It’s the middle of the night – and was that Rover barking?
As much fun as dogs are, incessant barking can really get on your nerves, not to mention your neighbors’ nerves and those of strangers passing your house or met on walks.
And there are times you wonder if Rover can see ghosts when he barks but there’s nothing or no one there.
If your dog is constantly raising a disturbance, you could get complaints from the neighbors that can result in your dog being rehomed, devocalized, or even euthanized, depending on your local laws.
If you’re living in an apartment, your landlord may eventually have to make you choose between giving up your dog or being evicted.
Let’s take a look at what dogs bark at and why, and what you can do about incessant barking.
Do Dogs Bark at Nothing?
While science has yet to prove that dogs bark at ghosts, mainly because science has yet to prove there are ghosts, they do bark at a lot of stimuli not obvious to us.
Dogs often bark at seemingly nothing because their senses detected something ours can’t. A dog has a sense of smell at least 10,000 times more sensitive than ours, their ears can pick up sounds much fainter and at frequencies beyond what our ears can, and they even see in the dark.
Most adult humans can’t hear frequencies above 20,000 Hertz, while dogs can hear frequencies as high as 47,000 to 65,000 Hertz.
Rover can also hear sounds as low as -5 to -15 decibels while our ears can just barely pick up 0 decibels.
So if there’s a mouse moving behind the wall or a bicyclist coasting past your house, Rover can hear it.
As for their eyes, you may have noticed Rover’s eyes shining or even glaring red when they caught a car’s headlights or you took a photo of him with flash. Put away your garlic and holy water.
What you’re seeing is not some infernal influence, but light reflecting off Rover’s tapetum lucidum, a layer of tissue inside the eye that gathers and reflects light into the retina.
This effectively increases the light hitting your dog’s retinas, allowing him to see in very low light. Not as well as a cat, but still much better than you.
Your dog may also be barking not at an external stimulus, but an internal one. In other words, Rover’s barking because of something he feels. Dogs may bark because they’re feeling lonely or bored, particularly if they’re suffering from separation anxiety.
If your dog is a high-companionship-need breed like the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and tends to bark his head off when left alone, it’s very likely separation anxiety barking.
6 Reasons Why Your Dog Won’t Stop Barking at People
Dogs bark at people for a range of reasons depending on the dog’s personality.
The typical situation at home is the alert bark — “Master, there’s someone outside!” Friendly dogs may bark to say “Hi there! Let’s play!”, while territorial breeds, especially watchdogs, will bark to say “Get off my lawn!”
When your dog barks incessantly or threateningly at people even away from home, it can be a sign that you haven’t socialized your dog sufficiently or your dog suffers from some emotional issues. Let’s look at some possible reasons why Rover won’t stop barking at people:
Your dog is overprotective
Your dog considers himself top dog in your pack and wants to defend the pack against all strangers. You may have accidentally encouraged this by spoiling your dog with affection while neglecting obedience training, especially if you’ve been letting your dog get away with unwanted behaviors.
Your dog thinks the world is his territory
This is a sign of insufficient socialization, as your dog has yet to realize the boundaries of his territory. Like a spoiled child who’s never had to interact with other kids, your dog may not understand he can’t claim everything he sees – so wherever he is, stranger equals intruder.
Well-socialized dogs in contrast know they’re not home when you’re walking them, so they’re less likely to do territorial barking in the park.
Your dog is scared of people
This is usually caused by insufficient socialization, a naturally shy and fearful nature, or a history of abuse. These factors can combine into a powder keg of trouble, as a dog constantly in fight or flight mode may decide to attack if it can’t get away.
Some dogs may react more to certain kinds of people due to past experiences, especially trauma or abuse.
For example, if your dog was once yelled at by a jogger in red, your dog may react more to people dressed in red. If your dog was once abused by a man, your dog may be okay with women but react badly to all men.
Your dog feels cornered
Dogs like to have control over how they can respond to threatening presences such as strangers. If your dog is scared of a stranger but feels he can’t get away, he’ll be more stimulated to bark so the stranger keeps his distance.
This is particularly prevalent with small dogs that are being carried, or if you react to your small dog’s barking at strangers by picking him up and hugging him. This makes your dog feel confined and helpless instead of reassuring him as you intended.
You have been rewarding your dog for barking
Another possible development from always hugging or petting your dog to reassure it when it barks at people is that it feels rewarded for the behavior. To your dog, barking at people has become a way to get affection from Master.
