A dog can vary the pitch of his bark, the number of barks in a row, and the space between barks in order to change the bark’s meaning. In terms of pitch, the lower the bark, the more serious the dog. For example, a dog enjoying playtime will tend to have a higher-pitched bark than one that is warning off intruders or disciplining a rude companion. Consider the barks your dog makes when a stranger is coming up the front walk compared to those he makes when you walk in the door. The first is alerting the house to a possible intruder, whereas the second is saying welcome home” and is likely higher in tone. A lonely dog will also make higher-pitched barks to request companionship, sometimes rising in tone to sound almost like a plaintive yelp.
The space between barks is also worth consideration. The quicker the succession of barks, the more aggressive the dog is probably feeling. For example, when a dog is on the attack, his vocalizations will have the shortest pause between barks of any other barking sound. By comparison, the lonely “don’t leave me alone” bark has far longer pauses between sounds.
According to Hungarian research, humans, even those who don’t own dogs, are better at classifying dog barks than you might think. Prerecorded dog barks were played to human listeners, then the listeners were asked to categorize the barks. They were given a list of possible situations that could have elicited the barking and asked to choose the most appropriate one. In addition, they rated the emotion the barking dog was feeling. The results showed that people can match the bark to the situation with accuracy far higher than chance and can identify the dog’s emotion using the pitch of the bark and the pause between barks.
If you would like to assess your own bark interpretation skills, check out the bark test available here. No matter how well you fare on the test, you can always improve your understanding of dog language by paying more attention to what your dog is telling you when he barks.
Barks made in different situations sound different and likely have different meanings. They are not a one-size-fits-all vocal signal, and they definitely serve a greater purpose than simply saying “hey” or “look out.” They are also emotionally complex. Dogs don’t just bark when they are excited, although it can seem that way when they are trying to get your attention. They bark when they are frightened, lonely, surprised, irritated, and more. That means there are different barks for different moods, as well.
My Dog Barks at Strangers When We Are Out for a Walk
Barking at strangers when out for a walk is a form of “stranger danger!” or a sign of frustration.
Dogs are often more reactive (lunging, barking, growling) when they are restricted by a leash. This could be because they are frustrated and want to greet people or because they are scared of strangers.
You’ll notice a different type of bark for excited greeters and dogs who are genuinely frightened.
A dog who is fearful goes into fight or flight mode. The leash restricts a dog’s flight instinct and only provides one option, fight. Fluffy hopes that by barking, lunging and growling, the person will go away (and chances are, they will!)
So, what can we do with a leash reactive dog?
There are several techniques a qualified behavior consultant may be able to help you with resolving leash reactivity. All of these techniques involve desensitizing a dog to the stranger and changing their emotional response in their presence. It takes time and patience.
In order for any of the techniques to work, your four-footer must remain under his fight-or-flight threshold. This means keeping your dog far enough away that he can see the person, yet not so close that he reacts to the person. For some dogs, this can be a pretty far distance!
Here are a few techniques for helping a reactive Rover:
Engage/Disengage: This is a technique where your dog is rewarded with a delicious high value treat for looking at a trigger (aka, engaging with the stimuli). Eventually, when he sees a person, he will start to look at you for that reward (aka disengaging with the stimuli).
The video below shows what it looks like in action!
This is simply rewarding your dog for looking at the person. Fido looks at a stranger and gets a treat — simple as that!
Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT): This concept uses a functional reward for calm behavior. This means, when your dog shows calm body language, you move away from what he is afraid of as the reward.
All of these techniques utilize some forms of desensitization and counterconditioning. This means getting your dog used to something without overwhelming him. This empowers him, and ultimately changes his emotional reaction.
Because the timing and positioning is so key to success with these methods, I suggest working with a professional at the outset.
What to Do About Your Dog’s Excessive Barking
The first step toward reducing your dog’s barking is to determine the type of bark your dog is expressing. The following questions can help you to accurately decide on which type of barking your dog is doing so that you can best address your dog’s problem. Think about your answers to these questions as you read through the information below on the different types of barking and their treatments.
