Getting to the heart of the bark

Woof! Woof-wooof-wooof-wooof! Grrr-woof-grrr.

It’s the classic soundtrack to this scenario: A dog is perched high on the back of the family couch – or the stair landing or the front porch – barking alertly. He’s warning potential intruders – be they a pizza delivery man, a deer or perhaps just a large, wayward bag blowing across his visual field – that he’s on guard and standing ground. Said dog may yawn, stretch or grumble as he settles back down and assumes his post. And then silence. At least until the next distraction.

“Dogs bark, though, right? Isn’t that just what they do?” It’s a question I get asked routinely.

Well, yes and no. Dogs do bark, and they vocalize for various reasons. In the above scene, the dog was alert-barking, also known as a protective or territorial behavior. These dogs get an adrenaline rush followed by a quick shot of endorphins as the perceived intruder generally passes. Still, beware the FedEx package that requires a signature.

Dogs also bark to get attention, and like kids, they don’t seem care if the acknowledgement is positive or negative. Whether they get a hug or a hollering, they’ll likely repeat the performance. The message this bark communicates is, “Hey, stop what you’re doing and focus on me.” While it’s nice to be needed, a dog should be taught more polite behaviors to garner affection. As a dog trainer, I teach my clients to carry treats and reward their dogs when they sit or share their toys. Extinguishing attention- barking can be as easy as just walking away.

Some dogs are just plain demanding, vocalizing whenever they need or want something. These barkers use their voices to target specific things, such as biscuits in the cupboard, tennis balls under the couch or a desire for a walk or outing. Some needs should not be overlooked, like potty breaks, but others best be redirected or ignored lest they become a lifelong habit. The industry term for this behavior is “bratty-barking” and once addressed it may get more furious before it subsides. With my clients I suggest that they either initiate a lesson or calmly seclude their dog with a favored chew. The message that sinks in? Barking no longer elicits the intended response. When the vocalizing ceases to reinforce a sense of tyranny, it’s abandoned.

So, what of the territorial reaction, such as the dog who barks to defends his den (aka his master’s home and property) against a perceived foe? Though this emotional response arises from fear or frustration – or a combination of the two – the message comes across loud and clear: “Stay away. Stay far, far away from my personal space.”

Are the guardians of these reactive dogs thus condemned to a life of unpredicted interruption or is there something that can be done to curb the dog’s impulsiveness?

I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is yes, something can be done to modify the intensity of the reaction and condition the dog to everyday distractions, as I will explain. The bad news if you’re hoping for a silenced dog is that reactive dogs are bred to the bone. Once an alert-barker, always an alert-barker.

The choice when this dog’s alarm sounds is to, first, shout out at the top of your lungs. While seemingly intuitive and sometime effective in the short term, it leads to more barking, not less. A person shouts: “QUIET, FLUFFY. QUIET. YOU’RE GOING TO WAKE THE BABY,” but the dog hears “Woof! woof-wooof-wooof-wooof! Grrr-woof-Grrr.” And voilà. It’s one big bark-fest.

Or you can go to plan B. Cheerfully call out “Thanks, Fluffy!” in a bright but directive tone and shake a cup of treats as you call your dog back to your side. Once together, you should redirect him to an opposing activity like fetching or chewing.

In time, the defensive, goal-oriented bark-phrase will meld into a new message: “MOM, MOM, CHECK IT OUT. SOMEONE’S JUST WALKING PAST THE FRONT DOOR!” Now your dog’s happier, because he’s part of a team – instead of an employee.

And really, which would you rather hear?



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