Why should I not bark at my dog?
Why Is My Dog Barking At Nothing? What Your Dog Might Be Trying To Say
“Why is my dog barking at nothing?” is a common question amongst dog owners.
There are many theories to this mysterious dog behavior. Some think it’s just an attention-seeking tool, whereas others go as far to say that dogs have a sixth sense for the supernatural.
Though there’s no conclusive evidence to support dogs bark at ghosts, it’s clear that barking means something. Our tail-waggers have learned to communicate this way, and it’s up to us to interpret it and respond accordingly.
Let’s discuss how dogs interpret the world differently than humans and why they may be barking at nothing…or so you think!
Human hearing vs. dog hearing
Human ears detect frequencies between 20-20,000 Hertz. Hertz is the vibration of frequencies per second of a sound. This means our ears can detect lower frequencies than a dog’s, although, some believe giant dog breeds can hear them.
Dog ears can detect frequencies between 40-60,000 Hertz. Their ears can also rotate to hone in on the exact location of a sound, whereas ours cannot. Dogs have the ability to hear the tiny squeak of a mouse underground, or the bark of a dog far away.
So, when we think our dogs are barking at nothing, chances are, they’re actually barking at something – we just can’t hear it!
Human smell vs. dog smell
Humans have 5-6 million olfactory receptors, whereas dogs have 220 million receptors. This enables them to not only smell the pizza in the oven, but also the pepperoni, the onions, the cheese, the sauce, and the crust with detailed clarity. There is also evidence that dogs can smell their person 11 miles away!
A dog’s sense of smell is so acute, that they’re used to sniff out drugs, bombs, detect blood sugar levels in their humans, seizures, and even cancer. A dog’s brain uses 40% more space for smell detection than a human’s brain. That’s a lot of devotion to smells!
With so much going on with a dog’s senses, it’s no wonder they bark at things we can’t see, hear, or smell.
Common reasons dogs bark
Whether it’s a truck driving down the road or a dog barking way off in the distance, your dog will usually respond by barking.
Protective, or territorial barking
There are usually two reasons your dog will bark at other dogs or animals: to create distance and keep their territory safe or decrease distance to socialize.
Barking increases the distance your dog perceives as their territory. This why they’ll almost always bark at wild animals like squirrels, birds, or bunnies. If your dog is social, however, they may be barking to draw the animal closer. Tip: By socializing your dog at a young age, you can help prevent aggressive, territorial behavior.
We all have that one dog in our neighborhoods that barks incessantly. Could it be lonely? The answer is yes! Dogs will bark when they are lonely or seeking attention. If your dog makes perfect eye contact with you while they bark, they’re requesting your attention.
Dogs are pack animals, so in single dog households, you are their pack. If they’re lonely, they will bark to decrease the space between them and you. If barking doesn’t do the trick, they can revert to destructive behavior such as chewing up your couch, peeing or pooping in the house, or pacing.
Tip: If you work a lot or are away from your dog for long periods of time, separation anxiety can be a challenge for your dog. Talk to your vet or an animal behaviorist to learn how to ease your pup’s nerves.
A dog in pain can exhibit excessive barking. Your dog may be in distress and is trying to let you know, especially if you are not within their immediate area. Dogs in pain will usually wander aimlessly or pace around the house for unexplained reasons.
Older dogs will aimlessly pace and bark incessantly if they become disoriented. A visit with your veterinarian may help you find a solution for this barking behavior.
A dog that is fearful will bark to create distance from the perceived threat. You can spot a fearful dog by their body language. Their ears will be back with their tail tucked between their legs.
Most barking problems can be easily solved with canine behavior training you can either do by yourself or with a dog trainer. Once you know the reason for your dog’s barking, it’s much easier to minimize it.
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How to reduce excessive barking
We now know that barking is a form of communication that needs to be decoded. Here are some ways you can better understand and reduce excessive barking. When in doubt, take a trip to the vet or give a local dog trainer a call.
1. Rule out medical issues
First, rule out any medical or compulsive barking issues your dog may suffer with. This is common in dogs with separation anxiety. A visit with the veterinarian or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist is a good start if you’re stumped about what your dog is barking at.
2. Decode the barking
What type of bark is your dog emitting? For example, there’s a difference between your dog’s excited barking when you’ve just arrived home vs. their territorial barking when they see another dog coming down the street. This will help you understand which social scenarios they need the most training.
If there’s no obvious cause for your dog’s barking, remember that we humans don’t hear well beyond walls and doors, but our dogs do. When your dog barks, look around for animals, people, or things you haven’t picked up on.
3. When in doubt, run it out
More exercise and mental stimulation will eliminate any pent-up energy creating boredom for your dog, thus barking. Going for walks or playing with toys may the solution to your dog’s barking habit. Remember: A tired dog is a quiet dog.
4. Play white noise
Playing white noise can reduce the number of outside noises your dog’s sensitive ears pick up. The white noise drowns out tinier sounds, so your dog can exist in peace.
