By Gaby Dufresne-Cyr, CBT
People often ask me why their dogs bark. I get this question so often; I decided to write about it. Barking is what I call a side effect behaviour. Side-effect behaviours occur when dogs exhibit exaggerated responses to low-level stimuli. These undesirable displays are side effects of emotional issues. Examples of side effect behaviours are barking, pulling, jumping, or other disruptive behaviours in the absence or presence of low-level stimuli. These unwanted actions occur because dogs don't know how to express their emotions otherwise.
Bark, Bark, Bark
A good example, and probably the most common one, is barking. Dogs bark because the doorbell rings, the visit has arrived, a dog passes by, the dog's friend is in view, there's a strange person over there, a leaf flew by, etc. The list is long when it comes to barking, but vocalization normally doesn't happen in the absence of a stimulus. Barking serves to communicate emotions, desires, or needs; therefore, when a dog barks, we have to take the dog's emotions into consideration and identify the trigger.
Enough All Already!
If you want to stop a dog from barking, pulling, or lunging, two options present themselves. First, we must identify the source of the problem (person, animal, or object). Once identified, you can counter-condition the behaviour and train the dog to be silent (impulse control) or to exhibit another incompatible behaviour like touch my hand or go fetch a ball (displacement behaviour). Social cognitively speaking, you would teach the dog to look at you first in order to receive guidance to effectively solve the problem.
Many techniques and behaviour modification protocols exist which can help address side effect behaviours, but the source of the problem is what needs to be considered. Why does Fido pull, bark, lunge, or run when stimulus XYZ is present? Once you identify the source of the problem, half the work is done. The other half is behaviour modification or management, and in some cases, it's both.
Silence, I Kill You!
Obviously, you shouldn't kill your dog, but some owners certainly feel like they could when they call for a session. Undesirable behaviours have a tendency to escalate over time and aggravate humans in the process. That's because dogs are trying to solve problems on their own, and it's not working. Here's why.
Behaviour is an expression of emotion that serves to communicate intention; consequently, dogs need to vocalize or display other undesirable behaviours to express themselves. You should listen to your dogs and take charge of their decision-making process; if not, the behaviour will escalate and become excessive or a side effect behaviour.
Embrace the bark, lunge, or pull on the leash and consider alternate means of expression. Your relationship will flourish if you take charge of the situation and help your canine companion problem-solve. Before I go, keep in mind that taking charge of the situation is not synonymous with a yank, jerk, kick, shock, spray, tsit, or any other means of negative control. Taking charge means you should teach your dog to turn towards you for advice in the form of training and rewards, be it praise, toys, affection, or food.