If It’s Territorial Barking or Alarm Barking Territorial behavior is often motivated by both fear and anticipation of a perceived threat. Because defending territory is such a high priority to them, many dogs are highly motivated to bark when they detect the approach of unknown people or animals near familiar places, like their homes and yards. This high level of motivation means that when barking territorially, your dog might ignore unpleasant or punishing responses from you, such as scolding or yelling. Even if the barking itself is suppressed by punishment, your dog’s motivation to guard his territory will remain strong, and he might attempt to control his territory in another way, such as biting without warning.
Dogs engage in territorial barking to alert others to the presence of visitors or to scare off intruders or both. A dog might bark when he sees or hears people coming to the door, the mail carrier delivering the mail and the maintenance person reading the gas meter. He might also react to the sights and sounds of people and dogs passing by your house or apartment. Some dogs get especially riled up when they’re in the car and see people or dogs pass by. You should be able to judge from your dog’s body posture and behavior whether he’s barking to say “Welcome, come on in!” or “Hey, you’d better hit the road. You’re not welcome at my place!” If you’re dealing with a dog in the first category, follow the treatment outlined in this article for greeting barking (below). If you’re dealing with a dog in the latter category who isn’t friendly to people, you’ll be more successful if you limit your dog’s ability to see or hear passersby and teach him to associate the presence of strangers with good things, such as food and attention.
For treatment of territorial barking, your dog’s motivation should be reduced as well as his opportunities to defend his territory. To manage your dog’s behavior, you’ll need to block his ability to see people and animals. Removable plastic film or spray-based glass coatings can help to obscure your dog’s view of areas that he observes and guards from within your house. Use secure, opaque fencing to surround outside areas your dog has access to. Don’t allow your dog to greet people at the front door, at your front yard gate or at your property boundary line. Instead, train him to go to an alternate location, like a crate or a mat, and remain quiet until he’s invited to greet appropriately.
Alarm barking is very similar to territorial barking in that it’s triggered by sights and sounds. However, dogs who alarm bark might do so in response to things that startle or upset them when they’re not on familiar turf. For example, a dog who barks territorially in response to the sight of strangers approaching will usually only do so when in his own home, yard or car. By contrast, a dog who habitually alarm barks might vocalize when he sees or hears strangers approaching in other places, too. Although territorial barking and alarm barking are a little different, the recommendations below apply to both problems.
“Quiet” Training If your dog continues to alarm bark or bark territorially, despite your efforts to block his exposure to sights and sounds that might trigger his barking, try the following techniques:
“Go to Your Spot” Training It also helps to teach your dog a specific set of behaviors to do when people come into your home so that he has fewer opportunities to alarm bark. Plus, when your dog performs his new behaviors and receives rewards, he’ll learn that people coming into his and your space is a good thing.
If you need help teaching your dog these skills, don’t hesitate to enlist the help of a Certified Professional Dog Trainer or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist in your area. A professional trainer can meet with you one-on-one to guide you through the process of teaching your dog to sit, stay and go to a spot on command. Please see our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help, to locate one of these experts near you.
Greeting Barking If your dog barks at people coming to the door, at people or dogs walking by your property, at people or dogs he sees on walks, and at people or dogs he sees through the fence, and his barking is accompanied by whining, tail wagging and other signs of friendliness, your dog is probably barking to say hello. He most likely barks the same way when family members come home.
Attention-Seeking Barking One reason that it’s so easy to live with dogs is that they’re very expressive. They find a way to let us know their needs. They often do this by barking or whining. Indeed, we find it desirable when they bark to ask to go outside to eliminate or to request that their water bowl be filled. It’s less attractive, however, when your dog barks to demand anything and everything, needed or not! This pattern of barking does not happen by accident. A demanding, noisy dog has been taught to be this way, usually not on purpose! To get your dog to stop, you’ll need to consistently not reward him for barking. Don’t try to figure out exactly why he’s barking. Ignore him instead. Treatment for this kind of barking can be tough because, most of the time, pet parents unwittingly reinforce the behavior—sometimes just with eye contact, touching, scolding or talking to their dogs. To dogs, all of these human behaviors can count as rewarding attention. Try to use crystal-clear body language to tell your dog that his attention-seeking barking is going to fail. For example, when your dog starts to bark for attention, you can stare at the ceiling, turn away from your dog or walk out of the room. The instant your dog stops barking, ask him to sit and then give him what he wants, whether that’s attention, play, treats, to go outside or to come in.