5. Try pheromone diffusers
Pheromone diffusers can help dogs that are fearful of new smells and sounds, causing them to bark at everything. Adding a pheromone diffuser to your home will relax them because it’s filled with positive dog-appeasing pheromones.
Things to avoid when trying to reduce barking
Bark collars are not effective and can cause more harm than good. The citronella collars spray citronella in front of your dog’s face. They don’t like the smell or the spray, but will quickly learn to empty the canister allowing them to bark freely again.
Shock collars are not only painful but can damage your dog’s throat when used incorrectly. They may also cause aggressive behaviors. Steer clear of these!
Though basket muzzles are great for helping reactive behaviors in dogs (and are actually encouraged by vets and trainers) occlusion muzzles should be avoided. This type of muzzle prevents dogs from breathing properly and panting to cool themselves down. Muzzles are meant for short periods of time only. Always consult your vet or trainer before putting one on your dog.
Though the urge to shout at our dogs may be tempting when they bark, this is not effective. All we’re really doing is barking back at them, which gives them the perception that we’re joining in on the fun. Learn to calmly give your dog a quiet command and reward the success immediately. Pretty soon your dog will figure it out.
So, why do dogs bark at nothing?
You may feel like your dog is barking at nothing, however as we now know, this is likely not the case. Whether it’s a distant sound or smell, boredom, attention seeking, or alarm barking, there’s a reason for their barking. Decode the barks, and you can solve your dog’s barking problem.
Excessive barking could be a sign of underlying anxiety or aggression, which can leave you and your pup feeling deflated. That’s why Pumpkin’s dog insurance plans help cover treatment for behavioral issues, so you don’t have to think twice about saying ‘yes’ to the best care.
*Pumpkin Pet Insurance policies do not cover pre-existing conditions. Waiting periods, annual deductible, co-insurance, benefit limits and exclusions may apply. For full terms, visit pumpkin.care/insurancepolicy. Products, discounts, and rates may vary and are subject to change. Pumpkin Insurance Services Inc. (Pumpkin) (NPN#19084749) is a licensed insurance agency, not an insurer. Insurance is underwritten by United States Fire Insurance Company (NAIC #21113. Morristown, NJ), a Crum & Forster Company and produced by Pumpkin. Pumpkin receives compensation based on the premiums for the insurance policies it sells. For more details visit pumpkin.care/underwriting-information and pumpkin.care/insurance-licenses.
Writer, Mom of a Fab Fur Fam of Five
Lynn is a writer and long-time Learning & Development Manager at a large PNW retailer. She’s also mom to 3 dogs & 2 cats!
Window Barking – Is it on your dog’s “to do” list?
One of the most common questions I am asked about dog behavior is, “What can I do about window barking?” Some may not like my response – “DON’T LET IT HAPPEN!”.
Window barking is not a productive pastime and it’s something as I say, “is NEVER on my dog’s daily to do list”. Now, before you think that my poor dogs live a deprived life unable to watch the outside world, I must tell you most days my dogs are too busy, tired, or are being calm/relaxed to even think about barking out the window. We also spend a great deal of time outside interacting with, versus watching, the outside world. They are active participants.
When at home, I work hard to manage their time with more appropriate and stimulating behaviors throughout the day that use their mind, body, and nose and those appropriate behaviors are much preferred over window barking. Window barking daily can be a sign of poor mental health/wellness. It’s not relaxing. It’s actually can be very stress inducing!
At best, window barking is an annoying, inappropriate pastime. At worst, it can transfer over to other areas of a dog’s life from my experience meaning many dogs will take it to the street on walks, etc.. Why not? It works!
Let’s look at why your dog continues this behavior –
- There are many issues with window barking. For starters – it “works”! Think about it – a dog passes your home on their walk, your dog barks, and the other dog goes away! Or better yet, how about the scary man that comes daily carrying a bag and making noise on your front porch? That’s right – the mailman. Your dog barks, the mailman goes away. As humans we know he wasn’t staying, but your dog doesn’t. When he barks and the mailman goes away, the barking behavior is actually being reinforced. This also teaches the dog how to deal with scary things or things he’s unsure of in his world – bark and they go away! It works in their world!
- From my experience, window barking also can lead to frustration, leash reactivity and even more inappropriate behaviors as the dog becomes frustrated and aroused every time they see a human or another dog and can’t get to them. That reaction can become more intense over time. Also, barking and over-arousal at the mere sight or dogs or humans can keep the dog in a constant state of arousal. This is bad from both a behavior and a health standpoint as it can add stress to your dog’s life.
- When a dog runs to the window in anticipation of a threat or trigger, the amygdala, which is the emotional center of the brain, immediately sounds the alarm and the then activates the flight or flight response and the adrenal glands prepare the body for an encounter. That stress response releases a cocktail of hormones. This cocktail of chemicals known commonly as the fight or flight system prepares for a bear in the woods or other high-stress event. The fight or flight system can keep us alive in the face of danger. A certain amount of stress is good and helps us survive and thrive especially in the face of danger. However, at the window, there is no bear. It’s just the mailman or the neighbor however the body’s system, chemical reaction, and emotional response are the same as if it were a bear.
