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10 ways shelters can decrease barking

How can shelters decrease barking?

Animal shelters are crazy loud, right?

The ASPCA’s webinar “Canine Behavior and Acoustics” focused on noisy shelter environments and how the noise affects the dogs. The webinar was presented by Dr. Patricia McConnell, a certified applied animal behaviorist.

I was most interested in the section on how shelters can decrease the barking specifically, and that is what I’m going to share with you. The webinar also covered what we can do to cut back on aversive shelter noise in general and how the overall noise affects dogs and all animals.

The information applies to boarding kennels, too. I worked at a boarding kennel during high school and college, and boy was it loud! Louder than any of the shelters I’ve been in.

How can shelters decrease barking?

10 tips for shelters to decrease the barking

The following are 10 isolated ideas I learned during McConnell’s webinar last week. This is not intended as an outline of her entire presentation.

1. Decrease the amount of time or frequency the dogs can see each other.

We’ve all seen what happens when one dog is walked down the aisle of kennels, right? All the other dogs bark at that one dog, causing a chain reaction until pretty soon all the dogs are barking. Often, they are very upset and frustrated because they can’t touch the other dogs.

McConnell suggested something as simple and inexpensive as hanging sheets along the kennels to block the dogs’ views of each other. The Dane County Humane Society in Wisconsin did this and reported “the noise level went down profoundly.”

In this case, the shelter hung sheets in front of one aisle and left the other aisle open. Potential adopters could look in and view the dogs through the open aisle, but the other “blocked” aisle was used for bringing dogs in and out.

2. Make sure volunteers and adopters understand the benefit to these barriers.

People don’t always understand how frustrating it is for dogs to see each other without being able to interact, McConnell said. She gave a few examples she thought people might be able to relate to.

“What if you constantly saw something you couldn’t get?” she said. “What if you were constantly looking at chocolate you couldn’t eat and a cheeseburger you couldn’t eat, and you know, and somebody you were dying to touch but couldn’t?”

It would not be relaxing, it would be frustrating, she said.

This is why it’s sometimes better to block a dog’s view for at least part of the day. It’s a way to help the dogs settle in and relax.

3. Use intermittent, soothing classical music.

One of the boarding kennels and daycares I have taken Ace to apparently plays classical music for the dogs during nap time. I imagine this helps condition the boarding and daycare dogs to calm down during certain times.

This is the same approach McConnell suggested for shelters. Choose some soothing, slow music to play during specific times such as during the middle of the day when you want the dogs to settle in for a nap or at the end of the day when you want them to go to bed. You can classically condition the dogs to become relaxed and sleepy when they hear this type of music.

On the other hand, don’t play the music 24/7, McConnell said. If you do that, the dogs might not notice it anymore. You also don’t want the music on during exciting times such as feeding time or when you first arrive in the morning when everyone starts barking.

One listener (through chat) expressed concern because of a shelter that apparently leaves the lights and radio on all the time, and McConnell seems horrified by that idea. While there is no research to back it up, she said she thought this would be extremely stressful on dogs because so much of their behavior depends on light/dark cycles. They probably benefit from having the lights turned off at night just as we do.

How can shelters decrease barking?

4. Provide comfort.

The more comfortable and less sterile the environment is, the more the dog is able to relax, McConnell said. Obviously, this also makes cleaning more difficult, so it’s a constant tradeoff. She suggested shelters at least provide a soft bed or pad to allow each dog to sleep off the ground.

5. Keep the dogs busy.

“It’s hard to bark when you’re licking food out of a Kong,” McConnell said.

6. Provide exercise.

McConnell stressed that “exercise” does not mean getting the dog out of the kennel for five minutes.

“Taking dogs out for five, ten minutes gets them really revved up,” she said.

It’s good to take them out for frequent bathroom breaks, but we need to think about providing real exercise, she said.

7. Sit with the dogs in their kennels.

Some shelters are having success with volunteers simply sitting in the kennels with the dogs, McConnell said. The dogs are always dying to get out of their kennels where they think something good will happen, but this teaches them that their kennels are also good places.

