We’ve all been there. Your neighbor’s dog barks relentlessly and there are no amount of hints you can drop to keep him quiet. Or possibly worse – your own dog seems to bark at nothing and you can’t figure out how to stop him. Either way, trying to remedy a nuisance barker can be frustrating. So, why do some dogs seem to bark constantly, at the slightest disturbance, or sometimes at what appears to be nothing at all?
In my observations, dogs who spend extended periods of time unattended in the yard are far more likely to be nuisance barkers than those who do not. It is also an observation of mine that dogs who are left unattended in the yard for extended periods do not receive adequate mental and physical exercise outside the home. A life confined to the home and yard, with little variety, activity or stimulation is boring and sometimes frustrating. I am not implying dogs left unattended in the yard are neglected. In fact, many of these dogs live otherwise comfortable and pleasant lives. But to a dog – an animal designed to travel – being imprisoned in the same space, day in and day out, can be like prison.
Imagine yourself in this position.
Your basic needs might be met (food, water, shelter, and perhaps even some entertainment), but you rarely (or never) get to leave your home, experience new things, or socialize with others of your own kind. You would go nuts! Over the years, your frustration would build and soon you would likely develop maladaptive habits and compulsions as your brain desperately tries to find stimulation, purpose, and satisfaction. Dogs are social predators (travelers). It is in every dog’s genetic code to be social with other dogs and to explore their world. Birds fly. Fish swim. Dogs walk.
Backyard barking can also be a result of a phenomenon called Barrier Reactivity. Barrier Reactivity occurs when a dog barks intensely at a fence (or other barrier) when a stimulant such as a person or another dog passes by. Barrier Reactivity can most easily be observed at an animal shelter. This is a place where many of the dogs will bark intensely at their kennel door when you pass, but once you meet the dog in person, he is a friendly wiggle monster eager to play ball.
Barrier Reactivity is a form of frustration based in the dog’s intense desire to access or drive away whatever it sees on the other side of the barrier. This behavior can be based in curiosity, pent up energy, fear, and territory – among many other reasons. It’s a disconnect of the mind and body – the dog’s body is in the confines of the yard, but its mind is outside the fence. Bottom line, Barrier Reactivity is a cocktail of pent up energy, frustration and habitual rehearsal.
Fear and insecurity can also play a role. Some dogs can feel confined or trapped within a fenced yard and “put on a show” to attempt to keep intruders away. Over time, this can develop into a near paranoia, where the dog is set off at the slightest disturbance. This can be the hardest type of Barrier Reactivity to remedy, as the dog can self-reinforce this behavior. That is, every time the perceived threat (i.e. the mailman) comes by, the dog barks, and the threat almost always leaves. In his mind, barking at the threat made it go away. So, what can you do about a nuisance barker?
IF YOU LIVE WITH A BARKER:
Don’t leave your dog(s) in the yard while you’re at work.
If you leave your dog outside while you are gone because otherwise he might soil in the house, chew up the sofa, or get into other trouble, these are behavioral problems in themselves that may require the consult of a professional trainer. Leaving your dog outdoors to prevent destructive behaviors indoors is not a solution – you are simply transferring your dog’s behavior problems to a new location. Consider crate training your dog and ensure he gets a vigorous morning, midday, and evening walk. Provide ample enrichment toys to help entertain your dog while he is alone – stuffed and frozen Kong toys are a GREAT option.
Consider doggie daycare – even just a couple times a week.
Nowadays, it’s surprisingly affordable and available. Daycare can be a great way for your dog to socialize, get some exercise, and break up your work week. It also allows you to come home to a dog who is ready to relax for the evening.
If your dog continues to be a nuisance barker even when you are at home, supervision in the yard is a must.
For a time, you may have to accompany your dog outdoors on a leash. You must also be proactive about interrupting barking spells and barrier reactivity. Hint: shouting at him from the back door is not an option – think about how this really just mimics the behavior your dog is displaying. Instead, go to him, clap your hands, spray him with a squirt bottle, and/or escort him inside etc.
IF YOUR NEIGHBOR HAS A BARKER:Avoid any “aggressive” action towards the dog on the other side of the fence.
Regardless of WHY the dog is barking – shouting, glaring, or throwing things at the dog will likely only increase the barking. Avoid direct eye contact and facing the dog head on. Instead move about calmly and silently with your side to the fence, allowing the dog to investigate your scent. Only when the dog ceases barking should you move away from the fence. This may help teach the dog that you are not a threat, but also you will hold your ground and not be “scared” off by his barking.
Contact the owner and ask if you may toss treats over the fence.
If given permission to do so, toss the treats as far from the fence line as possible to encourage the dog to leave the fence and hopefully begin to create a positive association with you. Sometimes this method can backfire and actually reinforce the barking behavior, but more often than not, it does help. (Avoid this option if there are multiple dogs in the yard, as this could spark an unintended dog-fight).
Meet the dog.
Even if you’re not a dog person, or have been harboring resentment to the barking dog(s) for many months or years, inquire if you can meet the dog and perhaps tag along on some walks (this can also encourage the neighbor to provide more exercise for the dog).
Remember, no matter what behavior problem you might be seeing from your dog, increasing daily mental and physical exercise is a great place to start. Nuisance barking is a challenging habit to break and will require dedication and perhaps some change in your daily routine. Consider consulting a professional to help – it is a worthy investment. Visit The International Association of Canine Professionals to find a highly qualified trainer or behaviorist near you.
If you are the neighbor of a nuisance barker, remember to keep your cool and avoid harboring a negative attitude – the neighbor might be just as frustrated with the problem as you are or they may be defensive about being approached. Ultimately, it is the dog owner’s responsibility to solve this problem. But as the neighbor, fostering a positive helpful attitude certainly can’t hurt!