How Many Barks does a Nuisance Dog Make?

According to a paper that I read recently, nuisance barking is identified as a major, worldwide behavior problem that affects 1 in 3 dogs, is a frequent cause of neighbor disputes, and is a common cause of relinquishment of dogs by their owners to shelters and rescue groups (1).

Hmmm…. Nuisance barking.

So, once again, it is all about us. Because really, if we asked the dogs to tell us why they are barking, I would venture that the vast majority would NOT say: “Oh, because I want to be a nuisance“.

Rather (and I know you trainers and behaviorists are with me on this one), their reasons, in no particular order, are much more likely to be:

  1. I am bored because I spend too much time alone.
  2. I am stressed because I am uncomfortable being alone.
  3. I feel territorial around my home’s doors, windows, or yard.
  4. I am responding to noises in my neighborhood such as other dogs barking, vehicles approaching or people walking by.
  5. I am responding to the sight of people or other animals outside or near my home.

So, let me begin by saying, up front, that I was irritated by the title of this paper and the authors’ casual acceptance of the term nuisance barking. And yes, I know that the term can function as a way of classifying what people tell others and also how some animal control agencies handle barking complaints. However, if the place at which we begin is by classifying any barking that an owner (or neighbor) does not like in terms of human comfort and perspective, where exactly does that lead us regarding how we think about the dogs who are doing this barking? (Remember the Ben Franklin effect?) I would argue that the term nuisance barking itself is highly pejorative because once such a label is applied you now have a bad dog who needs correcting or a bark collar or relinquishment to a shelter. Because heavens, we certainly cannot live with a nuisance in our lives, can we now?

The good news is that once I got that rant out of my system, I went on to read an interesting study. Here is what they did:

The Study: Study participants were 25 dogs who had been identified by their owners as being guilty of the nefarious deed “nuisance barking.” The researchers were interested in determining the actual frequencies and durations of this type of barking and if there were clear factors in a dog’s life or behavior that were related. They studied this using a bark counter, a device that when mounted on a dog’s flat collar will record the duration, frequency and number of distinct barks throughout a pre-designated period. Each dog was fitted with a counter and barking was recorded continuously over a 7-day period. All of the owners also completed a questionnaire that provided information about themselves and their dog.

Results: A wide range of bark frequencies and durations were recorded.  For example, frequencies ranged from 10 to more than 500 barks in an hour. Dogs barked most frequently when their owner was away and the majority of the dogs in the sample (84 %) were confined to a yard or garden area when the owner was not at home. (Hmmm…..might these two things be related?).

Coincidence

Bark patterns throughout the day suggested that much of the barking was reactive – dogs were responding to one or more stimuli in their environment. When asked, many of the owners could readily identify the cause. The most frequently cited stimuli were the presence of people or other animals as they passed by the dog’s yard. (In other words, many owners already knew exactly what was causing their dog to bark).

Although few significant factors in dogs’ lives were found to influence barking (possibly because of the small sample size), the researchers did find a negative association between the amount of obedience training that a dog had received and degree of barking; dogs who had received training had lower barking frequencies than dogs who had not. A weak association was also found between the number of neighboring dogs and barking; dogs who lived near several other dogs were more likely to bark than dogs who did not. (And there’s a second environmental stimulus…..).

Take Away for Dog Folks: First, let’s forget the “nuisance” label. It is a red herring. Please stop using that word.

Keep Using

Second, it is significant that the owners of the dogs enrolled in this study were able to identify at least one clear underlying cause of their dog’s excessive barking (the presence of passersby near the dog’s yard). Neighboring dogs were apparently also a trigger for some dogs.

Huh. So, it really is not what some owners insist that it is.

Bark at Nothing

It seems to me we have more of an owner problem here than a dog problem. These data suggest that reactive barking is a common cause of excessive barking in dogs who are isolated in yards. And, lo and behold, there are several tried and true methods for reducing territorial or reactive barking in dogs (it really ain’t rocket science). These include:

  1. Reduce the time that the dog spends isolated in the yard.
  2. Train an alternative behavior (response substitution), such as coming away from the barrier (fence, property edge).
  3. Manage the behavior by preventing the dog’s ability to see/hear the triggering stimuli (privacy screens, bring the dog indoors).
  4. Increase the dog’s daily exercise, mental and emotional stimulation so that the dog spends less time isolated in the yard (if necessary hire a dog walker or use a reputable doggy day care).

