skdt blog

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Dogs bark! Some dogs are fairly quiet, only offering a woof at particular times, while some dogs seem to be chatting all the time with various barks and other vocalizations!


This all might seem pretty obvious, but more often than not, this very normal dog behavior of barking is described as a nuisance. More often than not, people ask me, "How can I keep my dog from barking?" And, I think, the expectation is that the answer is a quick one - that I can supply a quick exercise or solution to this "problem" a person is seeing.

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However, my response is usually a little more complicated than that! Diving into an exercise or providing some solution may have us barking up the wrong tree (it's a pun I couldn't pass up), so, very typically, I'm asking a bunch of questions to get more information about the when, where, how long, who, etc. of the barking they're seeing. All of this is to get at some kind of answer to, "Why is your dog barking?"


Of course, we can't crawl in your dog's head to find out what's going on exactly (where is Ms. Frizzle's Magic School Bus when you need it?!); and we can't ask them point-blank, "Why are you barking, Rover?" But, we can use your dog's behavior and body language, the context around the barking behavior, and what seems to encourage or discourage the barking as clues to answer that question.


If we can determine a reason or a cause for your dog's barking, we can address THAT instead of simply the barking, which is usually just a symptom of a bigger concern or issue. Below are some common examples of why a dog may be barking (by no means is this an exhaustive list, though):


Attention

Attention, or demand, barking occurs when a dog is barking to get something they want - your attention, an interaction, a toy thrown, the food you're eating, etc. It's easy for barking to keep happening in this situation because we're only human; there are going to be times we throw that toy just to get the dog to stop barking or, as we're, perhaps, attempting to ignore it and wait it out, we turn and say, "Geez, Rover, would you just stop!?" (Yes, even that "attention" can reward and reinforce the barking behavior.)


Fear or Stress

Sometimes, dogs bark at something because they're worried about it. A dog that barks at people or other dogs can sometimes be using that barking to get the scary thing to go away. I sometimes describe it as the same advice we're given when we encounter a bear out in the wild - make yourself as big as you can and as scary as you can, so the bear won't want to mess with you. Note: I have never encountered a bear and do not suggest taking my advice if you ever run into one...research that from a source that knows what they're talking about...


Alert or Alarm Barking

This is that fairly common situation where a dog is barking out the window or is standing in the yard, "yelling" at a neighbor, delivery person, dog, bike or scooter, kids, and the list goes on. This type of barking can occur when your dog has heard a noise (that possibly startled them) or they see something.


Excitement

Barking can also happen in tandem with other excitement-related behaviors. For example, when I return home from seeing some clients or class, I come in the back door and my dog will usually race into the kitchen to "greet me"; this usually involves a loud bark or two, sniffing my shoes and pants, circling/trotting around me, and sometimes even jumping if I've taken too long to acknowledge her!


Frustration

Like with excitement, barking can happen when a dog is frustrated, as well. A leash, a fence, a window, or a barrier of some form prevents the dog from getting somewhere or doing something they want to do; a food toy is too challenging for your dog and a few attempts have left them unable to figure it out; or you're attempting to train something and haven't been able to successfully lure or shape something (and, perhaps, haven't given any treats out in a bit during that process) or, again, your dog has tried a few things and hasn't been successful. Just like we might exclaim a big, "UGH," our dogs seem to do some barking or grumbling when things aren't going their way.


Something is Needed

I separate this category a bit from the attention barking listed above because there are times I see the barking is much more pointed and specific; it's designed to acquire something specific to that moment - rather than the more general, "Pay attention to me now, human,&qu