Why A Bark Collar Won't Fix Your Barking Dog!
As the pet population has increased over the past few years, so have purchases of bark collars. This is concerning, as bark collars don't actually solve barking.
The concept behind bark collars is that they deter barking by deploying some form of unpleasant consequence at the exact time the barking occurs (e.g. a spray of citronella, an ultrasonic noise, or an electric shock). They can either be remote controlled or they can automatically react to both sound and vibration. The theory is that the dog learns to associate the punishment with the behaviour and as a result, the behaviour stops.
Except it doesn’t really work like that, and here’s why.
BARKS ARE ONE OF MANY SOUNDS
A dog’s bark is their voice – and not every noise a dog makes is a bark. They may vocalise in any number of ways including coughing, sneezing, snoring, yelping, or groaning. As with barking, these sounds are a natural and normal part of being a dog. A bark collar often can't distinguish between different noises, and as a result, dogs wearing them may be punished for something they have no control over. In fact, dogs’ bark collars can even be triggered by other dogs barking near them, and loud noises which aren’t even barks at all!
DOGS OFTEN BARK FOR GOOD REASON
When it comes to actual barking, we must acknowledge that dogs bark for a reason, and this is completely fair. Although barking may not be desirable to us or our neighbours, there may be circumstances in which even we would agree it is entirely expected, particularly if we consider life from the dog’s point of view. In many ways, dogs were designed to bark, for instance:
Have you ever seen your dog bark happily to see you when you come home?
What about when they are joyfully playing with friends at the park?
And how about when a suspicious stranger walks onto your property?
Bark collars issue a punishment for any bark: even those "acceptable" barks which are elicited as a result of happiness or excitement. This treatment is extremely confusing for dogs and would be enough to drive even the most sane and rational of us completely crazy.
EVEN WHEN THERE'S NO REASON, THERE'S A REASON
There may also be times where you don't agree with your dog's reason for barking. Examples of this might be:
Barking at birds or butterflies
Barking at the mailman
Barking at you when you are inside the house and they aren't
Barking at another dog barking down the street
Barking at sirens, traffic, or people walking past the house
Barking at absolutely nothing all day long
It's hard for us humans to understand why this happens because in our minds there is no obvious threat and nothing to be overly excited about. The thing is, in these cases the bark is often the hallmark of a deeper issue and/or an ingrained habit. Dogs may be bored, frustrated, anxious, stressed, or lonely, and barking is one of the few behaviours dogs have in their emotional toolbox to 'relieve' this discomfort.
DOGS DON'T THINK THE WAY WE DO
The other thing to consider is that dogs process things in a canine way, not a human way. When remembering these key differences it is much easier for us to have empathy for our dogs.
Although we can communicate quite well with our dogs, we can't explain things to them the way we do to other humans through language. Imagine soothing a frightened young child during a storm: we could calm them down by using words to explain that we are safe and the storm isn't going to hurt us. With a frightened dog in the same situation, we couldn't explain the situation... we could only train in a desired behaviour. When it comes to a barking dog, we can't tell them that they'll be allowed inside once they stop barking - this is something that has to be learned through reinforcement training.
Humans can learn throughout the context of life and rationalise situations. For example, as kids our parents might teach us about "stranger danger", but we know the postman is a welcome exception to the house because he delivers our mail. By observing other humans, we also learn to conform to social norms, such as keeping our voice down in public or using manners when speaking to people. Dogs are much more instinctive and reactionary, and they don't know when their behaviour, such as barking, is "appropriate" or "inappropriate".
Although both humans and dogs can experience frustration, stress, anxiety, boredom and loneliness, humans are much better equipped to deal with these feelings. We can seek the assistance and company of other humans, and develop positive strategies for coping such as exercise, meditation, talking, and self-development. Dogs simply don't have this level of awareness and are completely reliant upon us to manage their emotions and experience of life. For many dogs, barking is their coping strategy.
SO, WHY DO PEOPLE USE BARK COLLARS?
It’s easy to understand why people turn to bark collars, in a state of despair – it’s not uncommon to hear of dogs that bark so persistently that their owners have received angry letters from the neighbours, plus a complaint or two from the local council. Most dog owners are simply trying to do their best, and in this position they are understandably seeking a quick, easy, and effective solution. For minimal cost/time/effort, bark collars promise a calm and quiet dog almost immediately without the need for any professional intervention.