Your dog wants to play or craves attention
A dog that won’t stop barking an invitation to play or for attention is usually a combination of bored and spoiled. Your dog may not be getting enough exercise or mentally stimulating play or is trying to make up for time left alone.
This can be exacerbated by spoiling your dog when you do get home, especially if you inadvertently reward undesirable behaviors.
Do you pet or cuddle your dog every time he barks at you?
Do you alternate between periods of having no time at all for your dog and smothering him with affection?
Do you let him beg scraps from the table while you’re having dinner?
These can cause a dog to think it needs to bark more for your attention, and if your friends and family act as you do, the dog may think the behavior works for all humans.
Should You Let My Dog Continue Barking at People?
A dog’s response to people can range from total, silent indifference to frenzied, nonstop barking.
For your security, it’s best to encourage a happy medium – your dog should know when to give alert barks, but also know when to stop.
A well-behaved dog barks only enough to let you know something needs your attention, but once you’ve taken charge or given the command to stop, it stops.
Incessant, over-the-top barking is a problem behavior that needs to be understood and corrected. Try to find out what is stressing your dog and take corrective measures.
This means careful training and socialization, and application of negative, not positive punishment.
Should You Punish My Dog for Barking at People?
For most of us, we think of punishment as positive punishment: yelling at, scaring, even hitting a dog, or using devices like shock collars. Positive punishment for barking or any problem behavior however can cause more problems than it solves.
In the short term, positive punishment stresses out a dog.
If you’re punishing a dog for barking, you’re often adding stress to its already stressed state. This can amp up your dog’s fight or flight response, and instead of calming it down when it’s reacting aggressively to a stranger, it makes a bite more likely to happen.
Over the long term, positive punishment has been shown to make dogs more fearful or aggressive, is less effective at reinforcing desired behaviors and stopping unwanted ones, and worst of all weakens your dog’s bond with you.
This creates a vicious cycle: the more you punish your dog, the less your dog likes you and responds to your training, which makes you punish your dog more.
Break the cycle by using positive reinforcement in the form of affection and food rewards, and by using negative punishment.
What to Do to Stop Dog From Barking at People?
Getting your dog to stop barking too much at people requires a two-pronged approach.
First, we’ll look at things you can do at the moment the behavior is happening, and then we’ll look at long-term solutions.
Distance the Dog From the Disturbance
When your dog won’t stop barking at someone, it’s because that someone’s within your dog’s reaction range.
This distance will vary from dog to dog, but for many dogs, out of sight is out of mind. To isolate your dog from a barking stimulus, simply move the dog away.
If you’re outdoors, you can move your dog away until the person it’s barking at is out of reaction range. If your dog is reacting to a guest at home, you can take the dog into another room or the back yard, anywhere from which the guest is out of sight.
This works both as a stopgap measure to stop the barking and as negative punishment. When Rover starts to realize he gets shunted out of your presence every time he barks at guests, he’ll also learn to bark less.
If your dog tends to bark at the fence or through the window, consider changing the visibility of the outside by using a board fence or closing the curtains. Playing music, the TV, or a white noise generator can also help your dog calm down if it was reacting to sounds outside.
Distract Your Dog
Dogs don’t multitask, so one way to get Rover to stop barking is to call Rover’s attention elsewhere.
Call your dog and get him to look at you or make a noise that’ll make him curious. It helps if you’ve already taught him the ‘Look at me’ or a similar command. Reward your dog only when it changes focus and stops barking.
To keep your dog from starting again, immediately give him something else to do as soon as you’ve got his attention. You could start a game, give him a toy, have him go somewhere like his crate, or do a trick. Make sure to reward him for doing what you ask.
Close Your Dog’s Mouth
You can stop your dog from barking in low-tension situations by gently holding his muzzle closed for a few seconds. Immediately afterward, reward him with praise or a treat for being quiet. Reward him more for relaxing or focusing on you instead of resuming barking.
When you keep doing this, your dog will eventually associate barking with his mouth being closed, which dogs don’t like, but being quiet gets treats.
Do not use this technique however in high-tension situations. If your dog is barking frenziedly out of fear or aggression, holding his muzzle closed will only increase the pressure he’s feeling. It could even lead to a bite.
You can use this method for situations like your dog doing a greeting or attention-demand bark at a guest or barking at people seen outside the window.
