Is Dog Barking an Instinct or Learned Behavior?

by Chris Miksen
Your pup figures you talk enough, he should be able to speak, too.

Your pup figures you talk enough, he should be able to speak, too.

Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images

Barking is your pup's way of saying, "Hey buddy! Something's happening." Or for the really excited pup, it's his way of telling someone "hi," or asking you to throw his favorite ball. Whatever his message, know that your pup barking is just like a toddler wrapping herself around her mother's leg in fear: it's instinctual, although a number of factors can make it more prevalent.

Instinct

When your pup barks at a stranger walking down the street, a car racing up the street or because you had the audacity to hug your significant other rather than him, that's mostly all instinct. He's being noisy because something has alerted him, he's scared, aggravated, bored or energetic. He's instinctively communicating to you in one of the only ways he knows how. The barking starts in puppyhood. Youngsters let out high-pitched woofs when playing tug-of-war, running around outside and jousting with one another. Later in life they start barking for other reasons.

Some More Than Others

Some breeds bark more than others, although that statement is slightly deceptive. A German shepherd is often cited as a noisy canine, but it's not because the breed enjoys barking. Shepherds have a high energy level, and they need a job to do. If they aren't physically and mentally stimulated, they get bored and bark. Compare a shepherd with a bulldog. Bulldogs have a far lower energy level and require considerably less daily exercise, so their physical needs are more easily met. On the flip side, properly socialized shepherds are typically aloof when a stranger walks near -- but not too close -- to their territory. The pups are more likely to remain silent, but keep a vigilant eye on the person. In contrast, Labrador retrievers are easily excited and friendly, making them more likely to bark in the same situation.

Can Be Learned

The very core of your pup's barking behavior might be instinctive, but it can certainly be reinforced so that he barks more often and even on command. Barking is just like any behavior. If you reward it, the proverbial light bulb kicks on in your pup's mind. He thinks he's doing a good thing since you're rewarding it, so he'll bark even more in hopes of more rewards. And his idea of a reward may be completely different than yours. If he barks every time your friend comes over, and you open the door so he can see her, you've rewarded him. If you stuff a treat in his mouth to make him stop barking while he's still barking, you've rewarded him. If you'd like to teach him to bark on command, say the command once, then get him to bark -- by knocking on the door or getting him excited -- and then toss him a tasty snack. Rinse and repeat, and you'll soon have a canine who woofs on command.

Quiet Down

No amount of yelling and stomping your feet will get your dog to shut his yapper. In fact, those things may make his barking worse. When those canine instincts kick in and he starts being noisy, introduce the quiet command. If you already taught him the speak command, this one's easy. Tell him to speak, then say "quiet." As soon as he stops barking, give him a treat. If you haven't taught him the quiet command, don't worry, you can still silence the loudmouth. Create a situation in which he barks, such as by knocking on the door. After he goes into his barking frenzy, say "quiet" and wait for him to shush up. When he does, give him a treat. The training will likely take longer if he's barking instinctively, because he'll probably bark nearly nonstop if he's excited or alert as opposed to letting out only a few woofs on command.

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About the Author

Located in Pittsburgh, Chris Miksen has been writing instructional articles on a wide range of topics for online publications since 2007. He currently owns and operates a vending business. Miksen has written a variety of technical and business articles throughout his writing career. He studied journalism at the Community College of Allegheny County.

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