Why do dogs bark on a walk?

Barking at dogs on a walk may be defensive, greeting or excitement.

Defensive barking, often combined with lunging at other dogs when on the lead may feel super embarrassing to you, but often this behaviour doesn’t start as aggression but more of a defensive behaviour.

In ‘dog language’ a dog that walks directly towards another dog is demonstrating poor dog communication and is likely to come off as over-confident and threatening.  On this basis your dog feels quite justified in telling the approaching dog to mind his manners!

But what tends to happen is that this behaviour often becomes reinforced because when the barking is most intense the other dog starts moving away and the intensity and stress are relieved.  This is operant conditioning at work!  The dog learns that the stimulus of the other dog’s approach requires the response of barking in order for the other dog to move away and make the dog feel safe and calm again.  Here begins your real barking problem!

This behaviour can then start to be generalised to dogs who are further away, not approaching or perhaps cats and humans too. 

With all that barking and lunging it is also now likely that you are getting genuinely stressed by your dog and signalling your own stress levels to the dog and putting tension on the lead.  This can compound the learning problems!  It can classically condition a problem whereby tension on the lead puts the dog in to a hyper aroused state.

Remember, though, that there are lots of other reasons for barking on a walk.  For instance, if it is occurring off lead it could be that the dog is warning other dogs away from themselves or from you too!  This could be because of fear or anxiety caused poor socialisation with other dogs or other previous experiences for instance of being attacked by another dog. If you suspect these are the reasons I’d recommend getting some help from a professional.

It can also be greeting and excitement.  Such barking tends to be higher in tone and is because the dog is very excited to meet another dog.  It may be combined with frustration barking if the dog is on the lead and wants to greet the other dog.

Finally, some breeds and some individual dogs are naturally more inclined to bark than others and still others find barking enjoyable in itself so it becomes the rewarding consequence of a range of different stimuli.

It is often helpful to get help from a professional at the early stages of helping your dog with this behaviour.  You need to be sure you’ve understood the problem and often a bit of coaching through the early stages helps too.  You and your dog will be walking together for years so a bit of investment now is thoroughly worthwhile.