Why does Fido bark so much?
Barking is a dog’s most basic form of communication to call attention to his physical needs; if he’s hot, cold, hungry, thirsty, wants to play or has to ‘go’, vocalizing is Fido’s way of asking for his needs to be met. Some dogs are bred specifically to bark as a part of their jobs, such as hunting hounds and guard dogs. Almost all breeds will bark to some degree when they’re alarmed, but there’s a great variation from one individual dog to the next, even within the same breed.
Your dog could be barking excessively because you unintentionally trained him to do exactly that: when Fido speaks, you obey. "Woof" and you open the door to let him outside and then the same “Woof” causes you to let him back in again afterward. Woof alerts you to dinnertime, to a request for walkies, or playtime or treats. Your doggy has learned to get everything he wants through barking. It’s a quick slippery slope from this sort of innocent attention-getting to an all-out canine abuse of barking power.
Barking becomes a problem for all concerned when it occurs for purely emotional reasons: Fido is bored, anxious, excited or pent up without any regular social outlets for his energy. A dog who’s alone by himself all day is likely to entertain himself by barking because nobody is there to tell him not to. Barking becomes an enjoyable habit, and Fido will tend to keep on barking anytime he knows he can get away with it.
The exercise factor
If you suspect the issue is emotional, here’s one important thing you can do to alleviate the situation: try spending extra time playing with, training and exercising your dog every day, especially shortly before leaving the house. A well-exercised, mentally stimulated and happy doggy is more likely to sleep quietly all day while you’re not at home. If separation anxiety is the cause of Fido’s excessive barking after you’ve left the house, there are steps you can take in addition to exercise and extra play, which should help alleviate his fears when you leave him home alone. Read here for more on overcoming separation anxiety.
Keep in mind that having a big yard to run around in is not the same thing as having a well exercised dog. Fido might sprint crazily around your yard, but that’s not really a display of exercise – it’s the doggy equivalent of climbing the walls. Spend quality exercise time with him and give him fun things to occupy his mind and body while you’re away, like a digging pit or interactive treat-stuffed chewy toys. Read here for more on digging pits and kicking the digging habit. Also remember that dogs are social animals - they need their friends. Take Fido to his regular dog park and let him make doggy friends. A good hard play session with friends once or twice a week should go a long way towards helping Fido calm down and be a good boy when you’re not at home to supervise him.
Teach him the rules
We assume that our dogs instinctively know how much barking is too much barking, but they really don’t; if you want Fido to obey your rules, first you have to teach him what they are. Make it simple: barking is ok until the dog is told to "Stop barking! " This means that you need to consistently use "Stop barking!" only as an obedience command and never as an arbitrary reprimand.
Here’s how it works: Each time Fido barks, let him bark two or three times only, and praise him for calling for your attention. Then say, "Stop Barking!" while waving a crunchy treat in front of his nose. Most dogs will instantly stop barking because they can't investigate the treat and bark at the same time. During this quiet time praise him continuously, telling him what a good and quiet doggy he is. Repeat “Stop barking” a few times in a soothing voice while praising him for being quiet. After 3 continuous seconds of no barking, let him have the treat. The next time he barks, repeat the process, but make him stop barking for 5 seconds before he gets the treat. Each time he is told to stop barking and succeeds, he gets rewarded.
If he barks even one tiny “humph” after you've given the command, loudly and immediately say: “STOP BARKING!” and withhold the treat. He’ll likely be startled by your outburst, but don’t give in to comfort or reward him unless he stays silent for the full length of time. As soon as he’s stayed silent, immediately hand over the treat. Gradually lengthen the required period of silence as the training proceeds; after 5 seconds of no barking, lengthen it to 10 seconds, 20 seconds and so on. Soon you should be able to ask Fido to sit quietly for one or even 2 minutes after the “Stop barking!” command is given, before rewarding him with his crunchy treat; 2 minutes of silence should be long enough to derail any barking jag he might have been intending to engage in.
- Never reinforce anxiety-induced barking or whining by comforting Fido or talking to him in a soothing voice. Talk to him, pet him, and play with him only after he has been quiet for at least a few seconds.
- If you have been giving in to your dog by giving him what he wants when you can't stand the barking any longer, you have strongly reinforced him to bark to get what he wants. This behavior will get worse before it gets better, as the dog now thinks he just has to bark longer to get what he wants. To break the pattern you absolutely must hold out, and outlast him - eventually Fido will give up. Wait for a lull in the barking and praise him for being quiet before ever giving him what he’s been asking for.
- Never scold or punish your dog for barking; it’ll only make him that much more anxious and prone to barking.
- Prevent him from seeing or hearing things that typically trigger barking when you’re away from home. If your dog barks at strangers walking by or unfamiliar cars, find some way to block your dog's view: keep the drapes closed, or confine him to a part of the house that has no windows to the street. If unfamiliar noises set him off, keep the radio tuned to a soothing talk-radio station or gentle jazz station in the room where you’ve got him confined. It’ll help distract him from outside noises.
- Socialize your dog to new people, animals, noises and experiences. Take him lots of places and be sure to praise him every time he shows quiet and appropriate behavior. Read here for more on the importance of obedience training and socialization
Keep in mind that if Fido’s excessive barking has already become an ingrained habit, you can’t expect the situation to change overnight; It’ll take time and patience to teach him new habits. Remain calm and consistent with your training, make sure he’s well exercised and his other needs are met, and eventually he should come around.
If all else fails and Fido just can’t seem to stop barking, see a qualified animal behavior therapist; your vet should be able to provide you with a referral.