By Dr. Leslie Ross B.Sc. D.V.M.
For English-speaking folks, it is common to imitate a large dog’s bark phonetically as a “woof”, and for smaller dogs; “ruff, arf, yip yelp, aur, au and more rarely, bow wow”. Wolves, foxes and numerous other related species can bark. Even parrots can be taught to bark.
Interpreted literally, the expression “a barking dog never bites” supplies little consolation for many folks, dog-lovers or not, who happen to be within acoustic range of a raucous dog.
Along with being undeniably annoying, prolonged, high-decibel barking can cause psychological distress and sometimes permanent hearing damage to humans and other pets within hearing range.
Many dogs are capable of barking at a sound intensity level in the 100-decibel range. In rough comparison, starting at 0 as a baseline, 80 dB s a person shouting loudly and about 110 dB is a pneumatic drill nearby. A dog barking from four feet way can be as loud as 95 decibels. If the dog is closer up, the number could be much higher; two dogs barking together, higher yet!
According to the March 2013 edition of THE INDEPENDENT, Charlie, a six-year-old Golden Retriever has made the Guinness book of records for the loudest ever recorded bark at 113.1 decibels, This noise level approximates that of a loud rock concert! According to the owners, very fortunately, Charlie uses considerable discretion when he chooses to bark.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) noises louder than 85 decibels can cause people to suffer hearing damage leading to hearing loss or persistent ringing of the ears (tinnitus). Furthermore, widespread noise control bylaws make it unlawful for a dog owner to allow a dog to bark or howl to the annoyance of neighbors or the public. For these reasons it follows that dog-owners must accept the responsibility that comes with owning a dog and control any objectionable barking behavior that their dog may have.
Easier said than done of course! There is no canned solution since the causes of undesirable barking behavior of dogs vary widely with the individual dog and his or her environment. The key is to figure out the reason WHY a dog barks.
Below, I will outline some solutions that are often effective for most but not all problem-barkers. For dogs that do not respond to these measures, professional trainers and veterinarians generally need to be involved. In fact, it is best to have a problem-barker examined by your veterinarian in any case since the dog may have an underlying medical condition that is adding to the problem. For example, as dogs age sensory decline, particularly of their sense of hearing, cognitive decline or pain from degenerative joint disease can all lead to more vocalization.
Healthy dogs have been known to bark for hours on end. Common reasons for strident, prolonged barking include an emotional state of anxiety or outright fear, attention seeking, (often from boredom), and frustration. Many dogs are triggered to bark when they hear other dogs barking. Since dogs are social animals, trying to be with other dogs, i.e. the neighbor’s dog across the street can also be a trigger.
Many kinds of inappropriate barking behavior can be eliminated in an inexpensive way with basic training techniques that anyone with a generous amount of patience and time can apply. Perhaps the most difficult part is determining the barking trigger or triggers for the problem dog. Observations need to be made on when the barking occurs, what triggers the bark, what the dog’s body language is when he barks and whether the barking occurs when one is absent. Videotaping him during your absence will answer this last question if, of course, the neighbors don’t provide this information to you first!
Once these barking triggers are determined, then when the dog responds more appropriately to these triggers, favorite treats can be provided. Then eventually, for example, the dog can be trained to lie quietly on a mat, or to respond to a hand or clicker signal as a “quiet” cue rather than bolting to the door and barking every time he hears a pin drop.
If a quicker fix is desired or if these training measures are unsuccessful, then there are collars of different types available that are designed to control problem barking. One type that is quite humane is the citronella collar which when activated by a bark directs a spritz of citronella oil at the dog’s muzzle. In general, these collars are quite effective however, some inventive dogs will learn how to still bark yet avoid the spray by directing their snouts skyward when they bark! It is also important to be aware that the citronella spray can be caught up in the furry mane of Pomeranians and other longer haired dogs and lose its efficacy. (Clipping of this interfering hair is a simple remedy). Two more downsides are that citronella oil has an odor that some people find offensive and it can stain some upholstery. Still, all in all, these collars can be effective and are worth thoughtful consideration.
Other types of collars such as electric (shock), ultrasonic and vibration collars and various combinations of these are also available. Downsides include that they don’t work on all highly bark-motivated dogs, and also that “breakthrough bark” can occur if there is not ongoing consistency and maintenance of these collars. They are particularly useful for “distance barkers” who bark some distance away from the owner. Of course, it is very important to have a fail-safe mechanism for these kinds of collars to cause the unit to shut itself off after a set period of time to avoid sustained shocking of the poor dog. Many people and animal rights groups are opposed to the use of these collars, particularly the shock collars. However, most Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are in agreement that as a last resort, it is better solution than euthanasia for highly motivated barkers.
Sometimes simply managing a dog’s environment to reduce his exposure to his triggers can result in a very satisfactory outcome. For example, when visitors first arrive, one might move him to another room or put him in his crate, pick him up or redirect his attention to a number of his favorite treats that you have just tossed on the floor. For dogs with storm phobias,” thunder capes” (a body-hugging spandex-like affair) may help. If the neighbors are complaining that the dog is barking when you are not at home, you could consider crating him ( for a limited time and only if the dog is comfortable in his crate), or blocking his view of the street, taking him to doggy day care or even to work with you. It is also worth mentioning sound-absorbing wall panels as a trade-off for peaceful neighbor relationships.
When anxiety is the driving force behind a dog’s extreme barking behavior medications can often be very beneficial. Some useful options include pheromone collars, anti-anxiety medications and some holistic products. Of course, your veterinarian should be involved to ensure safe use of these medications.
Finally, it seems relevant to point out that the idiom “barking dogs never bite” is actually not true. In fact, they may. So it is most prudent to keep your eye on a strange dog barking at you up close and personal!