Dog Behavior III: Barkers

Above we have free stock pictures of a Yorkshire Terrier, a Miniature Schnauzer, and a West Highland White Terrier. These dogs have a handful of things in common: they are all terriers, they were all bred to hunt vermin, and they all tend to bark. A lot. At the same time, they generally have a reason to bark; you can see the reason once you start to think about what terriers were originally bred to do.

If one talks to enough people one will discover that somewhere out there every breed of dog has pretty much contributed one “nuisance barker” to the world. Which raises a noteworthy point: what makes a nuisance barker? Basically, if a dog barks when it’s person doesn’t want it to or so often and loudly that other people are complaining. This is not the same as a dog barking “without reason.” Some people want a dog that will switch barking off and on for people reasons, “Please dog, only bark when a criminal or door-to-door salesperson is approaching.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t how barking generally works.

Dogs bark for numerous reasons. Maybe they see another animal, or a person, or a vehicle approaching their territory . That’s usually something worthy of a bark, “Warning, stranger approaching.” Maybe they are hungry, thirsty, cold, scared, lonely. These are also reasons to bark — remember, a bark is communication. Dogs are pack animals who have transferred their loyalty to humans. They need human contact and company to be healthy and happy. Dogs left out, alone, unattended tend to be lonely and will bark. They have very good reasons for this – they’re trying to find another member of their pack who will rescue them from their isolation.

At the same, some dogs were bred for reasons that require more alert energy and as a result, tend to bark more than dogs that were bred for quieter pursuits. Yorkies for example were bred by folks who mined and didn’t want to be overrun by rats. A somewhat larger dog at the time, Yorkies were excellent ratters. Eventually Yorkies caught the eye of  aristocratic land owners, who also selectively bred for a smaller dog.

At the same time, these land owners had larger watch and guard dogs like Great Danes and Mastiffs. The problem with bigger dogs is that they are often heavier sleepers, thus the always alert little Yorkies would bark and wake-up the watch and guard dogs when something was out of order. Eventually small dogs were habitually kept with larger dogs to alert the large dogs. Terriers in general were bred to be alert and notice small movements that rodents would make. This requires keen hearing, quick reactions, an ability to notice small details. Wonderful traits for hunting rodents. Not as wonderful if you want a very quiet housemate but don’t live on a large estate where there is limited coming and going. For example, kept in a space where they can see and hear things going on all day, Yorkies will tend to bark.

Terriers bark a lot because they notice a lot and they think most of it is worth barking about. This can be very annoying.
Beagles can be barkers. Having been designed to be part of a pack and now kept often as individual pets, beagles often bark looking for communication and company, and from frustration when alone.
Working dogs without a job can become barkers. This includes German Shepherds and Border Collies who were bred to work with people, not alone. They’re likely to become barkers out of boredom, frustration, and loneliness.

This is why it is so important to start dealing with a “problem barker” by examining why they are barking. While some breeds are more likely to bark a great deal because they hear ever little noise, dogs don’t bark for ‘no reason’ — they bark for reasons that may not match a person’s reason for wanting barking. They may also be barking trying to communicate their fear, loneliness, boredom, or frustration. If you have a dog that barks far more than you want there are several common reasons: the breed is more alert and ‘barky’ than suits you as an individual; the individual animal is very alert or sensitive; or the animal is trying to communicate a need that isn’t being met. If you’re having trouble discerning why your dog barks, it may be worth consulting a dog behaviorist or books on dog behavior to learn more.

If you’re planning on getting a dog and you want less barking, look at the purpose different breeds were bred for and how central to their role both working and barking were considered.
Newfoundlands and Chesapeake Bay Retrievers for example, were bred to work in cold water with people. Barking was not central to this role; being willing to jump into icy water without hesitation were necessary. These are dogs that were designed for the cold but did not need to be constantly alert. They therefore are genetically predisposed to be somewhat quieter.These breeds still need exercise and enjoy swimming but if they’re going to bark it is most likely to happen when they are excited because they are going swimming.
 Old English Sheepdogs were bred to guard sheep from predators like wolves, coyotes, and other dogs. Barking was only necessary if they noticed an immediate threat to the flock — that was what they were bred to communicate to shepherds. They are therefore less likely to bark at everything that moves and bark instead at possible threats to their human flock, like intruders to their territory.

working Chesapeake Bay Retriever


Alf, the Old English Sheepdog

Also, compare the immediately above pictures with the pictures of the terriers. To my eye the terriers look more ready to jump at the first sound and let the world know they heard or saw something. While Retrievers are working dogs and need a job, kept active– for example taken for regular walks– they are much less likely to be ‘barky’ than a terrier will be.  Newfs are pretty happy to make it their job to swim and hang out with their people. Sheepdogs will gladly transfer their herding instincts to watching over children.  In other words, one of the keys to finding a dog that barks the appropriate amount for your lifestyle is to find a breed of dog that was bred for a reason that will work into your lifestyle. If you’re a jogger, a retriever might be a perfect companion to exercise with you, then sleep while you’re at work (rather than barking to alert everyone to everything.)

This is also an advantage of adopting a dog from a reputable rescue. They have already observed the dog and can tell you the kind of characteristics it is displaying, including when and why it seems to bark. Because they deal with so many kinds of dogs, a rescue can also help you identify a dog that is more or less likely to be too barky for you. This may mean leaving the cute little terrier for people like me, who like big dog attitude in a small package and are willing to put up with the barks as part of the package. (This is also why an increasing number of rescues are trying to adopt particular breeds of dogs out to people who already have experience with that type of dog…a topic we will discuss soon.)

If you are considering adding a particular breed of dog to your family that you have not lived with before and have questions about them, please let us know. Also, if you have noticed particular traits that are specific to particular breeds — including your own nomination for barkiest breeds of dogs — please share!

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