Updated: Apr 24
When your dog keeps barking so much that the neighbors are complaining, the landlord is threatening eviction, and/or the police are visiting and warning there will be a citation issued on the next visit, it’s an emergency situation. If an owner needs their dog to stop barking immediately, understandably they may resort to using either an electronic or citronella bark collar. After all, the manufacturers of these products advertise that they work well and they work fast, and it would seem to be a great solution when you need a quick fix.
Do dog bark collars really work?
The short answer is that sometimes yes, they can work for some dogs. A lot of the reliability of using a bark collar depends on the dog, and it also depends on why the dog is barking.
A study through Cornell University found that half the dogs using an electronic anti-bark collar continued to bark, even though they received a shock for doing so. That same study found that collars releasing a citronella spray was more effective at reducing barking.
Is a shock collar bad for a dog?
Advocates of these types of collars often defend their use saying they aren’t physically painful for the dog. And that may well be true, but the fact of the matter is that they present an unpleasantness for the dog. If there wasn’t some annoyance, disagreeable sensation, or pain involved, the dog would not be motivated to stop barking.
And just because something isn’t physically painful doesn’t mean it’s humane. If someone sprayed me in the face with water every time I started to talk, it would stop me from talking because I wanted to avoid being sprayed in the face. But I would find it aversive, even if it wasn’t physically painful. It would also be frustrating, annoying and stressful. It would cause me to be afraid to make any noise at all, and shut down.
There are quite a few studies showing that the use of electronic collars in dog training is no more effective than other methods, and results in increased stress and anxiety in dogs. Even if an argument can be made that these collars don’t cause physical pain, the fact that they do increase anxiety should be enough to make us reconsider their use.
But there are other problems with the use of a dog shock collar for barking. For some dogs they don’t work. Some dogs get enough reinforcement from barking that they’re willing to continue to bark and take the punishment. And if you have more than one dog, your collar, depending on the design, may trigger with any barking in the environment – unjustly punishing the dog who wasn’t barking.
Is a dog shock collar humane when used to stop barking?
Besides shock collars, there are other collars on the market that are used to prevent barking. With one type of dog bark collar, citronella sprays when activated. Citronella is effective as most dogs do not like the scent of citrus. These types of collars are generally considered more humane than those collars using a shock.
There can be issues with citronella colors as well. Some dogs will bark continuously despite the spray of citrus, until the canister is empty. In addition, these collars have the same issue as the bark collars that deliver a shock, in that they will sometimes be triggered by other noises, even if the dog isn’t barking.
A bigger concern is that bark collars address the symptom, but not the cause. Dogs bark for a variety of reasons: excitement, to deter trespassers to their territory (including the Amazon delivery person), reacting to stimulation from noise or something they see out the window, because of stress, or fear and anxiety. If you remove the barking but the underlying trigger still exists, you may see your dog develop a new, just as undesirable behavior as an outlet for the frustration, fear or stress causing the vocalizations. Some dogs might get destructive, scratch at molding around windows and doors, eliminate in the house, or excessively groom to the point of self-harm.
Another problem with using a bark collar is that it can create issues that didn't exist prior to use. Remember that the reason bark collars work is that it causes some kind of unpleasantness that the dog wants to avoid. While the hope is that the dog may associate barking with the unpleasantness, the dog could also associate something else in the environment with the discomfort.
So, if the dog barks every day out in the yard when neighbor kids are coming home from school, and therefore activates the shock collar for barking, the dog could associate the neighbor kids with feeling discomfort. Over time the dog starts to dislike the neighbor kids and doesn't want them coming near him.
Now you might not be close to your neighbors and don't really care whether your dog likes their kids or not. But what happens if one day the kids stick their hands through the fence to pet your dog, or your dog gets loose and wanders over into their yard? And what if your dog doesn't just make the association with those particular kids, but with all kids?
And I'm just using kids as an example. We really don't know what association could occur when the dog barks and gets the consequence produced by their bark collar. A negative association could develop with just about anything, including their environment. I know several people whose dog refused to go into the yard to eliminate after they installed an electronic pet fence.
Will a bark collar work for separation anxiety?
Dog separation anxiety is a panic disorder caused by a dog who cannot cope with being left alone. When the owner leaves, the dog experiences such extreme anxiety that they cannot think rationally and don’t have control over their behavior.
Vocalizations are a very common symptom of separation anxiety. As a matter of fact, a large number of my clients discovered their dog had a problem because their neighbors informed them that their dog was barking and howling non-stop throughout the day.
Using a bark collar for separation anxiety may work in the short term to eliminate barking and howling, but it does nothing to teach the dog that being alone is safe, and most likely will make the dog’s anxiety worse. Additionally, as I mentioned above, a dog who is anxious is very likely to escalate other behaviors as an outlet for that anxiety.
In separation anxiety cases it’s helpful to view barking and other vocalizations as a symptom of the disorder. Although barking is a problem for the owner, dogs with separation anxiety desperately need help learning how to cope when being left alone. In order to eliminate the barking when the owner isn’t home, we have to resolve the anxiety issue.
It is extremely important that a bark collar for separation anxiety, or even punishment of any kind isn’t used. Corrections are not only unhelpful, but will most likely make the anxiety worse. Proper separation anxiety training using desensitization is the best way to remove the anxiety, and when the anxiety is gone the dog will no longer have a need to bark.
Although we think of barking as being a single behavior, in reality how trainers work with it will depend on context. Is the dog barking out of excitement – such as when their family returns home? Is the dog barking at strangers outside? Barking out the window at the neighbor’s walking their dog past the house? Because a driver is on your property to make a delivery? Or are they barking because they are afraid of something?
No matter why your dog is barking, it’s a good idea to engage a professional dog trainer to assess your dog, determine why the barking is happening, and develop a training plan to help your dog stop barking excessively. In the meantime, you can use management to reduce the barking by making changes to your dog's environment.
Since my clients are primarily those whose dogs suffer from separation anxiety, I’m particularly concerned about the use of bark collars. A neighbor complaining about a dog barking all day is certainly something that would be considered an emergency that needs to be taken care of. But we also know that non-stop barking and howling when the owner is absent, is one of the symptoms of separation anxiety.
If you think your dog is barking because of separation anxiety, suspend your absences and hire a certified separation anxiety dog trainer to help you with your dog. I take clients from anywhere in the USA via remote consultations, and I would love to work with you!
Does your dog have a barking problem? I offer virtual training packages and may be able to help!