, with warmth, positivity and (again) lots of treats.
“Don’t yell at your dog!” Todd said. So-called “aversive training techniques”, including anti-bark collars, have varying levels of success and do not tend to address any underlying issues (including fear) that may be at play in many dogs that bark excessively.
In addition to the above, official Blue Cross advice includes encouraging noisy dogs (through treats, believe it or not) to focus on neutral tasks, such as playing fetch or going to bed. , in situations where their barking becomes problematic. For attention seeking dogs, barking should never be rewarded with attention – that includes yelling back. Over time, your attention becomes a reward given only to calm behavior. If all else fails, seek help from a licensed animal behavior expert or veterinarian.
Does race have an impact? “Some breeds are much more ‘talkative’ than others,” says Holly Root-Gutteridge, a postdoctoral dog researcher at the University of Lincoln. Loud breeds include Jack Russells, Chihuahuas and German Shepherds. Calmer breeds include Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Shiba Inus, and Labradors. I notice that Oz, a lurcher, is on the list of quieter dogs, but he seems to have a lot to say.
“Any breed, some dogs are just great talkers, so it’s good to look at why they talk and ask if it’s related to something we can change,” Root-Gutteridge suggests. “If your dog is barking a lot, there may be a reason that isn’t obvious, like he’s under-exercised or reacting to outside noises that you may not have picked up.”
Oz barks a little more in the afternoon, I realize, before going out for his long walk. Maybe two medium-sized walks, rather than a longer one, would help? Also, I should probably spend more time playing with his pull rope in the morning after the kids leave for school. I resolve to make some changes.
As I write these words, he watches me from the sofa, his legs like flagpoles pointing up at the ceiling, his woolly head ruffled in the space between the back of the chair and a cushion. I get up, approach and gently tickle her belly. With adoring eyes and a wagging tail, he gives me a warm look that says, “Hey!” in another type of language.
“Hey!” I say back.
Finally, I read it loud and clear.
Wonderdog: How the Science of Dogs Changed the Science of Life by Jules Howard is published in May (Bloomsbury)