Excessive vocalization refers to uncontrollable, excessive barking, whining or crying, often occurring at inappropriate times of the night or day. Such vocalization can be due to pain, illness, cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), or may be related to a decline in hearing in senior pets.
CDS is often associated with night waking, during which excessive vocalization occurs. Dogs that are bred for work and high energy activities may be prone to excess barking.
Excessive barking may also be related to behavioral conditions, which may be controlled by behavior modification training. There are also some breeds that are better known for excessive and inappropriate barking. Many breeds of terrier, such as the Yorkshire, Cairn, Fox, West Highland White, and Silky terriers, are prone to barking without cause and may benefit from behavioral modification training. Other breeds include toy and miniature poodles, chihuahuas, and Pekingese.
SYMPTOMS AND TYPES
- Night vocalizations in senior age dogs
- Excessive barking in working-breed dogs
- Excessive barking in high energy, nervous dogs
- Vocalization caused by pain or illness
- Vocalization disruptive to owners or others (e.g., neighbors)
- Medical: disease, pain, CDS
- Anxiety or conflict
- Alarm barking – in response to novel stimuli
- Territorial - warning or guarding response to sounds from outdoors
- Social or attention-seeking behavior that is reinforced by verbal commands or return of owner to room
- Distress vocalization (e.g. howling or whining) – often due to separation from mother, family, social group or owner
- Growling may be associated with antagonistic displays
- Stereotypical behaviors or compulsive disorders
- Breed – genetic characteristics
If your dog's increased vocalization is out of the ordinary, you will want to have health problems ruled out before considering behavior modification. Your veterinarian can perform a full medical work-up, including a chemical blood profile, complete blood count (CBC), urinalysis and electrolyte panel, along with a complete physical exam. Possible incidents that might have led to this condition will also be considered, and a thorough history of your dog's behavioral health leading up to the symptoms will be taken into account.
It is critical to rule out a non-behavioral, physical cause of the vocalization first. Imaging can be helpful for ruling out medical/neurological disorders. BAER (brainstem auditory evoked response) testing can be done if auditory decline is suspected.
A plan must be created which is customized to suit your dog and your personal living conditions, your household, and the type of problem, being sure to attempt to resolve the underlying cause before behavioral modifications are begun.
Do not reinforce the vocalization. This includes punishing the behavior, which is still regarded as attention. Instead, positively reward your dog when it is calm and quiet and lead by example by remaining calm as well. Also, counter-condition your dog to calm down when stimulated. Training your dog to be quiet on command will be the priority.
To prevent your dog from becoming accustomed to the attention received by barking or crying, a quiet response can be reinforced using head halters, bark-activated alarms, bark-activated citronella collars, and disruptive devices such as alarms or water sprayers. Another method that has been used to some success is to desensitize the dog to the outside stimuli using food treats until the response threshold is very high. Becoming more attentive to the triggers that cause your dog to bark excessively will help you to distract your dog before it becomes excited or anxious.
Medications might be indicated if there is real anxiety, conflict, excessive responsiveness to stimuli or a compulsive disorder:
- Benzodiazepines on a short-term or as-needed basis when situations of anxiety might be expected or for inducing sleep
- Sedatives may be effective for tranquilizing the dog prior to exposure to stimuli (e.g., car rides, fireworks), but will not decrease anxiety and may increase noise sensitivity and vocalization in some dogs
- Tricyclic antidepressants (TCA) or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for long-term therapy for excessive and chronic anxiety, combined with behavior modification can be useful for some dogs
- SSRIs or clomipramine may help when combined with behavior therapy for compulsive disorders.
LIVING AND MANAGEMENT
The dog should be brought back to the veterinarian or to a behavior specialist to modify the program based on your dog's particular response. Obedience training, head halter training and quiet command training are often effective in dogs. Dogs should be habituated and socialized to a variety of stimuli and environments throughout development, including to other people and pets. This desensitizes the animal to novel experiences, reducing anxiety, and over-excitation.