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Nuisance Barking – Things that go WOOF! in the night

This is a copy of an article on nuisance barking that I wrote originally for the APDT,UK Dog Trainer magazine in 2013.

Prolonged or unwanted barking can be stressful at the best of times, but when it happens at night and brings with it broken sleep and a high likelihood of complaints from the neighbours, then most people need an urgent fix.
As with all unwanted behaviours, identifying the root cause of the problem goes hand in hand with finding the right solution. The first thing to establish is if this has been an ongoing problem, or has started more recently. Practice makes perfect so a long-established barking habit will be harder to change than one which is relatively recent. The original cause of the barking may be long gone for an established barker, but the dog is now getting intrinsic reinforcement (and a likely degree of attention from their owners, even if that attention is just to shout at them to be quiet) which maintains the barking habit. Likely stimuli for night time barking include foxes or other animals in the garden, lights from passing cars, someone coming home or leaving in a nearby house, the milkman, the boiler coming on or pretty much anything else that disturbs the dog. If you can establish what the stimulus is then there may be some simple solutions to fix it – move the dog to sleep in a different room, draw the curtains or fit window film to certain windows (often the simplest and easiest way to fix barking at external stimuli whether night or day), turn off security lighting etc.
There can also be medical causes, such as cognitive dysfunction in an older dog. In cases where the dog’s mental capabilities are declining then we need to work with the owners to make allowances for the dog, change routines as necessary to manage the behaviour, and to encourage them to discuss possible dietary changes and supplements with their vet. It is unlikely that prolonged improvements will occur through training / behaviour modification so the best outcome will be a greater understanding of the dog’s condition and suitable management. In one case this involved moving the dog’s bed in to the owner’s bedroom rather than having him sleep downstairs where he would wake early and alone and bark until someone came downstairs to see him. When he wakes in the mornings now, he checks that his owners are still there and then settles down again quietly for another few hours sleep.
Other reasons for overnight or early morning barking include hunger, especially common in dogs who are only fed once a day. Swapping to two meals a day, with the last meal later in the evening, can make a big difference, as can giving a late night ‘snack’ at bed time (reducing the food given at other meals / treat times as necessary). Dogs who lack appropriate mental or physical stimulation during the day are also prone to early waking or overnight barking; it gives them something to do and is guaranteed to get attention from their owners. Changing routines the house and giving the dog more appropriate exercise and mental activities as suited to their age and needs will usually improve things for dog and owners. In other cases, the dog may be an early morning barker who is anticipating when it’s time to get up and letting everyone know.
For adult dog who are early morning barkers, or barking at specific stimuli, my preferred advice is to bring the dog in to the same room as the owners, in order to stop the dog practicing the barking and so strengthening the behaviour even more. If the dog is crate trained (and there is room) then use a crate, otherwise bring the dog’s normal bed, and settle them at bedtime in their crate / on their bed with a chew to encourage them to relax and go to sleep. Ensure the owners ignore any attempts to interact with them – including not giving them eye contact which many owners don’t realise is hugely rewarding to most dogs. If necessary, show the owners how to teach the dog a ‘go to bed’ cue and practice it with owners lying in bed – so that if the dog does get up in the middle of the night the owner can sleepily tell them to go back to bed without too much fuss and interaction. Obviously, advise the owners not to use the cue at night until it’s properly learned. Alongside this, take as many opportunities as possible to make the dog’s bed the place the dog wants to be and to teach them to self settle there – make it extra comfortable, (move it downstairs during the day if necessary because the dog is not allowed upstairs normally) and leave treats / chews there for them to find. As with the puppies, when the dog is sleeping through the night without disturbance then slowly move their bed out of the room until the dog is sleeping on the landing with the door closed and then downstairs, or back in to their original room.

One alternative if the owner won’t or can’t go for that approach, and their dog is an early morning barker because they are anticipating that it’s time to get up, is to use the alarm clock to re-set the dog’s routine and expectations. Establish the earliest time that the dog wakes up and then set the owner’s alarm for 30 minutes before that. The owner then needs to get up, let the dog outside for a wee (on lead if necessary to stop the dog becoming too excited and aroused) and then put them back to bed with a chew, all with minimal talking and interaction. After a few days, set the alarm 5 minutes later and repeat until they get to the time they actually want to get up. Spend a few days at each of the time points and if the dog is awake when they go downstairs then they have to go back to an earlier time so that they are waking the dog each time when they go down stairs. This solution is a lot more effort than bringing a dog in to their bedroom, and with some dogs all it does is re-set their waking time to be earlier which owners need to be aware of as a possible outcome before they start, but it can work and help break the early waking habit.
Of course, one of the most common culprits for overnight vocalisations are puppies whose owners are following the traditional advice of keeping the puppy downstairs from day one and ignoring any barking or howling until the puppy learns that calling out doesn’t work and no-one comes. There are many reasons why we should look again at this advice and modify it for the benefit of both puppies and owners. Firstly, puppies spend their first days, weeks and months developing the neural pathways and connections in their brains that will become their habits and behaviours in adulthood. Anything that they do frequently becomes a strong pathway, a default choice as they grow up. If we leave puppies to bark and howl until they give up (usually out of exhaustion rather than acceptance) then the puppy is getting in a lot of practice at vocalising which means we are strengthening that pathway to become a default behaviour. Most owners don’t want a vocal dog, which means our advice should be to create situations and manage behaviour so that the puppy doesn’t feel the need to bark (whatever the motivation: excitement, frustration, separation or aggression) so they don’t practice what is so often an unwanted behaviour in an adult.
Secondly, in order to avoid at least one cause of separation problems, we want puppies and dogs to develop a secure attachment to their owners, rather than an insecure or hyper attachment. Leaving puppies to become distressed when alone can weaken that attachment, may teach them that being alone is upsetting or frustrating and potentially sets them up to develop further separation problems. Bringing a puppy, preferably in a crate to help with housetraining, in to the owners bedroom for the first few weeks, helps avoid all these potential issues. Puppies feel secure and so don’t practice the unwanted barking (I have slept with one hand in the crate to provide comfort on many occasions); they can alert their owners quickly and with minimal noise if they need to go to the toilet in the middle of the night which speeds up house training; and teaching the puppy to be happy to be left alone is easier as all their alone time can be structured to ensure they are left with appropriate food toys to keep them occupied. When the puppy is routinely sleeping through the night then the owner can transition them to their ultimate sleeping place by moving the crate a few inches out of the room every few nights. Take it slowly and if at any point the puppy becomes distressed at the increased distance then go back a few steps until they’re sleeping through again and then continue with the transition as for adult dogs.

Sian Ryan

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