- Not only is your dog now flooded with a cocktail of hormones, but we are also finding these hormones can be addicting. Have you ever known anyone addicted to stress? Or have you seen someone after the thrill of a roller coaster ride, sky diving or another high arousal event chock full of adrenaline as they say “LET’S DO THAT AGAIN!”. It’s the same thing for dogs! Dogs can become addicted to that arousal at the window and doing it daily keeping the dog in a constant state of arousal and full of the cocktail of stress hormones. Also once we become used to that arousal and stress rush, the brain may actually seek it out much like an addiction. This can happen with window barking, fence running and now studies are showing even playing fetch! Yes – some dogs are addicted to fetch! That’s for another blog on another day.
- Many dogs practice this behavior of window barking daily or worse multiple times a day. Just like humans, the more a dog does a behavior, the stronger the pathway to the brain for that behavior, and the more a habit is formed. It’s not different than you or I playing tennis – practice improves the behavior and perfects it.
- When the fight or flight system designed for survival is repeatedly triggered by chronic stressors or arousal daily, it can become overactive and produce an exaggerated response to things in the environment. The mind and body can respond as if everything is the bear. In other words, now your dog is overreacting to a noise outside, a dog barking or a person on a walk!
So how do you handle window barking? First, if possible don’t let it start! Keep in mind creating those pathways to the brain for behaviors and how we get better at behaviors we repeat or do frequently. Make sure this behavior is not on your dog’s “to do” list…EVER! If window barking is already a habit, how can you train your dog to give it up?
Here’s how to help put a stop to this unhealthy, annoying behavior….
- Block the view. The first step in any behavior modification program is to set your dog up for success by managing the environment and preventing him from responding in the manner he is used to. You can put a baby gate over areas with windows and passers-by. Use a crate when you can’t be there to manage your dog’s environment. Block your dog’s view by closing the blinds or putting decorative window film on the lower part of the window that can still let in light. Attractive film can be purchased at any hardware store. It let’s the light in while reducing visual stimuli for the dog.
- Replace window barking with more enriching pastimes. Keep your dog busy through more appropriate daily activities. Dogs need exercise, mental stimulation like food toys or frozen Kongs, and hunting games. By keeping your dog busy with healthy alternatives through physical and mental wellness, he won’t have the time or desire to use his energy in inappropriate ways like window barking.
- Block sounds that might trigger barking. Soothing music like harp or classical music can calm your dog and block outside noise that might cause him to be aroused. Studies show music can have a relaxing effect on dogs and can drown outside noise at the same time that might cause a dog to bark excessively.*
- Ignore the behavior. That’s right: many dogs get a LOT of human attention for barking. Often, when the dog starts barking, their human joins in and barks along with them by yelling “NO!”. Your dog just thinks you are in on the fun and drama, and it only increases the arousal! Also, studies show that just yelling “no” at your dog can increase anxiety and aggression by 15%!** It’s adding fuel to the fire! When your dog barks, try ignoring your dog, or even leaving the room immediately. Without an audience, some dogs will stop barking on their own.
- Meet your dog’s needs for mental stimulation/wellness for using his mind. Make sure your dog has an outlet for behaviors he was bred to do. This includes chewing, licking (Kongs, Lickimats), sniffing daily!
- Exercise your dog. We are all our dogs have and they physical exercise is important daily.
- Train your dog. Training your dog basic behaviors occupies his mind, helps him look to you for direction, and provides a healthy outlet for his energy. Also, once you’ve trained an excellent recall/come, you can use it to call your dog away from the window. Many people skip the little steps in a dog’s life like training “sit” and “come”. I call these behaviors “elementary school behaviors”. If we can’t get our dog to sit, come, and exhibit basic manners in everyday life, how will we ever be able to manage our dog’s behavior when he’s aroused and barking at the window? In other words, we have to complete elementary school learning before we can move on to high school education. Learning the basics sets the tone for learning other, more advanced behaviors. Also, all dogs should have a training foundation to help them live in our world full of human rules.
- Teach your dog the “Quiet” cue. First teach your dog to bark on cue. That’s right – teach your dog to bark! We are going to put the behavior on cue so you can control it. Give your dog the cue to “speak”. Let him bark 3 times and then pop a wonderful treat in front of him as you say “quiet”. Practice this in a quiet area with no distractions. Once your dog is doing well with this new cue, then gradually add distractions like the doorbell, a knock and/or visitor. Once the dog is doing well, I also like to add some distance and another cue between the bark and “quiet” by walking into another room and asking the dog to do a behavior like sit. This will help prevent you from teaching a behavior “chain” of “I bark, I’m quiet, I get treat”.
Take window barking off your dog’s to-do list today. You will both be calmer and happier!
Carol Sumbry, ACDBC, CPDT -KA, Associated Certified Dog Behavior Consultant/Certified Professional Dog Trainer