Picture this: You’re lying in bed on a sweltering summer night with the window open, and just as you begin dozing off, the neighbor’s dog rips through the silence with a machine-gun-like bark that just never seems to stop.
Unfortunately, man’s best friend is often also suburbia’s biggest nuisance. Clark County’s animal control department gets about 1,500 complaints about obnoxiously loud animals each year, and barking dogs are the only ones that result in fines for pet owners, said Paul Scarpelli, the county’s animal control manager.
But with a strapped budget and no more than four animal control officers to patrol the county at any time, there’s little the agency can do to stop barking dogs from getting out of control.
So, what’s a neighbor to do? And what about the dog owners themselves? Well, luckily, there are plenty of ways to fix the problem, and not all of them mean getting animal control involved.
What makes dogs bark?
Addressing the issue begins with understanding why dogs bark in the first place, said Jenn Fiendish, a veterinary technician at Portland’s Animal Behavior Clinic. As one of only 12 technicians in the nation certified as a behavioral specialist in the field, Fiendish has a keen understanding of what makes dogs tick.
5 common causes of barking
Here are five of the most common causes of barking, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Territorial behavior: "Get away from my yard, mailman!"
Greeting: "Ooh, my person just came home! Let's say hello!"
Attention seeking: "Why isn't anyone playing with me? Come on! Do your job!"
Separation anxiety: "Where'd the rest of my pack go? I hate being left at home alone."
Alarm: "What was that noise? An intruder? Better sound the alarm!”
The problem is, barking isn’t as clear-cut as many dog owners suspect. After all, dogs bark when they’re happy. They bark when they’re upset. They bark when they’re bored, hungry, lonely, excited, anxious, tired or playful.
But wait, don’t blame the dog, Fiendish warns.
“When it comes to barking, it’s something that humans have kind of created in the domestic dog,” she said. “They don’t really vocalize as much when they’re in the wild. Having that interaction with us has just inadvertently created an animal that will communicate more with barks.”
And the messages are often lost in translation.
A wagging tail could be misinterpreted as excitement, when it might actually mean the dog is uncomfortable. When dogs becomes fearful, they often slink into a leaned-back posture, hovering lower to the ground with their ears back and their tails tucked between their legs.
Dogs also give off a range of vocal cues in their barks. A territorial dog might rapidly sound off to warn people to stay away from his owner’s yard. In that case, the dog’s body will most likely tense up, Fiendish said, whereas a playful dog would have looser body language and a higher-pitched tone.
When to get animal control involved
Barking is among the most frequent nuisance complaints fielded by animal control officer Patrick Higbie. But animal control won’t pay a visit until the complainant has filed three reports about the dog.
A simple letter reminding the dog owner of the county’s nuisance ordinance usually resolves the problem, he said.
“The second letter is a little more strongly worded, and then the third time they send me out,” Higbie said.
Usually, barking only becomes a problem when the dog has been going at it nonstop for 10 minutes or intermittently for half an hour, he said. That could get the owner a $100 fine, but usually it doesn’t go that far.
To get to that point, aggravated neighbors have two options: Submit an unedited video showing the dog barking for that long, or two neighbors from separate households can submit a noise petition.
Animal control responds to every complaint about barking dogs, but not to the same level it did a decade ago. The agency covers Vancouver, Yacolt and all of unincorporated Clark County, but its staffing levels have stagnated since the department was created 39 years ago, Scarpelli said.
The crux of that challenge, Scarpelli said, is the county’s low compliance rate for pet licensing — the license fee is a key funding source for the department. He estimates less than 30 percent of Clark County’s dog owners have licensed their pets.
The general do’s and don’ts of dog training
It’s normal to tell your dog not to bark, but that doesn’t exactly get the point across to an animal that speaks a different language. Usually, it makes the barking worse, Fiendish said.
“We’re thinking, ‘I’m telling the dog to stop barking,’ ” she said, “where the dog is thinking, ‘Yay, you’re barking with me!’ ”
Fiendish recommends not taking a punishment- or dominance-based approach to training, like yelling, using a bark collar or squirting the dog with water.
“That can actually worsen the behavior overall,” she said. “It’s really important when you’re looking at training that you go with a positive reinforcement type of training,” she said.
Debbie Bracken, a Vancouver area dog trainer with Bark Busters, said the vast majority of dogs eventually get past their barking problems after going through training with a professional. But the owner has to be committed to enforcing the lessons during and after the training.
Teaching owners how to communicate with calm, assertive behavior is crucial to getting barking under control, she said.
“When we educate the owners as to why dogs do what they do, then your dog starts to learn from you,” Bracken said. “I teach the owners of the dogs to have respect for them.”
Bracken has trained hundreds of dogs in the Portland-Vancouver metro area over the last few years. In her experience, dogs of any breed or age can have barking problems, but it’s never too late to get into training.
“You can train a dog at any age,” she said. “Yes, sometimes older dogs are a little more stubborn, but they can learn.”