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?).


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.



You Barkin’ At Me?

I have a ring tone on my mobile phone that I really like. It barks. Five barks (bark-bark-bark-bark-bark) for each ring. It is a real dog’s voice, not a person fake-barking in that annoying way that certain people feel compelled to do when they see a dog. (Really, what is that about anyway?). Earlier this week, my phone started barking while I was getting my hair cut. My hairdresser laughed and asked if any of my  dogs react to the barking phone. I told him that no, they always ignore it, which is strange, since it is definitely the recording of a real dog bark.

To which he replied “Maybe the dog isn’t saying anything”.

Barking Cartoon

Maybe. But recent research suggests that dogs do have something to say and that other dogs are often quite interested in hearing what that is.

Background information: The auditory (vocal) signals that animals make often have important communication functions and possess context-specific information. This means that a sound may be conveying information about several things at once. For example, an alarm call may vary in subtle but detectable ways depending on the location of the threat and how dangerous it is. Vocalizations may also be important signals that allow animals to recognize and identify one another. Indeed, this ability has been demonstrated in a wide range of species of birds, mammals, and even amphibians.

So, what about dogs? Previous research has shown that like many other animals, the sounds that dogs make are varied and highly context-specific and that humans, especially those who are experienced with dogs, are quite capable of distinguishing between different types of dog barks (1,2). However, while it is easy to test a human’s response to dog barks (we can just ask them questions), it is more difficult to ask dogs what they are learning when they listen to the vocalizations of other dogs.


Difficult, but not impossible. A group of ethologists at the Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary recently designed two clever experiments in which they were able to ask dogs – What are other dogs saying to you when they bark?

The technique: The reseachers used an approach called “habituation-dishabituation” to measure dogs’ reactions to the recorded sounds of barking.  The technique works like this. The dogs were first allowed to habituate to recordings of a particular dog who was barking in a particular situation. Habituation was measured by recording the number of seconds that the listening dog continued to show interest in a dog/situation combination over time. A decrease in attention was interpreted to indicate habituation. A dog would stop reacting to the sound as it lost significance much in the way we habituate to the sound of our air conditioner kicking on because it is heard repeatedly through the day.  Then (here is the clever part), the researchers changed either the identity of the dog who was barking or the context of the bark. The introduction of something that is new or unexpected should cause dishabituation, but only if the listener notices the change. (For example, if your air conditioner suddenly started making a rattling noise, you would dishabituate to it and take notice, right?).  In this case, if the listening dog responded by suddenly increasing his/her attention to the recording, this means that the dog noticed the change and so was capable of distinguishing between different dogs and/or different causes of barking. If on the other hand, the change did not cause a change in the listener dog’s behavior, such a result would indicate that the dog had habituated to the general sounds of a dog barking and was not gleaning any specific information from the recordings. The group of investigators published two studies with dogs using this technique.

Study 1: The researchers recorded the barks from five adult dogs in two different contexts; either in response to an unfamiliar person approaching a garden area or when left alone, tied to a tree in a park (3). They then brought 30 other dogs into the lab and played the recordings from a hidden recorder, first allowing habituation to a particular dog/situation and then, for the dishabituation test, changing either the dog or the cause.  Results: The subject dogs consistently showed an increase in interest to the recordings in response to both a change in identity of the dog who was barking and also in response to a change in the cause of barking. These results suggest that dogs are capable of differentiating who is barking when they hear another dog and what the dog is barking about. What this study design could not tell us however, is what exact type of information (if any) the dogs were gleaning from the recorded dogs or if they were capable of identifying a known individual by his or her bark.