I am back in my snit, it appears. It is my contention that dogs and their people are much better served if we stop using anthropocentric classifications for problem behaviors that label dogs as nuisances. Rather, as this study corroborates, dogs bark for reasons and often these reasons are something that we can remove, modify or manage. If we begin the discussion with “I have a nuisance dog who barks too much” we have all the further to go towards changing perspective and identifying the cause so that we can start helping both the dog and the owner.

Because dogs bark. And some dogs bark a lot. Maybe too much. (Just like people talk and some people certainly talk too much…..[you know these people, the nuisance talkers]. For those people in your life, you are on your own). For the dogs, I am with all of the trainers out there who start by finding out why the dog is barking, eliminating or modifying that cause, adding in a bit of training, exercising, and playing, with the ultimate goal of this:

Does not bark at nothing

Happy Training.

Cited Study: Raglus TI, Groef BD, Marston LC. Can bark counter collars and owner surveys help identify factors that relate to nuisance barking? A pilot study. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2015; 10:204-209.

 

 

23 thoughts on “How Many Barks does a Nuisance Dog Make?

  1. Once again Linda, you’ve hit the nail on the head…how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll…err I mean barks to make a nuisance barker! I often tell my husband when he yells at the barkers all they hear is that dad is joining in to the party!

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  2. Such a puny study (25 dogs for one week . . . could be an honors project) for such a major problem. Still, something is better than nothing, and good on you for posting it.
    Seems to me that neglect, in the form of solitary confinement with no stimulation, is the number one form of cruelty to dogs in the USA. Also a major contributor to unwanted behaviors (such as hole digging, chewing, and escaping).

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    • Agree regarding neglect, Jen. I find it tremendously sad that so many continue to consider it acceptable to confine a dog to a yard (or worse, a crate) for 8+ hours a day with the belief that the dog’s needs are being met with this type of lifestyle. It is especially disturbing given the many resources available for help these days. (Concerning the small study…..not sure I agree as 25 dogs who live in homes enrolled in a study is a reasonable number for a dog study. These studies take a tremendous amount of work, follow-up, and funding to complete. I give the researchers lots of credit for their work and for the information that they provide in this study).

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      • Hi Everyone, thanks for your interest in this study. I am one of the authors of this study. It was an Hons project and conducted with very little funding. That is why it is a pilot project and relatively limited – but you have to start somewhere:). Although it didn’t progress to being a larger and more comprehensive study, we have a number of our councils that are now routinely using the bark and activity collars to gain a better understanding of barking complaints, which is fantastic. Getting the involvement of councils to access residents with ‘problem’ animals was one of the trickier aspects of this work and kudos to those progressive councils who were willing to help.

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      • Hi Dr. Marston – Thanks for your comment. It is great to learn that the bark counter collars to investigate complaints and to learn more about the underlying causes of barking – this is such a great example of research results being put to use that ends up helping dogs and their people! Thanks for all that you do! Linda Case

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  3. Bravo! Now if only all dog owners would take the trouble to get some guidance on why their dog is always barking. I get tired of hearing “Oh .. he’s always been like that. It’s what some dogs do!” If I even hint that there maybe an underlying cause or trigger (and I use our Ray as an example), I get “No. He’s always been like that!” So sad for the poor dog. 😦

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  4. I have 2 large dogs, and have been working from home most of the time we’ve had them. They are confined to the kitchen & yard when we are not home, because one of them can not be trusted with my husband’s things when home alone. They get a good amount of daily excercise, often several good walks per day but at least one, and often jogging and training. They don’t bark much when we are home because they are not allowed to, but as soon as we leave, they do a lot of barking and howling, say the neighbours… even if they are only alone for a few hours. In fact, they often start already when I’m on the way to my car… what sounds like a wolf choir arise from our backyard before I even get in the car.

    There is a lot of barking and howling in the neighourhood overall, and it is very difficult for our dogs to not respond to that. When we are home, we can redirect them, but as soon as we leave… they bark and howl. My point is that the only reason our dogs are overall not aroundthe clock “nuisance barkers”, is that I’m mostly home to stop that. For a lot of people who work full time out of home, that isn’t an option. We wouldn’t be able to afford a doggy daycare or dog walkers if we needed that – and for a lot of other people it isn’t an option either, financially or for other reasons. Our dogs are strong, big and can be very dog aggressive, so we are not comfortable to let others walk them, and doggy day care would probably not be an option for the same reason, should that be relevant. I imagine many others may be in similar situations.