To be successful, try your best to NEVER reward your dog for barking at you again! In some cases, it’s easiest to teach your dog an alternative behavior. For instance, if you don’t want your dog to bark when he needs to go out or come in, get a doggy door installed or teach him to ring a bell hanging on a door by touching it with his nose or paw. If your dog barks to get you to play with him, teach him to bring a toy and sit in front of you. Sometimes, it’s easier to avoid problems by eliminating the things that cause your dog to bark. If your dog barks to ask you to retrieve his toys from under the sofa, block the space so that the toys don’t get stuck beyond his reach. If your dog barks at you when you’re talking on the telephone or working on the computer, give him a tasty chew bone to occupy him before he starts to bark.
You can also teach your dog to be silent on command. This will help strengthen the association between quiet behavior and attention or rewards. Your dog should always be quiet before receiving attention, play or treats. By giving your dog a guaranteed method of getting attention, he’s no longer forced to bark for attention. Regularly seek your dog out to give him attention—sweet praise, petting and an occasional treat—when he’s not barking.
Compulsive Barking Dogs occasionally become compulsive barkers, meaning they bark in situations that aren’t considered normal or they bark in a repetitive, fixed or rigid way. If your dog barks repeatedly for long periods of time, apparently at nothing or at things that wouldn’t bother other dogs, such as shadows, light flashes, mirrors, open doors, the sky, etc., you may have a compulsive barker. If your dog also does other repetitive behaviors like spinning, circling or jumping while barking, he may be a compulsive barker. To help reduce compulsive barking, you can try changing how you confine your dog. For instance, if your dog is tied or tethered, you can switch to keeping him loose in a safe fenced area, or if he’s left alone for long periods of time, you should increase exercise, mental stimulation and social contact.
If you suspect that your dog is a compulsive barker, we recommend that you seek guidance from a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or a veterinary behaviorist. If you can’t find a behaviorist, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, but be sure that the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she or he has education and experience treating compulsive behavior, since this kind of expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification. Please see our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help, to locate one of these behavior experts in your area.
Socially Facilitated Barking Dogs are social animals, so it’s natural for them to bark when they hear others barking. You can discourage this tendency by keeping your dog indoors when other dogs are barking, by playing music to drown out the sound of other dogs, and by distracting your dog with treats or play when other dogs bark (whether it’s in real life or on TV).
Excitement or Frustration Barking Dogs often bark when they find themselves excited but thwarted, or frustrated, from getting to something they want. For example, a frustrated dog might bark in his yard because he wants to get out and play with children he hears in the street. A frustrated dog might bark and run the fence line with the dog next door, or bark by the patio door while watching a cat or squirrel frolicking in his yard. Some dogs bark at other dogs on walks because they want to greet and play, or they bark at their caretakers to get them to move faster when preparing to go for walks. The most effective means for discouraging excitement or frustration barking is to teach a frustrated dog to control his impulses through obedience training. You can teach your dog to wait, sit and stay before gaining access to fun activities like walks, playing with other dogs or chasing squirrels. This can be a daunting task, so you may need the assistance of a Certified Professional Dog Trainer to help you. Please see our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help, for information about finding a CPDT in your area. You can also discourage the presence of cats and other animals in your yard by using motion-activated devices to startle intruders.
A variety of devices are designed to teach dogs to curtail barking. Most often, these are collars that deliver an unpleasant stimulus when your dog barks. The stimulus might be a loud noise, an ultrasonic noise, a spray of citronella mist or a brief electric shock. The collars that deliver noise are ineffective with most dogs. One study found that the citronella collar was at least as effective for eliminating barking as the electronic collar and was viewed more positively by owners. Virtually all dogs become “collar-wise,” meaning that they learn not to bark while wearing their anti-bark collars but revert to barking when they’re not wearing them. Collars that work on a microphone system to pick up the sound of a dog’s bark should not be used in a multidog home because any dog’s bark can activate the collar.
Anti-bark collars are punishment devices and are not recommended as a first choice for dealing with a barking problem. This is especially true for barking that’s motivated by fear, anxiety or compulsion. Before using an anti-bark collar, please see our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help, for information about finding a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or a qualified Certified Professional Dog Trainer for guidance.