How to Teach Dogs to Stop Barking at People
Over the long run, it’s good to teach your dog a set of habits and responses to correct or prevent problem behaviors like excess barking. This involves not only teaching your dog a ‘Quiet’ command but also making sure he’s happy and well-adjusted. A secure and confident dog who knows its boundaries is a quieter dog.
Teach a Dog to Calm Down
Dogs bark because they’re excited. It may be good excitement, in anticipation of play or welcome guests, or negative excitement in the form of fear. Either way, bringing down your dog’s excitement level is an effective way of getting it to be quieter.
Teaching a ‘Relax’ or similar settling command is also a good prelude to teaching ‘Quiet.’ While the ‘Quiet’ command alone may get Rover to shut up, if Rover remains excited he’s likely to start again.
When your dog knows this command, you can use it immediately after giving a ‘Quiet’ command to defuse Rover’s excitement and get him to stay quiet.
Eventually, you will even be able to anticipate a barking spell and tell your dog to Relax before the barking begins.
To teach your dog a ‘Relax’ command:
- It will help if you exercise your dog first. This works off excess energy and makes the dog a bit hungry, which makes treats more effective as a reward.
- Start the training in a quiet place. Place a mat on the floor. Have plenty of treats on hand, in tiny portions. (Don’t let Rover get full during training – for dogs, full belly = class dismissed!)
- Start capturing desired behaviors. Begin by rewarding the dog for just being on the mat. Then progress to rewarding when the dog sits on the mat, then when the dog lies down on the mat.
- When the dog shows relaxed behavior, give the command word – for example, “Relax,” in a calm tone and reward.
- Gradually decrease the frequency between rewards so your dog has to stay calm longer to get the next reward.
Teach the ‘Quiet’ Command
Teaching a dog to be quiet will be one of your greatest training challenges. Many dog breeds are bred to bark, and if you’ve got one of those you’ll be fighting your dog’s instincts all the way. However, with patience and the right approach you can succeed.
To teach the ‘Quiet’ command:
- Do your initial training sessions in a quiet place free of distractions. It also helps to tire your dog out with some vigorous play first, to drain excess energy, and make your dog keener for food rewards.
- Have plenty of treats on hand, and a means to get your dog excited such as a squeaky toy. You will need something likely to make your dog bark. With many dogs, the mere fact that you have treats is often enough to make them bark.
- Get your dog to bark at you. The moment it pauses, praise and reward it.
- Start associating the command ‘Quiet’ with its silent moments.
- When your dog starts associating stretches of silence with rewards, start increasing the duration between rewards. This teaches your dog you don’t just want a momentary cessation of barking, you want him to stay quiet longer.
Teach Your Dog to Greet Guests
Attention-hungry dogs will often bark a lot even at guests they’re already familiar with, and it’s natural for any dog to greet strangers with warning barks.
To get your dog to stop this, you will need to teach it behaviors that allow him to recover his calm and wait for attention instead of demanding it.
To teach your dog how to greet guests properly:
- First, teach your dog how you want to be greeted when you come through the door. Command your dog to sit or stay and practice coming through the door, rewarding your dog every time he holds the sit or stay instead of giving in to his excitement.
- Next, have a friend or family member help you by taking the role of a visitor. You will be doing exercises like what to do when someone knocks or rings the doorbell. Again, train your dog to sit or stay when someone is at the door. This helps Rover get the concept that ‘I should stay whenever anyone comes through the door.’
- Train your dog to look at you, be quiet, and relax when a visitor arrives. ‘Look at me’ disrupts the dog’s focus on the visitor, ‘Quiet’ tells him he should stop barking, and ‘Relax’ calms him down.
- Train your dog to have a default behavior when someone comes over. This could be taking up a toy, which keeps his mouth full thus preventing barking, or going to his mat and sitting there. Dogs are calmed by routine, so having a concrete fallback behavior when an exciting event happens helps your dog lose his nervous energy.
- Use negative punishment to teach your dog not to demand attention from guests. Have guests ignore your dog when it barks or jumps at them, then give the dog treats once it falls silent.
- Teach friends and family how to greet your dog. There are dog lovers who don’t mind when a host’s dog jumps all over them, but this behavior should be discouraged because it’s unsafe for kids and elderly folk. Make sure visiting kids don’t demand to play with your dog immediately but go through a calm greeting first.
Desensitize Your Dog to Barking Stimuli
It’s normal for dogs to bark at anything they find strange or distressing. There are even dogs that are set off by the music of an ice cream truck.