But, when you understand things from your dog's point of view, it's easy to see why bark collars don't actually work. As we know, the most effective solution to any problem is to treat the cause, and not the symptom: but bark collars don't resolve the underlying issues that cause barking at all. In fact, by deploying some kind of scary punishment (like a loud noise, icky smell, or electric shock) bark collars actually make dogs feel MORE anxious, frustrated, and stressed... the same way it would do to us. This actually makes the behaviour worse over time, and frequently creates new, more serious problem behaviours (called "fallout"), such as aggression and unpredictability.
BUT I'VE USED A BARK COLLAR BEFORE, AND IT WORKED
Bark collars might appear to work for the first short period, but this is not because dogs have learnt new or better behaviours, or miraculous coping strategies to deal with their barking addiction. Dogs stop barking when they wear bark collars simply because they have been caused shock, pain, or fear which temporarily jolts them out of their original behaviour pattern - a bit like a slap in the face! The result can seem to work while the barking collar is in use, but because it never addresses the root problem, the barking inevitably returns. For some people, the solution to this issue is to use barking collars periodically over time, "retraining" the dog every time the barking resurfaces. In these cases (in addition to fallout), the bark collar ultimately stops working because dog either learns they are helpless against the punishment and/or because the underlying issues become so intense that they are willing to bark through the pain. By this point, dogs have often lost confidence and trust and developed ingrained habits and neuroses. That said, it is worth remembering that it is never too late to course-correct and train your dog the gentle and friendly way.
I'M READY TO RESOLVE MY DOG'S BARKING FOR GOOD
If you have a barking dog, there are proactive things you can do to resolve this, none of which involve harsh or unpleasant consequences for your dog. As a starting point you can ask yourself two questions to set you on the right path:
What is the root cause? Why is my dog barking? What are they feeling? Are they bored, frustrated, anxious, stressed, or lonely? Are they sick or sore? Is the environment causing them to bark – are there birds or possums, or people walking past the property all day? The cause of your dog's barking will determine the solution.
How can I own this situation? When you blame your dog for their barking, you relinquish any power you have to fix the issue. Move past your own frustration and ask yourself how you can take full responsibility and be a great leader and carer for your dog. Does your dog get adequate physical and mental exercise, training, nutrition, love and attention for their needs? Many dogs don't, and this is such a simple first step. Can you alter your dog’s environment to reduce stress or stimulation for them – for example, can you set up an area outside where things won’t bother them as much? Can you teach them that birds and mailmen are really uninteresting (a process called desensitisation) through positive training methods? As the parent/owner, you have the ability to alter the situation and modify your dog's reactions. Without change, things will stay the same.
WHEN AND HOW SHOULD I START?
Modifying problem behaviours in your dog can be a bit trickier than you think. When it comes to dog training, precision timing is everything, and there are a lot of very subtle factors at play which many people don't realise. For this reason, professional help is often needed to support the process. It's important to nail the issue 'spot on' - if you don't, you may be wasting your time and energy. In addition, training your dog without considering all of the elements at play is not advisable, as this can make the situation worse either by confusing or stressing your dog, or failing to take into account something really important (like a health condition).
Depending on your individual situation, you may want to consider:
A Vet for a physical check-up to rule out any health-related causes
A dog trainer for an assessment, training plan and guidance
A Veterinary Behaviourist if you suspect your dog suffers from anxiety
A dog walker or doggy day care centre if your dog is bored, lonely, or under-exercised
It is extremely helpful if any professionals you use are on board with the same training and handling techniques, as consistency is crucial to dog training: we recommend specifically looking for services that use "positive reward-based" (as opposed to "balanced" / punitive) techniques. All pet care services generally go one way or the other in their approach... and in our experience, nearly all people prefer positive methods once they understand that friendly and gentle methods are scientifically proven to be more humane AND effective than traditional old-school dog training methods.
The best time to get started is now: the less ingrained your dog's undesirable behaviours are, the easier it is to change them for good. It is still possible to retrain your dog after they've been barking for a while, as long as you are patient and consistent. Depending on the severity and cause of the barking, you may need to consider medication to help your dog cope so that they can learn, and you may need to accept a semi-permanent change to your dog's environment or routine (such as being inside when you aren't home).
THE TAIL END ON BARKING COLLARS
When considering how to approach your dog's barking, strike barking collars off the list. Your dog naturally uses their voice for many different reasons, such as being happy, excited, stressed, anxious, and sad. In no situation will the unpleasantness of a shock/squirt/noise resolve the root causes of barking, and in many cases this kind of punishment will make issues worse. Remember, as your dog's leader, you can set them up for success by understanding their point of view, taking control of the situation, and making positive and effective change.