She suggested volunteers should sit and pet the dogs, play with them using interactive toys and just hang out.

“Go in there and just sit and read a book,” she said. “Just sit there and pet a dog’s belly for awhile.”

8. Move problem barkers (or meowers) to another area.

Of course space is always limiting, but sometimes it helps to move the especially obnoxious talkers to a separate area if possible, McConnell said.

9. Train the dogs to be quiet for treats.

The idea here is to stock volunteers with treats and have them walk down the aisles, asking each dog to sit quietly or make eye contact for a treat. McConnell said she’s heard mixed reviews from shelters on this method. Most said it works really well to help the dogs focus and quiet down while a few said it gets the dogs overly excited.

I imagine it has to do with the energy of the volunteers and the way they are interacting with the dogs while they train them. In my experience with boarding kennels, this method really works well to quiet the kennel.

How can shelters decrease barking?

10. Consider housing some dogs together.

McConnell said she wishes shelters could get beyond single-kennel housing.

“In the perfect world, shelters would have dogs in settings that looked like living rooms,” she said.

She referenced a study that compared one shelter that housed dogs in single kennels and another that housed them together in fairly large groups. The dogs that lived in groups were much quieter and were adopted much faster than dogs from the other shelter. The dogs also had fewer behavioral problems at the shelter and fewer behavioral problems once they were adopted out.

Obviously there are all kind of factors here. This is just one study looking at two shelters, but it’s worth some serious thought and more research. I know I’ve seen far too many well-socialized dogs enter the rescue system only to develop some serious frustration issues after months of being cut off from contact with other dogs.

Others become so desperate to play with other dogs that when they finally do get a chance, they come off as crazy and rude even though they’re just overly friendly and out of control. Unfortunately, I’ve known a few that were killed because of the behavioral problems they developed while with the rescue group.

Another factor here is play groups for shelter dogs. I’m glad more shelters are giving dogs the chance to run and socialize with other dogs, even if they don’t live together in the same kennels.

What do the rest of you think? How noisy is your shelter? What are some of your ideas to dampen the noise?

You can listen to the full recording of the webinar here. It will ask you to enter your email address in order to sign up for the free download.

Photos in this post are from the San Diego Animal Control. These three dogs (Bink: top, Sherlock: middle and Selena) are available for adoption at the north shelter in Carlsbad, Calif.

Thanks to those who have pre-ordered the Mutt Calendar.


Wednesday 18th of September 2013

Ian Dunbar's Open Paw project just suggests throwing food at dogs to cease barking. The idea is that they can't bark and eat at the same time, and they'll see approaching people as "oo, food?" instead of "intruder intruder!" or "playtime playtime!". ... I'm ab libbing here, if you can't tell. ;)

Lindsay Stordahl

Wednesday 18th of September 2013

Yes, this could be an option. I'm curious if some of the dogs get too excited and start barking more when they see the humans coming.

2 brown dawgs

Wednesday 18th of September 2013

We aren't in a shelter environment, but our dogs are boarded for training now and again. I think exercise is key. Well exercised dogs are too tired to bark I also think some barking is genetic and without specific one-on-one training (from an early age), I am not sure how much that behavior can be modified.

Lindsay Stordahl

Wednesday 18th of September 2013

Yep, exercise is such a factor!


Wednesday 18th of September 2013

There was a study sometime back that using essential oils like lavender and chamomile got the dogs to bark less compared to essential oils like rosemary that cause the dogs to be more active and bark more. But I think the approaches here such as the sheets are more practical and shelters that have less manpower or money will still be able to do this. :)

Lindsay Stordahl

Wednesday 18th of September 2013

Yes, that makes sense. I have heard lavender works pretty well.


Tuesday 17th of September 2013

Great ideas. Covering the doors with sheets sounds like it might work. The music idea is good too. I heard a study some time back where they recorded a happy dog. You know the sound a dog makes when he's panting with joy, but not barking? A shelter played that sound from time to time and said it worked great.

Lindsay Stordahl

Tuesday 17th of September 2013

Interesting idea! I would've never thought of that.