I once had a dog that was driven bananas by pigeons. To get your dog to stop barking at these stimuli, you can use desensitization training.
Desensitization is getting your dog to accept something it reacts to as normal and non-disturbing. This is usually paired with counterconditioning, which converts your dog’s negative reactions to a positive one through rewards.
To countercondition and desensitize your dog:
- Identify the stimulus making your dog react.
- Expose your dog to the stimulus at a low intensity. For example, if your dog is reacting to the neighbor’s dog, let your dog see the neighbor’s dog from a distance. This should be far enough that the dog acknowledges the presence of the stimulus but doesn’t react badly yet.
- Reward the dog. Keep rewarding your dog as long as it doesn’t display the problem behavior (in this case, barking).
- As your dog starts associating remaining composed with rewards, practice increasing the stimulus. Go closer, or if you’re conditioning your dog not to react to a sound, play it louder.
- If your dog loses control, go back to a lower stimulation level. This is likely to happen with anxious and aggressive dogs, especially those that have been traumatized by what you’re desensitizing them to.
- Reward small victories, but keep raising the bar by increasing the stimulus. If you can do this frequently enough, your dog will cease to have negative associations with the stimulus and consider it normal, even positive.
Tips for Raising a Secure Dog
Between a cooped-up dog who thinks the world is always out to get him and a confident dog who trusts humans and is used to the sights and sounds of the city – which do you think will have a barking problem?
You didn’t even have to guess, right?
Bringing up a dog with a balanced psyche takes time and effort on your part, guided by knowledge.
Pick up a dog training book from Amazon, or watchdog trainers’ Youtube videos. Websites like the American Kennel Club and Spruce Pets have plenty of reliable information on training.
Here are some tips for raising a secure, balanced dog:
Give Your Dog Enough Exercise
Most dogs have a surprising amount of energy. When they don’t get to use it, they get bored and frustrated, which makes them more reactive and more demanding. You can head off a lot of behavior problems by giving your dog enough exercise.
How much exercise is required depends on your dog’s breed and personality, so make sure to research the breed and get to know your dog well.
If you have a rescue dog, try to spend extra time with him during your first several weeks together so you get to know his quirks. Intelligent breeds like Collies will need not only physical exercise but mental challenges.
Try to play fetch or find the hidden object with your dog daily. If you don’t have the time, consider hiring a dog walker or checking Rover into doggy daycare.
Socialize Your Dog Well
You may be reluctant to walk your dog in the park because of his barking habit. This however creates a negative cycle. The less you walk your dog, the less it’s socialized, and the less socialized your dog, the more likely it is to overreact to other people and dogs.
Start socializing an overreactive dog in low-distraction environments, where others are few and usually encountered at a good distance away.
As your dog grows in confidence and calm, work your way up to higher-density areas. Make sure to teach your dog how to refocus on you by teaching a ‘Look at me’ or similar command, and bring toys and treats to distract him.
Give your dog more and more chances to interact with other people and dogs as he grows in confidence. This helps your dog to accept city life as normal and to stop being territorial everywhere he goes.
Don’t Reward Problem Behaviors
Just like children, dogs should be taught clearly what behaviors are desirable and which are not. If you spoil your dog by giving in to demand barking or encouraging guests to pet him when he yaps and jumps at them, you’re rewarding the wrong behaviors.
You may think it’s just being nice to your dog, but really what you’re doing is sending the message that your dog stands above you in the pack and he can do whatever he wants. Avoid this problem by clearly rewarding only the behaviors you want. For example:
- Your dog is barking his head off. You pet him and talk to him to reassure him. This rewards him for problem barking. Instead, you should have asked to dog to be quiet, and rewarded him only when he stopped barking.
- Your dog yaps at you demanding food, so you give him a scrap. You just said, ‘Yes, boss’ to your dog! If your dog was begging from your table, you should train him to wait to eat until you’re done. Remember that in pack society, eating order is by rank; by giving your dog food while you were at table you’ve told him he’s your equal or superior.
- Your dog yaps at you demanding to be picked up, so you hug him. Again, ‘Yes, boss.’ Instead, you should have told the dog to be quiet and rewarded him only for doing as asked.
- Your dog barks and jumps at a visitor, so you try to distract him by patting him, or encourage your visitor to interact with him. Again, this is allowing your dog to dominate you and your friends. Instead, you should have told him to be quiet or sit and allowed the interaction only after your dog obeyed and calmed down.
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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The Pet Rescue.