Is the Barking Dog Driving You Crazy?
By Robin Bennett, CPDT-KA
Some of the most common dog behavioral questions I receive from owners of pet care facilities deal with barking dogs. How do you prevent barking? What do you do to soundproof the pet care center? How do you keep neighbors happy if they complain about barking? How much barking is normal?
Here are a few tips to help you and your staff begin to find solutions to this potential pet care center problem.
First of all, understand that barking happens for a wide range of reasons. Some dogs may bark while they play. Others will bark out of excitement when customers come by for a tour. Still, others will fearfully bark at any new environmental stimulus they see, whether it’s a person, another animal, or an inanimate object. Some dogs relieve stress by barking. Others will bark because they are bored. All types of barking tend to have the same result for the humans - we get frustrated and annoyed if it goes on too long. Excessive barking, regardless of the reason, may irritate the other dogs as well as the staff and detracts from a fun, pleasant pet care environment. Understanding the reason for the barking is critical to helping the dog.
Teach your staff to listen to the various tones of each dog. Barking, growling and whining can all occur in a wide range of pitches for each dog. Generally speaking, the more stress the dog is experiencing, the higher the pitch and the faster the vocalization will become. Those who have been in the pet care industry for any length of time know that you learn to identify a single dog’s bark from an entire group of dogs. You will also learn to identify sounds that mean a dog is playing and those that mean a dog is injured, scared or angry. In order to figure out why a dog is barking, it will help to identify the various tones of barking.
Secondly, based on the reason for the barking, begin to implement some management options. Keep in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to managing barking. What will work for one dog, may not work for another. You will need to experiment to see what works best for each individual dog. Here are a few methods to get you started.
Redirect the Dog
One of the most common bark-stopping strategies is to distract and redirect the barking. This works especially well if the dog is frustrated or bored. Provide an alternative behavior for the barking dog. If the dog is separated from other dogs, you might try a stuffed Kong toy or an interactive game. If the dog is with a playgroup, you might want to try redirecting the dog to another playmate. The goal here is to give the dog something else to do.
Change the Environment
Sometimes a change in the environment will help a barking dog. Have you provided quiet downtime for the dogs so they aren’t over stimulated? Like children in need of a nap, some dogs will bark when they get overly tired. Make sure they are given an appropriate space and time to relax when they are in your center. For other dogs, they don’t get enough stimulation. Long hours without human interaction can cause barking from boredom. Be sure that your staff is spending some quality time with each dog in your care. Also provide environmental enrichment activities for the dogs so they can use their brains even if they can’t get out for physical exercise (stuffed Kong toys, hiding treats in their enclosure, putting a fun interactive toy with the dog, etc).
Location of the Dog’s Lodging Space
This is another variation on changing the environment. Sometimes dogs just need a new place to hang out. Some dogs don’t do well in the high traffic areas of your pet care center. Moving those dogs to calmer areas can help. In addition, some dogs prefer a small enclosure, while others need a larger space. Some prefer an open crate and others prefer a closed crate. Sometimes covering the door will help. Try experimenting with the lodging areas where a barking dog is placed to see if the location or layout makes a difference in the dog’s behavior.
Use a Head Collar
A head collar, such as the Gentle Leader®, can help calm down an excited dog. For dogs who bark because they are over stimulated, you might try this option. Be sure to fit the head collar properly and supervise the dog while he is wearing it. This is not a good option to use if the dog is alone, but it is often used successfully during an off-leash playgroup.
Sometimes a dog just needs some time walking with someone. This might be a quick outing with a staff member outside the facility, but it works equally well with dogs who are barking during off-leash play. Walking a dog through the playroom with a staff member can often calm the dog down so he stops barking.
Essential oils and Bach Flower essences can have a calming effect on many dogs. For dogs who are stressed or overstimulated, you might try Bach Rescue Remedy in their water bowl, or Lavender essential oil placed on a towel or bedding. Other options would be a diffuser with dog-appeasing pheromones, such as Comfort Zone®. Obviously, these products should be used with the owner’s permission.
The methods mentioned above are my most often recommended solutions to barking dogs. There are some more punitive methods, which often come up in discussion. I have found that a well trained staff rarely needs these methods. As with the homeopathic remedies mentioned above, be sure that your clients are aware of any of these measures you might use on their dog.
Spraying with Water
For some dogs, a stream of water sprayed in their face serves as a deterrent to inappropriate behavior such as barking. As with any direct punishment applied to a dog, it must be applied immediately (within 1-3 seconds of the undesirable behavior occurring) and should be effective within four to five tries on a dog. If a dog is sprayed with water more than five times and the inappropriate behavior continues in that episode, then the water is not effective and should stop. I would use water as a last resort. However, usually I find that if water works, it’s a dog that is also easily redirected. Water often ends up being a crutch your staff will use to avoid learning how to do good management and leadership with the dogs in your care.
A citronella collar is a small mechanical device worn around a dog’s neck. If a dog barks, the citronella collar emits a puff of citronella spray in the dog’s face. For many dogs, this is a strong deterrent against barking. However, there are some drawbacks in a pet care facility. Dogs that are strongly engaged in the barking behavior due to fear or anxiety will usually not respond to the citronella. They will continue barking despite the spray in their face. Do not use the citronella collar for these dogs because it is not effective. In addition, in a pet care center where there could be multiple dogs barking, the collar will sometimes go off if a dog near the one wearing the collar barks. This is unfair to the dog with the citronella collar on.
This works on the same principle as a citronella collar except rather than the bark resulting in a puff of citronella, the collar emits an electrical shock to the dog. The idea is that the shock will punish the dog for barking so that the barking will cease. As with the citronella collar, this method will often not work for the dog who is barking out of fear and anxiety. Additionally, you have to be sure that the punishment does not cause other fear related behaviors. Although suppression of the barking is possible, you are doing nothing to modify the dog’s emotional state. In other words, you are making the dog quietly fearful which isn’t really the main goal in keeping the dogs emotionally healthy.
If a dog needs a muzzle because he is barking, he probably has other issues that need to be addressed by a qualified trainer. Muzzles used to prevent barking may restrict panting and can cause a dog to overheat. Muzzles used to prevent aggression toward people or dogs, if not used with proper training techniques, can cause frustration in a dog and can cause his aggressive behavior to become worse. In addition, most clients bringing their dog to daycare will be noticeably alarmed if they see a daycare dog wearing a muzzle.
Sometimes nothing works and the dog must be evaluated for continued attendance at the center. Dogs that are barking due to excessive stress may need an environment other than a pet care center. Your job, as a responsible facility owner, should be to address the emotional health of the dog and be the dog’s advocate even if that means recommending a service other than one you might provide.
Robin Bennett is author and consultant for pet care facilities on the subjects of dog daycare, training, and off-leash play. The tools she teaches facility staff and dog owners stem from Robin’s 20 years of involvement in the pet care industry. Her book, All About Dog Daycare, is the number one reference on owning a daycare, and her book, Off-Leash Dog Play, co-authored by Susan Briggs, is the key reference on supervising dogs in playgroups. Together with Susan Briggs, Robin has created an interactive staff training program called Knowing Dogs: a two-part training resource designed for pet care center management to train any staff member working in a pet care facility on safe dog interactions and group play. You can find more about Robin and these resources at www.robinkbennett.com. As “The Dog Gurus,” Robin and Susan’s mission is to improve safety in the dog daycare industry.
Check out their membership site at www.TheDogGurus.com.