Why Do Dogs Bark?

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A certain amount of barking is just part of being a dog. But understanding why dogs bark can help pet owners get this behavior under control.

Expecting a dog not to bark is kind of like expecting a baby not to cry. Just as babies cry to vocalize their feelings, dogs bark to communicate. The difference, of course, is that unlike babies, dogs don’t ever learn to talk. That leaves dog owners struggling to learn “dog-ese” (or is it “dog-ian”?) and wondering why in the heck their pooch won’t pipe down.

Barking, like other dog noises such as whining, sighing, and occasionally even howling, is a normal part of dog behavior. And whether your dog is a problem barker or just has the occasional outburst, answering the question “Why do dogs bark?” will help you understand what your dog is trying to communicate, how you should respond, and how best to stop your dog from barking.

The most common reasons dogs bark

As a dog owner, you may already realize that not all of your dog’s barks are the same. There are play barks, angry barks, and bored barks. So, why do dogs bark, and why does it seem that some dogs bark at everything? Let’s take a look at some of the most common reasons.

1. Your dog is happy to see you

Humans greet friends and loved ones with a friendly salutation, and happy barking is your dog’s way of greeting you, someone else he recognizes, or, in the case of a very friendly dog, everyone he meets. “There are a lot of dogs who simply can’t help themselves when their owners get home,” says veterinarian Gary Richter, DVM, founder of Ultimate Pet Nutrition, “and will bark repeatedly because they’re so happy.” Of course, there’s a good chance your dog’s tail will also be wagging furiously when this happens. Here are some other things your dog’s tail may be trying to tell you, as well as what your dog’s facial expressions mean.

2. Your dog is being protective

If your dog senses a threat, whether that menace is the neighbor’s cat, another dog barking, or an intruder, he may bark aggressively. “Dogs bark as an alarm to other animals,” explains Dr. Richter. “They might be warning them that something is wrong, or they might be telling another animal—or even a person—to stay away because they’re getting a little too close. There are even times when the bark is for good reason, as your pet may be warning you of an intruder or some other sort of danger in your home.” You’ll probably be able to tell the difference between alert barking and play barking—if your dog’s hackles are raised, his posture is erect, or he’s leaning forward, he’s ready to defend his family or domain.

3. Your dog wants to play…or eat…or take a walk

Some dogs will bring you their leash, their toy, or even their empty food dish. Others will let out a series of playful barks to try to drum up some action, whether that’s for you to throw a ball, take them for a walk, or hand over the kibble. When out for a walk, your dog may bark cheerfully when he encounters his four-legged pals at the dog park. It’s his way of saying, “Hi, guys! I’m here!” If you’ve ever wondered what your dog is thinking when he does that, now you know!

4. Your dog is bored or lonely

If your dog barks to try to initiate play and you don’t respond, he may not pipe down until he gets what he wants or gives up in frustration. A dog, especially a younger pup, who doesn’t get to interact with his human or other dogs is likely to bark out of boredom or loneliness. “Dogs are pack animals,” says Dr. Richter, “meaning they want to be with you—the pack leader—as much as possible.”

5. Your dog has separation anxiety

Your dog’s boredom and isolation can grow into a serious barking complex if he’s left alone for long periods of time—and this is a real worry for owners heading back to the office after working from home during the pandemic. You’ll probably learn about it from neighbors who aren’t wild about hearing dog barking sounds all day long. If your dog starts obsessively chasing his tail, this could also be a sign that something’s amiss.

How to stop a dog from barking

playing with dogHallie Bear/Getty Images

Controlling a dog’s barking starts with a certain amount of acceptance. Dogs bark—period. The key is to address the reason for the barking and try to resolve it or redirect your pet’s energy elsewhere. Here are some constructive ways to get it under control.

1. Don’t respond to a barking dog

Your dog is likely barking for attention. But if you raise your voice or yell at your dog when he barks, he just hears you barking right back at him. Unfortunately, says Dr. Richter, this might actually encourage him to keep barking (because he got your attention, right?), or it will add to his stress, which could also lead him to bark more. Dr. Richter suggests the following: Turn your back when your dog begins barking to get your attention. The second he stops barking, give him praise and a treat. “This is really challenging,” he concedes. But caving to your dog’s demands won’t change his behavior.

2. Use the word “quiet” to train your dog

The “quiet” method, which is essentially letting your dog bark until he hears the quiet command, works for pet owners who apply it consistently. “Instead of shouting the word, you say it in a calm, clear manner,” explains Dr. Richter. “Then, you gently hold your dog’s snout and repeat. Tell them to sit, and then provide a treat. If they keep quiet, give another treat and some love every few minutes.” Here are more helpful dog-training tips.

3. Desensitize your dog to the problematic stimulus

For whatever reason, your dog might be triggered by the sight or sound or a certain object in your home—whether it’s the vacuum cleaner or a child’s stuffed animal. If this is the case, Dr. Richter suggests following these steps to gradually train your dog not to bark at the triggering object:

  • Move the item so that it’s far enough away for your dog to see it but not make him bark.
  • With treats in hand, move the triggering item a little bit closer. Give your dog a couple of treats while the item is within sight.
  • Try moving the item out of sight and stop giving treats. Then, put it back into your dog’s range of vision and give him some more treats if he stays quiet.
  • It may take several sessions before he starts to connect the triggering object with a positive outcome (treats!), so be patient and keep at it.
  • Consider using calming devices.

Several products on the market are designed to calm and soothe anxious or frightened dogs, and they may also work for barking, depending on the cause of your pup’s issues. Quiet Ears for Dogs is an anti-anxiety earmuff that helps pets who are sensitive to loud noises. The Thundershirt is a sort of compression T-shirt that provides relief to dogs who suffer from separation anxiety or who cower or bark during storms or other noisy events; it’s a fan favorite on Amazon, with more than 22,000 five-star reviews. You can also try a treat specially formulated to calm, such as Zesty Paws Lil’ Zesties Calming Squares.

5. Tire out your dog

A tired pup is not a barky pup. Make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise, whether it’s a brisk walk or a half-hour of playing fetch in the house. It may be challenging to program this time into your busy day, but it will give your dog the exercise and attention from you that he needs (and let’s be honest, you could probably use the break, too). Certain breeds need more exercise than others, so be sure you study up on which breeds have lots of energy to burn and which dogs are lazy by nature.

6. Keep your dog entertained

Excessive barking is just one of the signs of boredom in dogs. Other telltale signs include jumping, chewing, digging, and causing general destruction. So keep your pup engaged and entertained, both when you’re out of the house or relaxing at home. Puzzle toys are a great way to keep dogs busy with a “project” when you’re not available to play with them. Note: If you’re considering adopting a dog but you’re worried about your hours away from the home, know that some breeds are better at being left alone than others.

7. Avoid shock collars

These collars use an electrical current that’s usually controlled by a handheld remote control device. Because the current can be painful and the shock collars can easily be misused, they’re among the anti-barking collars and behavioral deterrents that the Humane Society of America specifically recommends against. For problem barkers, you may wish to consider a sonic anti-barking device, which emits a sound that is unpleasant but not painful to dogs to leave on only when you’re not at home with your pet. But the real objective should always be to find the reason for the barking, eliminate these triggers when possible, and patiently train your dog so that he barks less frequently.

Sources:

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Elizabeth Heath
Elizabeth Heath is a travel and lifestyle writer based in Italy. Her writing on travel and sustainability appears in national and international publications and she is the author of several guidebooks. For RD.com and sister publication FamilyHandyman.com, she writes about pets (especially dogs!), books, seasonal gift guides, home improvement, and outdoor living.