By Jon Zeller | September 2, 2021

Incessant barking may annoy your neighbors or interfere with your attempts to relax and watch Ted Lasso. But, as inconvenient as it is for you, chronic barking can have much higher stakes for your dog—it may indicate serious underlying issues that need to be resolved for their physical and emotional wellbeing

Why do dogs bark?

We know that adult dogs bark way more than wolves, who mostly make those sharp cries as pups. Barking is also more common in domesticated than wild dogs. Researchers believe that this has to do with dogs having spent the past several thousand years evolving alongside humans and communicating with them. Indeed, studies have shown that humans are good at recognizing different reasons for dog barks—for example, play versus alarm—based on their sounds alone, without any visual cues.

All of this is to say that your dog has feelings, and barking is one way they relay them to you. You can’t expect your dog to never do it. The goal should be to limit their barking so that it doesn’t interfere with their, or your, ability to lead a happy life. Sometimes, your dog may have a point.

As such, one key to curbing unwanted woofing is to determine what your dog is trying to tell you.

Demand barking

The easiest type of barking to moderate is “demand barking”—when your dog barks in an effort to get you to do something. If your dog barks when they want food, a toy, or belly rubs, that’s demand barking—and you can usually cut it down by making sure it does not achieve its desired effect.

“Dogs are not sentimental,” says Denise Herman, founder and head trainer at Empire of the Dog in New York City. “They will not continue to do something that doesn’t work for them.”

One way to send the message that barking won’t work is to stop what you’re doing and reverse course when the barking stops, perhaps marking the reversal with a word. For example: if you’ve started preparing your dog’s dinner by grabbing their bowl, and they bark to get you to speed up, put the bowl back where it was and move in the opposite direction. Walk away for ten or fifteen seconds, resuming after your dog has stopped barking. If you adopt this method and stick with it, your dog should eventually learn that barking will delay, rather than accelerate, meal time.

Just a few things to watch out for:

First off, even if you’ve already started to do what your dog wants, you should still stop or turn around when demand barking arises. This is because your canine pal has no way of understanding that your action was merely coincidental. If your dog barks and then you feed them, they are liable to think that you fed them because of the barking.

“Dogs,” says Herman, “very much believe correlation is causation.”

Secondly, don’t give your dog any attention for demand barking, even if it it’s to say “no.” Attention is its own type of reward for a dog, and they might keep on barking if they get it.

Third, make sure you’ve correctly identified the reason for the barking. Herman says that if reversing course does not arrest your dog’s utterances, you’re likely dealing with something other than demand barking. Which brings us to:

Barking with other underlying causes

There are countless reasons dogs can bark, just as there are many things that might cause a person to speak, sing, or scream. And putting a stop to excessive barking often requires that you address the underlying reason for it rather than the barking itself.

While demand barking is its own animal—the dog using their voice to try to get something from you—certain other barking can be more complicated.

Distress barking

If your dog barks for more than a few minutes when you leave, you may be dealing with separation anxiety. If that’s the case, you should aim to address the anxiety itself rather than the barking that comes along with it. For a wide array of tips on how to handle this common issue, consult our guide.

A dog who barks out of separation anxiety is not “deciding” to bark—rather, it’s an involuntary symptom of their feelings. Herman likens attempting to stop their barking without stemming the anxiety to telling a sweaty person to “stop sweating!”

Instead, try making it more of a pleasant experience for your dog to spend a little time without you. This can start with setting boundaries when you are together—not constantly dispensing attention and affection, but instead sometimes just hanging out—and gradually easing your dog into periods when you’ll be absent.

It also can’t hurt to make sure that your dog is getting enough mental stimulation and exercise. Whether it’s through long walks, hiking, jogging, or games of tug or Frisbee, find what works best for your dog. Regularly challenging your pup’s mind and body may make them tired enough to be relaxed and content while you’re out.

In addition, give your dog something fun to do while you’re away. Herman’s go-to is food enrichment: “I throw a bunch of shredded turkey into a Kong,” she says. “I put that down, I turn a camera on, and I leave. And I see if the dog can eat the Kong and finish it or get close to finishing, and then I come back before they’re done. I would start from there, work outward to being able to be gone for longer periods, and maybe have a secondary chew or come in and out.”

If you find that your dog is too upset to eat while you’re out, and other methods of dealing with separation anxiety aren’t working, be sure to speak to a professional trainer or veterinarian.

Alert/territorial barking

Let’s say your dog flies into a barking frenzy every time they hear someone outside the door of your house or apartment. You may be dealing with alarm or territorial barking—your dog wants to warn you about the presence of someone or something, or wants it to go away. The first step to reducing this barking is to reduce the number of triggers. The fewer things your dog has to bark at, the less they’ll bark.

