Vet Q&A: Why does my dog keep barking?

by PDSA Vets | 23 July #VetQ&As

Whether you’ve owned one or have had a neighbour with one – sometimes there’s nothing worse than a noisy dog! All dogs might bark at some point in their life, but some are definitely louder than others.

A really important thing to understand is that barking is a normal behaviour for many dogs. In most cases, your dog is barking to try to communicate, so understanding what they’re trying to say is really important. Barking can be used as a greeting, as part of play, as a warning for others and for many more reasons! A lot of the time, barking isn’t upsetting or causing issues for your dog. The problem comes when we as humans feel our dog is barking too much or if your dog is becoming distressed while barking. And sometimes as owners, we have to be careful that we don’t accidentally encourage the barking as this can lead to a pattern developing.

As with any behaviour problem, your first port of call should always be your vet, especially if your dog has only just starting barking out of the blue or their barking is getting worse over time. They’ll be able to tell you if there’s anything wrong medically and discuss some of the reasons your dog might be barking. It’s important to seek advice early, as the longer a dog is left without help, the worse the problem will become and the harder it will be to get help for them.

Another thing to bear in mind is once your dog has started to bark, it can take a long time to train them to be quieter and sometimes things may get worse before they get better! If your dog likes to make noises, whether it’s barking, whining or any other sounds, it’s unlikely you’ll ever train them to be silent (and a lot of owner’s wouldn’t want to!) but there’s lots of ways you can make their behaviour more manageable. The key is to be patient and consistent to make sure your dog learns how you’d like them to behave.

There are loads of reasons your dog might bark and for many dogs there will be ways to help them at home so their barking doesn’t become a problem. Before you drive yourself – and the neighbours – to distraction, you need to know why your dog is barking more than you might expect. Again, your vet will be able to give you advice tailored to your pet. Some common reasons for barking include:


Reason one: they want to let you know something is there

Lots of dogs will bark to let you know they’ve seen, heard or smelt something they think you should know about. This could be someone walking past, a car that’s pulled into the street, a dog that’s going past the garden, or the postman coming up the driveway. Whatever the case, some dogs will bark to let you know that something's going on!

They don’t mean to annoy you, they’re just trying to let you know that something new is happening. To them, it seems perfectly natural to be a bit more vocal so they can make you aware of any ‘danger’ or changes they’ve seen. Certain dogs will bark more than others and this will depend on their breed, temperament and previous experience.

The solution: training! You can use reward-based training to help your dog understand that they don’t need to warn you of everything. Reward your dog for being calm and quiet instead of barking whenever possible. To start with, this might be at times when no one is around, but gradually they’ll learn that just lying around quietly gets more treats and play time then barking at the window!

If they do start to bark, try to distract them instead. And make sure you don’t tell them off - any attention (even shouting at your dog to be quiet) can be seen as a reward by your dog. Remember they don’t understand our words, so we have to be mindful of our body language and tone as it’s easy to accidentally reward this behaviour… which can make them bark more in future. If you’re struggling to train them yourself, contact an accredited trainer who will be able to help you.


Reason two: they’re frightened/not used to something

We’ve all heard of a scaredy-cat, but our dogs can be frightened of things too no matter how big they are! Barking can be seen by some people as aggressive, confident behaviour, but in many dogs it’s the exact opposite and your dog is feeling unsure or frightened. If your dog is scared of something or it's unfamiliar to them (we hear about fear of vacuum cleaners a lot!), they might let you know by barking.

Older dogs can also start to react to things, whether it’s something new or something that didn’t used to bother them. This can be due to a bad experience, like being in a fight with another dog, but sometimes you won’t know why they’ve suddenly changed their mind. Whatever the cause, it’s important to try to figure out what the trigger is and help them understand they don’t need to be scared.

The solution: socialisation. By this, we don’t mean with just dogs and other people. If a dog has been well socialised as a puppy by experiencing a range of new things in a positive way they are less likely to be afraid or unsure of everything when they get older.

It’s really important to socialise them to lots of different sights, sounds and smells in a positive way while they’re still young. This will often help them be more confident when they’re older even if they come across something they’ve never met before.

With an adult dog that’s reacting to something they didn’t used to bark at, the best thing to do is take them back to basics. Remember to take it slowly and give them chance to get used to things again. Try not to get angry at your dog because this will upset them even more. It’s also a good idea to contact an accredited behaviourist for help, especially if your dog has suddenly starting to react to a number of things they didn’t react to in the past.


Reason three: they want attention

A bored dog can be a loud dog. Sometimes the only way your dog can let you know they want your attention is to bark at you, especially if they’re in another room. If they’re feeling particularly left out you might find your dog barks to get your attention. That’s not a problem if they’re only doing it occasionally, but if your dog gets really bored they can start to bark to encourage you to pay them attention.

The solution: playtime, exercise and remember not to reward the barking with attention. Keeping your dog active and entertained will keep their brains and bodies busy so they don’t get bored. Make sure your dog gets at least two good walks a day with lots of playtime with you in between. Some breeds need at least two hours of exercise every day, so if they’re not getting this they’re going to have a lot of extra energy to burn and will get bored easily. You can take a look at how much exercise your dog needs on our website.

Another really important point is to make sure you’re not accidentally reinforcing the barking. Try not to speak, look at or react to your dog when they are barking, even shouting at them to be quiet can be seen as attention by your dog so might encourage them to bark more.


Reason four: they don’t want to be alone

Although many of us love spending time with our dogs, if they won’t settle by themselves it can start to be an issue. We know you can’t give your dog all of your attention 24/7 and it’s always a good idea for your dog to learn they can be OK on their own. Dogs that are very dependent on their owners will tend to get separation problems and can start to bark in panic when they’re left alone. This can get worse over time to the point where some dogs will start to bark if you go into a different room.

The solution: teach them it’s OK to spend time on their own. Start by making your dog a safe space or den that’s their own which is quiet and has lots of comfy places for them to rest. Encourage them to spend time there by feeding them or playing with them nearby. Most dogs will start to enjoy their den so much they’ll start to go there on their own and at this point you can start to leave them there for a few minutes while you go out the room. As long as they don’t react, you can gradually start leaving them for longer and hopefully you can build up to leaving them on their own without them getting worked up.

You can find out more about helping your dog with separation related behaviour on our website. And if your dog is struggling to be left alone, it’s really important to contact an accredited behaviourist as soon as possible.


My dog has started barking at strangers since lockdown, what should I do?

During lockdown, we weren’t going out and seeing people as much (especially when we were limited to going out for exercise once a day) so neither were our dogs. Now that restrictions are starting to ease, your dog’s routine might be changing and this can be really unsettling for them.

The important thing is to ease them back into the world slowly. They’re probably barking because they’re not used to seeing people they don’t know anymore. To help them, you need to use positive, reward-based training and help to re-socialise them.

Start by keeping them a good distance away from strangers and rewarding them for calm behaviour. It may take a while, but gradually start to move closer over a number of days to strangers (you might want to get a friend your dog doesn’t know to be your stranger of choice!) rewarding them for calm behaviour. If they start to bark or get uncomfortable, move further away and start again.

Helping your dog get used to the world again might take a little while, but if you keep working with them at their own pace they’ll be happy and confident outdoors again.

Remember to check out our top tips for training your dog if you need some advice.


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