Although widespread publicity has been generated by dog attacks this year, for most people the canine bark is a bigger problem than the bite.
In Los Angeles alone, more than 5,000 barking-dog complaints are handled annually by the city Department of Animal Regulation.
The city code says it is unlawful for any person in control of a dog to "permit such dog to emit excessive noise." Barking is deemed excessive, according to a department field supervisor, Jim Connelly, when "it continues past a time reasonably allowed for the dog to act like a dog."
Workers at dog shelters are all too familiar with the end-of-the-rope look of a citizen turning in a dog because "it barks."
Causes and Cures
Can excessive barking be cured? Many dog trainers emphatically say yes. But the experts often disagree on the problem's causes and cures.
Matthew Margolis, author and professional dog trainer, maintains that excessive barking can indicate "aggressiveness, anger, loneliness, playfulness or a demand for something. It is always a means of communication triggered by a state of excitement."
Improper confinement can lead to barking, experts say. Owners may be making a mistake when they strictly confine a puppy to prevent "toilet accidents" or chewing problems; failure to deal directly with such a difficulty may do little more than cause barking.
Most trainers agree that outside stimuli--children, skateboards, lawn mowers, slamming doors, birds, cats, other dogs--are major factors in barking.
One of the most common owner excuses heard by the Department of Animal Regulation is "he's barking at the dog next door." Trainers say there's a simple remedy: Prevent your dog from seeing the other by, for example, covering a chain link fence with canvas or pliable slats or by moving your pet to another area.
Triggered by Hunger
Hunger may be a trigger. If you are unable to feed the dog when it is likely to become hungry, ask a neighbor to help. Make certain that the dog's food is not being eaten by squirrels or other animals. A self-feeder, available at most pet shops, can be an aid. Water-dispensing devices also are available.
Many dogs begin to sound off the minute they are left alone. Sometimes the owner is unaware of the behavior until a neighbor complains.
Margolis suggests putting the dog on a leash well in advance of your departure. Do not deviate in any way from your customary departure routine. Leave. Quietly return so the dog is unaware you are back. Wait. Do nothing until the dog goes into a full cycle of barking.
At this point, quickly approach, take hold of the leash, jerk it and shout a firm "No!" The dog probably will be caught off guard and quiet down. Now comes the time for praise, which is considered a reconditioning technique.
This procedure may need to be repeated often. The time you are away should be lengthened so that the dog will not learn it must be quiet for only short periods.
There are other tools that can be used--such as a shaker can (a container filled with pebbles) or a water pistol--to startle the pet. These can aid in establishing your dominance and enforcing your demand for obedience. Your dog is a descendant of pack animals, and there will always be a leader--be it him or you; for both your sakes, it had better be you.
Soothing sounds, a radio or tape-recorded music may keep a dog company. Talk-radio stations can be reassuring to a pet that doesn't like to be left alone.
Sue Myles, a Newport Beach trainer, thinks highly of the dog run as a means of keeping a dog from excessive barking, because it can be located away from noisy distractions and equipped with objects interesting for the pet.
The run preferred by many trainers is bordered by chain-link fencing and has a concrete floor.
Myles also suggests filling a sterilized natural bone with foods such as peanut butter or cheese spreads and leaving it with the dog in addition to one or two toys. The selection of playthings should be rotated so the dog always finds them challenging and interesting--much as a toddler would.
One enterprising California resident used an answering machine to discipline his dog while training him. He left his machine on monitor, phoned home at intervals to distract the pet and warn him not to bark. He later expanded his use of the telephone to provide exercise for the dog--which would race around the house each time it rang.
A few trainers suggest the use of bark-limiting collars. These contain microchips that rest on the neck near the vocal cords and are activated by vibration. The dog receives a mild shock when it barks.
There are drawbacks to this "topical" treatment. The collar is heavy and costly, and the shock cannot be regulated to suit individual dogs. In addition, it provides negative reinforcement, which can easily be overdone, some trainers say.