Study 2: This time around, the researchers asked the question – Do dogs recognize the barks of other dogs who they know and do they react to what their friends are barking about (4)?  A group of 16 dogs, all living in multiple-dog homes, were tested. The dogs were tested in their own homes (so had an attachment to the context) and they listened to a hidden recording of either an unfamiliar dog or of one of their housemate dogs (who was not present at the time, because that would just be weird). The two situations were the same – barking when left alone or barking at an unfamiliar person approaching the yard’s fence. Each dog’s reactions were videotaped to allow careful analysis of any changes in behavior while listening to the recordings. Results: The dogs showed specific behaviors that depended upon who the barker was (friend or stranger) and upon what was causing the barking (isolation or territorial). Upon hearing a recording of their housemate, dogs would move toward the house where the dog was expected to be. Conversely, they moved toward the yard’s gate when they heard the sound of an unfamiliar dog barking at a stranger. The listener dogs also barked most frequently in response to the “stranger coming” recordings, regardless of whether the bark came from their housemate or a stranger. The researchers concluded that dogs appeared to be able to identify other dogs “by bark” and that they also obtained information about a bark’s cause, simply by listening, in the absence of other cues such as the barking dog’s body language or facial expressions.

Take Away for Dog Folks:  The results of this study instruct us (once again) to take care with  our assumptions when working with dogs. While it should be naturally obvious that dogs are proficient at  recognizing and understanding one another via vocalizations and that a great deal of information is conveyed via barking (and I would bet a few of you were shaking your heads whilst reading and muttering, “well, no kiddin'”), we often do not behave as though we actually believe this to be true. Here is what I mean.

Crazy Barking

Dog owners, trainers and behaviorists frequently classify barking in dogs as a problem behavior. If we don’t like it, if it annoys us, if we deem it excessive or an attention-seeking behavior, then it immediately gets dumped into the “behavior problem” bin. Well, granted, excessive barking can be annoying, can pose a community nuisance, and as a recurrent behavior may need some modifying. (Believe me, I understand vocal dogs – I live with a Toller). However, perhaps as humans we have become so intolerant of dogs barking that we may occasionally stop seeing it for the important communication tool that it is in our efforts to stop it.



Up on the ol’ box: Moreover, we may often get it wrong.  Barking that is classified as problematic because it is thought to be “attention-seeking” could in actuality be a legitimate bid for affection from a chronically neglected dog. Or barks that an owner is instructed to ignore so as to “extinguish the behavior” may in fact be conveying true distress. (See “Is it time for the extinction of extinction?” for more about this). Is it also not possible that a dog who shows alarm barking truly has something to be alarmed about? While I am not suggesting that we should allow all dogs, at all times, to bark to their little heart’s delight (though, that is certainly what Chippy my Toller is going for), I am advocating that just as we accept body postures, facial expressions, eye contact, elimination patterns, and touch (tactile signals) as important forms of communication in our dogs, so too we should accept (and decriminalize) barking.

As trainers and behaviorists, perhaps it is time to dial back the trend towards classifying any barking that an owner does not like as “attention seeking”, “demand”, or “nuisance” barking, and reclassify it as a normal communication pattern that warrants understanding of the cause and as needed, modification. As the very chatty species that we are, we should be sensitive to and wary of any training approach or behavior modification program whose goal is to produce a completely silent dog.

As for my barking phone, I will continue to enjoy it, even if the dog is speaking nonsense. And Chippy the Toller, of course, says “Bark on, man, bark on”.

Chip Jan 2012


Cited Studies:

  1. Pongracz P, Molna Cs, Miklosi A, Csanyi V. Human listeners are able to classify dog barks recorded in differenct situations. Journal of Comparative Psychology 2005; 119:228-240.
  2. Pongracz P, Molna Cs, Miklosi A, Csanyi V. Acoustic parameters of dog barks carry emotional information for humans. Applied Animal Behavior Science 2006; 100:228-240.
  3. Molnar C,OPongracz P, Farage T, Doka A, Miklosi A. Dogs discriminate between barks: The effect of context and identity of the caller. Behavioural Processes 2009; 82:198-201.
  4. Pongracz P, Szabo E, Kis A, Peter A, Miklosi A. More than noise? Field investigations of intraspecific acoustic communication in dogs (Canis familiaris). Applied Animal Bahavioual Science 2014: In Press.

Excerpted from “Beware the Straw Man: The Science Dog Explores Dog Training & Fiction“, by Linda Case.

Beware Straw Man Cover