Barking mad! can humans make more sense of barking dogs?

Dog barking can be a nuisance, but why do they do it? Elsa Flint of Massey University argues that we need a better understanding of why dogs bark if we are to find ways of managing and controlling this behaviour. In an article in CAB Reviews, Flint points out that domestic dogs bark in a context-specific way – not just to guard territory or randomly, as had been suggested in the past. Through barking, dogs communicate excitement, requests, distress and can help to build bonds within packs. 512px-Drooker_style_dog.svg

Illustration by Balthasar, from a photograph by Josh Plueger

Flint believes that if people understand barking as a more complex behaviour, they may become more tolerant of it. Evidence suggests even human babies can distinguish aggressive and non-aggressive barking, although people have more difficulty understanding growling. She queries whether the negative response of humans to barking is more about the noise itself or what they think the dog is communicating.

Genetic differences in dog breeds do affect how much they bark, and it appears that breeds used for herding tend to bark the most. It may be possible to selectively breed dogs that bark less. Environmental triggers that spark off barking are very varied, and one study showed that dogs in an animal welfare centre barked more in response to heavy metal music than to any other stimulus, including human voices.

In contrast, soothing music can help decrease barking. Chamomile and lavender scent can be used to calm dogs and reduce barking. Pheromones can calm dogs that are suffering from anxiety stress. Exercise and providing stimuli such as toys or hidden treats mean dogs are less prone to bark at unexpected noises.

Flint stresses the disadvantages of anti-bark collars that deliver an electric shock, a citronella spray or a blast of air to barking dogs. These punish the barking behaviour, but do not positively reinforce an alternative behaviour. In contrast, owners can be taught to manage dogs that bark for attention by reinforcing quiet behaviour, but this requires a lot of patience on the part of the owner.

Flint says that it’s important for owners to understand that excessive barking can be a sign of illness, including senility, and so it is important that the causes are assessed by a vet.

The function, social implications and management of barking in dogs by Elsa L. Flint appears in CAB Reviews 2012 7, 039.

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