    Also: despite my love of dogs, I do find sudden or relentless barking very stressful. We have a little yappy dog next door, and because the owners work long hours, they are not there to redirect it. It is indeed very annoying (for our dogs too… it provokes them). I can only begin to imagine how frustrated people get who don’t even have or like dogs, if they happen to have barkers like that in their near neighbourhood, especially if they happen to be noise sensitive and startle easily (I do, which is why I understand them). So: I can certainly understand the term “nuisance barker”. I don’t mean to say your arguments are irrelevant, just that it is important to acknowledge that barking can indeed be a serious nuisance, and it isn’t always just a matter of changing perspective.

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      • They sure prefer when we are home, but I am not so sure if they howl due to separation anxiety – at least not always. They don’t always look thrilled when I or my husband walk back in through the house and interrupt their concert, and they’ve also been howling on a few occasions when I was home (I was in the house, they were outside, but they have a dog-door and can be indoor or outdoor as they please). They seem to mainly respond to neighbourhood dogs’ howling or barking (there is a quite barky/howly soundscape around here at various times of the day). They don’t usually howl or bark often when we’re home, but that is probably because we immediately ask them to stop and redirect them so something else… if they were allowed, I am sure they would bark and howl much more often also when we’re home.

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      • Anyway, I welcome your suggestions to decrease separation anxiety. I have been on this planet for a while, so I have probably tried some of them already.

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  5. Great article – thank you.

    I am always saying to clients, “Don’t spend so much time focusing on the undesirable behaviour… instead, focus on what is causing the behaviour to happen. Deal with that, and then the undesirable behaviour disappears.” And on that note, I’ve heard/read (from various sources) it is felt that as many as 20% of family dogs suffer from isolation distress or separation anxiety to some extent. Certainly a sad state of affairs and certainly a common cause for vocalizations that neighbours will deem to be a “nuisance” to them.

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  7. Dogs AWAYS bark for a reason — but that doesn’t mean that it is a reason either we the owners, or the neighbours sympathise with 😦
    My crew run to the fence and bark up a storm, then rush around to my bedroom window to see if I have woken up YET! And they keep on doing it because it works 😦 I’m sure that the neighboutrs fins it a nuisance.
    One of the neighbours dogs gets that monotonous ‘I’m alone, Somebody come and talk to me” barking from early evening to pretty late 😦 I feel VERY irritated by the neighbours — Yes it is nuisance barking, but the people COULD do something about it

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  8. I will NOT stop using the term. I live next to a couple of these dogs of irresponsible owners and have had a little “come to Jesus” with one of them (and police got involved). I mailed (anonymously) our town’s dog ordinance as pertains to nuisance barking, which includes fines, loss of dog, and even jail time, along with some random HOAs list of “How to Be a Considerate Dog Owner”. Luckily that neighbor took the hint and dealt with his dogs. Anyone that lets their dog bark constantly and disturb their neighbors is a complete tool. I have trained all of my dogs not to bark, as well as all the problem foster dogs that have come through my door. There is just NO EXCUSE for allowing dogs to bark all the time. Dogs that bark at the mailman daily, people and dogs passing on the sidewalk, squirrels, cats, etc. ARE “nuisances” to everyone else. Be a responsible owner.

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    • Karen, I think that that was the point being made. The dog’s (dogs’) “barking” is a nuisance — the FAULT is with the owners.
      Many years ago, while home on Stuvac (study leave) the neighbour’s dog, who was chained in the back yard, kept up a monotonous bark all day for two days. I couldn’t study, and I was getting more and more stressed, because I KNEW that the owners were home. My Mum told me to ignore it! (Fat chance!) I finally summed up the courage to visit the neighbour who said to me that the dog was obviously barking because there was a lurker in the yard and she was not “going out there!” She refused to let me go out to the dog to check on him. Meekley I suggested that maybe the dog was just thirsty — did I cop a lungful! But she agreed to go out and check him IF I came up beside her on our side of the fence. Yeah! And the dog was thirsty, and out of water!
      So NOT at all a nuisance dog — just nuisance owner 😦

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  10. Interesting.

    What kind of takeaway can we expect for working dogs? Most of the nuisance dogs in the neighbourhood are owned by mushers or hunters. And those ones do a lot of damage to the house if taken inside, and the owners do exercise and train them more frequently than the average pet-owner.

    And even if taking them inside is an option with environmental destruction, a lot of them can’t function in the autumn or winter since they are not conditioned to the cold.

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