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Barking Mad Part 2

Before you can attempt to solve anything, it is always wise to try to understand the problem.

I always write that dogs are simply domesticated wolves and yet you might say that cannot be correct as dog’s bark, whilst wolves howl. That is not strictly true. Adult wolves only seem to use barks as an alarm call when they recognise some threat. The other time they use it is when confronted by an intruder and threatens it to stay away. In other cases, body language is more important with grunts and growls, but barking is relatively rare. Certainly continuous barking is most uncommon.

Studies of any wolf pack find that the young cubs initially learn to bark and are often quite vocal. They bark in excitement or as a warning but as they become adults, this barking gradually ceases. Our common picture of a wolf is it sitting on a rocky outcrop in the mountains, silhouetted by the moon, as it howls into the nighttime.

Though the wolf is their ancestor, many dogs never seem to bark at anything. On the other hand, some dogs seem to bark at everything whilst others bark at nothing at all. It is not that dogs cannot howl. Those of you who have some musical instrument in their home can testify to the fact that certain musical notes will start their dog howling, just like any wolf. My dog Winston howls whenever he hears an ambulance. Therefore, what is going on?

Why do dogs bark is a common question, but some of the answers you may hear range from, why do trees have leaves, that is the way god designed it, or it is just evolution. Where does man come into it? In fact, man is probably to blame.

Domesticating the wolf, man most probably started with the cubs. One problem was that in taking them away from their packs, they never learned the language of the wolf. One thing for sure is that they are appealing at this age and the bark would have been useful to man to warn him of impending danger. Early breeders would probably select and breed from those dogs that barked more than others did. Such a genetic predisposition may well have been useful ten or thirteen thousand years ago, but today, incessant barking is not so valuable.

The sounds wolves use are simply a part of their communication, giving information about themselves to create a response in another wolf, but dogs do not seem to follow this pattern. Dogs will use barking in a much wider variety of contexts, far more than used by their ancestor. The fact that the dogs body language appears to remain consistent with that of a wolf, the use of barking is not.

The theory is that breeders, in trying to maintain the puppy look, were playing about with the wolves’ normal growth patterns. These are under genetic control and so turn genes on or off when appropriate. This system called Heterochronic is an evolutionary mechanism that can either speed up or slow down their growth rate. This means that selective breeding for juvenile traits has slowed its growth, so it will never mature to a normal adult. Effectively domesticated wolves or dogs are essentially stuck in adolescence. As a result, dogs will develop some, but not all, of the adult behaviour of wolves. This means that barking is therefore representative of juvenile vocal behaviour.
When comparing dogs with wolves, it is young cubs where there is the greatest match of physical features and mannerisms. The two most important, for man, are submissiveness and vocalisation.

Man has utilised these to his advantage. Even today, most people would say that they want their dog to obey them and bark when people come to their property. We generally think that dogs bark naturally, but as they remain juveniles, they lack the education. Barking at strangers entering its pack area is normal for a young dog. This is because it does not know how to respond. As a result, it shows fearfulness and barks. All the other times is because no one has taught it how and when to bark. Naturally, it will bark for many things, like wanting attention or needing food. Whilst many owners can teach their dog to stop barking, for incessant barking, dogs need security in their lives so that they do not need to bark from fear.

Winston for instance is my doorbell. With the house having thick walls here at the centre, I cannot always hear someone ringing the bell, but I can hear Winston barking. In addition, if I am at the other end of the training fields, I know someone is coming as I see him set off running at high speed to the gate.

His barking is not aggressive in order to warn people away, it is excitement, as he knows people are coming and will show him attention. More often, the reason is there will be dogs to play with him.

Most people would be happy with dogs that barked when people came or were moving around your area late at night and yes, they do scare away opportunist burglars. I have a number of dogs surrounding me and they do occasionally bark but none of them is an excessive barker. Winston does bark when people come here. My problem is in his excitement he keeps on barking. As much as I try to say enough or quiet, I find it simpler to put a citronella collar on him and he then stops. In some ways, he is a good advertisement for them.

When dogs come here for training and socialisation with one another, they do bark when they are happy and excited. This means that each week they become enthusiastic when they know they arrive here and they cannot get through my gates fast enough.

The one sort of barking people cannot tolerate is constant repetitive barking. A dog that barks when there are strange noises and when such noises cease then the dog should go quiet. People will look out when they hear such dogs as there may well be someone wandering about who should not be there. A dog that barks all the time, no one will bother looking, so as a guard dog it is useless.

When a dog barks at something that it is unsure of, like a burglar, then for that short time of barking to warn them away, it is undergoing stress, but only for a short time. A dog that is barking at everything or nothing is under considerable and continual stress. If the dog is barking because it is left alone in the house or garden, it is not barking at possible intruders, but is calling for its owners to come home as it is scared of being by itself. Other dogs may bark at every car or person that passes their gate. This too is stress related fear, so they try to chase them away. The more they do this the more it reinforces their behaviour.

The dog’s stress is the most common reason for the majority of incessant barking, which in turn creates most of the complaints. If owners appreciated this, maybe they would be more willing to try to retrain their dogs.

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