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Why is my dog barking?

If your dog has a barking problem, this can be a nuisance for both your own family and your neighbours. You love them and give them everything they need, right? So why can’t they just be quiet?

Generally, if a dog is barking there’s a reason why. And it’s important to identify the underlying causes, so that you can then take appropriate action to fix the issue quickly.

Why do dogs bark?

Barking is a very normal behaviour for dogs – after all, they can’t speak to us, so this is how they communicate. Dogs may bark when calling out to other dogs, expressing emotion, being territorial or when trying to grab their owner’s attention. Any noise, no matter how slight, can stimulate a barking response – for example rustling leaves, a banging window, lightning or thunder, or a ring of the doorbell.

Dogs also bark because of behavioural issues. For example, a dog may bark out of fear, boredom, or when they’re anxious to be left alone.

Again, barking is a normal behaviour and is simply our dogs trying to communicate with us. However, when dogs bark excessively (as in, for many hours of the day or repeatedly in certain situations), this usually indicates an underlying issue. To diagnose the issue, you may need to find out from your neighbours how long your dog barks for after you leave the house.

How to stop your dog from barking?

Find the trigger

The first step is to work out the cause of the problem. Is your dog barking repeatedly in a certain situation because they’re scared of something (also known as a ‘barking trigger’)? Are they barking to get your attention? Are they barking to protect their territory? Are they barking when you’re not at home because they’re bored?

Common trigger situations can be when a dog is scared of another dog, when they’re around objects like vacuums, lawn mowers or cars, or when they’ve been conditioned to be alarmed by something that we usually wouldn’t recognise as frightening, for example people in high visibility clothing, glasses or hats.

Retrain their behaviour

Once you’ve identified the trigger, it’s time to do some simple obedience training to retrain your dog’s brain to not associate the trigger with a need to bark. Behavioural modification training involves using rewards-based, or positive reinforcement, to teach your dog what ‘good’ behaviour is.

Slowly expose your dog to their trigger, and reward them whenever they don’t bark. For example, if your dog’s trigger is someone walking past the fence, have someone approach the fence a number of times, starting out a few metres away and then getting closer and closer each time. Every time your dog doesn’t bark, reward them with a treat. If they do bark, simply ignore them and try again. Likewise, if your dog’s barking is a way of gaining your attention, only give this attention when they are quiet.

You will need to be consistent and patient, and resist any urge to react to barking by shouting at your dog, as this only encourages them to continue. You may hear about aversive techniques such as various kinds of ‘anti-barking’ collars, but besides being cruel, these approaches are ineffective and can also lead to other behaviour problems such as aggression.

Address their environment

Retraining your dog is a great way to encourage them to stop barking, however it may also be necessary to make some changes to their environment so that they’re less likely to bark when you’re not around.

If you think your dog might be barking because they’re not getting enough exercise, take them for a walk each morning before you go to work and see if that makes a difference. Also make sure that your dog has adequate stimulation in the form of entertaining toys or food to keep them occupied during the day. This could come in the form of raw bones (but not too many as they can be fatty), but a safer option would be Kong toys or old-fashioned chew toys.

If you think your dog may be barking because they’re being left alone for long periods of time, explore options like a dog walker or doggy day care to keep them company. Remember that dogs are social animals and generally don’t like to be left alone!

Sometimes when dogs bark excessively in response to a particular stimulus, such as people passing by the front gate, a simple environmental solution such as blocking their view can resolve the problem. Be aware that if your dog sleeps outdoors, there will be many sounds that could potentially trigger barking, such as possums in trees, other dogs barking, or even the wind, so you should bring your dog into the house at night where they will learn to sleep quietly.

Are you at risk of a dog barking complaint?

If your neighbours are getting annoyed at your dog barking, there’s a number of avenues they can take. The first option (and the best for you) is for them to write you a letter/note or come and speak to you in person. This is ideal as it will give you the opportunity to have an honest conversation with them and let them know that you’re addressing the issue.

If you’re potentially not close enough with your neighbours to warrant a conversation, they may speak to a Community Justice Centre, or, in more extreme circumstances, contact the local council. The council will investigate the matter and potentially deliver you a prevention notice, which will instruct you on the steps to need to take the rectify the matter.

However, if you think your dog may have a barking problem, it’s best to prevent the issue from escalating by having an honest and open chat with your neighbours as soon as possible.

How to know when to see a veterinarian

In some excessive barking cases (or if you just need a bit of help with your training), you may need to speak to your veterinarian, who can provide you with advice and maybe refer you to a rewards-based animal behaviourist or veterinary behaviourist. A veterinary consult is advisable if your dog is a compulsive barker, which means they bark for long periods, accompanied by other repetitive behaviours such as circling or jumping. Your veterinarian may need to prescribe a medication for your dog in conjunction with the behavioural modification. In all cases of excessive barking, your veterinarian can also identify and treat any underlying medical causes, such as chronic pain or cognitive decline.

If you do choose to get outside help, avoid any dog trainer who uses negative punishment, as this has been known to create fear in dogs and essentially make the issue worse in the long-term. You can also contact your local RSPCA for advice.

Keeping your dog’s barking in check

You love your dog, and obviously want them to be happy and healthy. However, excessive barking really can be an issue for your dog, you, and your neighbours. Be sure to take steps like behavioural modification training or seeing your veterinarian if you suspect your dog has a barking problem, and you’ll be able to avoid having the matter taken to your local council.

Image of Dr Rosemary Elliot

Dr Rosemary Elliot 

Dr Rosemary studied veterinary science at the University of Sydney after having established her career as a clinical psychologist, and has qualifications of BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), MPsych (Clin), BA (Hons) as well as previously establishing her career as a clinical psychologist. Her experiences during veterinary training fostered an ambition to focus directly on animal welfare and ethics, with a particular interest in animal sentience and the human-animal bond. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Rosemary combines her psychology background and veterinary skills to contribute to and promote animal welfare, and regularly contributes quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance's Pet Care blog.