“Changing your environment is way faster and cheaper than trying to change how your dog feels fundamentally,” says Herman.

How you eliminate the triggers depends on what your dog is barking at in the first place. If the culprit is noise, you might try moving your dog somewhere with lower traffic, or leaving TV, radio, or a white-noise machine on so passersby are less audible. If they’re seeing humans, vehicles, or other creatures out of a window, you could consider drawing the blinds.

Of course, even with some triggers eliminated, there may be times that your dog is tempted to bark anyway. Perhaps the mail carrier has dropped by, or there’s a knock at the door. There are methods you can use to diminish this barking as well.

One thing to try: ask for an incompatible behavior. For example, train your dog to go to a certain spot and lay down—rewarding with a treat and praise when they do—and build up to doing this when a trigger presents itself. Eventually, your dog should be able to go lay down when someone comes to the door.

Another way some trainers address alert barking is through counter-conditioning: teaching a dog to feel and behave differently in response to something that currently triggers a negative feeling or behavior by associating it with something positive instead. If your dog barks furiously whenever your doorbell rings, you could record the sound of the doorbell and use it in a controlled fashion. Play the offending sound on a loop—far from your dog and at a low volume—when your dog is doing something they want to do, like eating. Eventually, if you start out with the trigger at a lower volume and greater distance and pair it with a valuable enough reward, your dog may come to find the sound of the doorbell less upsetting—or even feel good about it. Just be sure to go slowly and take breaks when necessary; it won’t work all at once. Your dog should be comfortable with the level of the stimulus during this training. If they’re unable to calmly sit and take the treat, the doorbell may be too loud and too close. But, with patience, the sound of the doorbell can become linked with the feeling of enjoying a favorite treat. 

Aggression or fear

If your dog is barking at fellow dogs, people, or other stimuli, and has aggressive-seeming body language, they may be aggressive and/or fearful. In this case, you should follow training steps to address those problems in your dog instead of only targeting the barking as a problem. Here’s one success story from a dog owner who helped her dog overcome leash aggression that included barking.

If your dog is barking out of aggression or fear, there could be a big cost to punishing or correcting the vocalization without addressing the underlying issue. In a worst-case scenario, your dog or someone else could get hurt.

“Now he’s quiet, and someone won’t understand that he doesn’t like them,” Herman says of a dog who has been trained not to bark but remains fearful or aggressive, “and they may reach towards him and then he may bite them.” The reason for this seemingly out-of-nowhere bite, per Herman: “You punished warning out over and over and over again. And you didn’t defuse the bomb. You just muffled it.”

So, if you’re having trouble handling aggression or fear on your own, don’t hesitate to bring in a professional. A trainer can help.

A word on “speak” and “quiet”

One popular intervention is teaching a dog the “speak” command—getting them to bark when you ask for it—and then ceasing it with the “quiet” command. In this video, trainer Victoria Stillwell demonstrates the technique. It can work in some cases. But if you suspect that “speak” and “quiet” may be too much of a challenge for you and your dog, know that you’re not alone.

Herman, for one, does not recommend the practice to her clients. “That is like a double-Ph.D.-level training assignment,” she says. One danger, she explains, is that—once trained to “speak”—your dog might take to barking from time to time, even when not asked, in pursuit of a reward. “You’ve taught your dog to sit, and you ask him to sit, and he sits,” Herman says, “but how many other times does he offer you sits when he’s looking to get something?”

Armed with these perspectives, you can decide whether this method is a good fit for you.

“Which dogs never bark?”

We wouldn’t bet on “never,” but some dogs bark less. While there may be variations as to how vocal breeds are on average, your best bet if it’s important to you that your dog be relatively quiet is to adopt an adult. That way, their previous caretakers will be able to tell you from firsthand experience how often they bark, and what triggers it. You might adopt a quiet puppy, but they won’t necessarily stay that way as they age. This reporter’s dachshund hardly ever barked for the first six months she lived with him, and has been making up for it ever since.

“Puppies are not who they’re going to become,” says Herman. “It’s a big gamble. But if you get an adult dog—maybe you fostered it, or maybe the foster people said he seems not to bark at anything and is very sleepy and quiet—that’s probably who he’s gonna be.”

If you can’t figure it out

It’s also a good idea to contact a trainer—or a veterinarian—if, despite your best efforts, you can’t determine the reason for your dog’s barking. A wide array of physical and psychological issues can contribute to barking, and getting the help you need to solve them is an important step toward a happier life for the humans and canines in your home.