My Puppy Won't Stop Barking, Will a Spray Collar Help?

Dog barking
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Q: My dog has a hair trigger when it comes to barking. What do you think about citrus-spray collars? Do they work? Are they safe?

A. Antibark collars that spray a citronella smell to deter barking are considered by many trainers to be a preferred alternative to collars that deliver a mild electric shock. Spray collars are generally considered safe, but they’re not always effective: Some dogs are such determined barkers that spray collars won’t slow them down much. These collars may work best as part of a larger plan to reduce barking.

With some breeds — and their mixes — the tendency toward noisiness is part of their DNA. Many tiny dogs can be problem barkers, as can be Terriers, Poodles and Shelties, among others. The happy bay of a Beagle may be music to a hunter’s ear, but in a suburban neighborhood it’s likely to be far less popular. Though you should never expect dogs like these to become silent observers of life, you can ease the annoyance with tried-and-true approaches.

Here are some tips that may help if you're living with a bad barker.

Exercise your dog daily. These days our dogs are born retired, whether they want to be or not. Though some dogs are happy to be couch potatoes, others feel compelled to keep themselves busy in many ways, including barking. My colleague and friend Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a pioneering veterinary behaviorist, stresses that the lack of heart-pumping daily exercise is a factor in many dog behavior problems. Carve out 30 minutes a day to get your dog panting with fetch, a run or whatever it takes, and your dog will be more likely to relax quietly in your home the rest of the time.

Find out why your dog is barking and minimize those cues. If your dog barks while looking through a window that faces the street, close the blinds or otherwise block the view. Many dogs fire up when they hear car doors slam; other dogs bark at the mail carrier's steps on the walk. Muffle these sounds by keeping your dog inside and leaving a radio playing when you’re gone. When you’re home, giving your dog something special to chew on, such as a Kong toy or hollow bone stuffed with a little peanut butter, will help keep him occupied and quiet while he's awake. (More on barking cues in this Vetstreet article.)

Teach your dog to stop barking. When your pet speaks up, interrupt the behavior, saying the words "quiet" or "enough," and then praising him for "minding." He'll make the connection soon enough, with repetition and lots of praise. Rattling a can filled with pennies is a commonly recommended distraction, and it works well, as long as it is done quickly enough to get his attention, but not so long as to elicit fear. Shouting at your dog does nothing except make you feel temporarily better. Your dog may interpret your yelling as joining in or egging him on.

Teach your dog to bark on command. When your dog barks on command, you “own” the behavior. Think of it as installing an on/off switch. Many dogs will happily yap for a cookie, and once they do, you just need to link the word to the behavior. “Speak!” you say, and when they do, praise and deliver the cookie. Use the “stop barking” cue word and reward the desired behavior.

Substitute a different behavior. My daughter, Vetstreet dog trainer Mikkel Becker, demonstrates this technique beautifully in this video. In it, she shows how to take a dog who barks at the door and teach him instead to respond to company by going to a mat.

Where does the citronella spray collar fit it? Spray collars work by distracting the animal with both the hiss of the escaping scent and with the scent itself. Since dogs generally don’t like citrus smell, the odor is a mild aversive. It may help keep the peace, especially if used along with other bark-reducing techniques.

What about debarking? I can’t recommend it, and I’m in good company: Relatively few veterinarians will agree to debark a dog, and even then, often only in the most compelling  circumstance. Debarking involves surgically altering the function of the vocal cords so the dog can still bark at will but at a reduced volume. The resulting sound — a harsh rasping noise — can still be very annoying. The surgery is considered cruel by many and is, in fact, illegal in some places.

There’s no “magic wand” solution to barking, which is, after all, normal behavior for dogs. If you find that you’re unable to reduce the frequency of your dog’s barking, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a behaviorist or trainer who can help. Don’t get to the end of your rope first: Most training problems are easier to resolve the earlier you catch them.

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