29 June 2005

Herding dogs such as Border Collies and Australian cattle dogs are more likely to bark excessively than other classes of dogs, according to a new UQ study to be released at a Brisbane conference next week.

However, working dogs such as German Shepherds and Rottweilers are less likely to exhibit this behaviour according to the study, one of the first of its kind on excessive barking in dogs.

The study was conducted by researchers Dr Nicki Cross, Kim Rosenthal, Professor Clive Phillips and Dr Cam Day in the Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics in UQ’s School of Veterinary Science.

Full findings will be released at a Centre professional development conference to be attended by leading experts in animal welfare and ethics at Hillstone, Brisbane (formerly the St Lucia Golf Links Clubhouse) on Friday July 8. The conference will be held from 9am to 4.15pm.

Researcher Dr Nicki Cross said companion animals were increasingly important members of society.

“About 40 percent of Australian households own a pet dog. However, the urban environments in which these pets are housed are not always optimal for their psychological and physical well-being,” she said.

“Decreasing yard sizes and an increase in proximity to neighbours has forced people to accommodate other people’s pets and lifestyles to maintain communal harmony.”

Dr Cross said excessive barking in pet dogs was a behavioural problem that could be detrimental, not only to the welfare of the animals exhibiting the problem, but also to the lives of their human companions.

Excessive barking was the second most reported problem to a Brisbane animal behaviour clinic after aggression and constituted 15% of all behaviour problems.

“It can, however, be a behaviour that is expressed in response to a number of differing factors,” she said.

These could include:
• separation anxiety (when a dog experienced frustration at being separated from its owner);
• reaction to external stimuli (dog sees something it defines as arousing and uses barking behaviour to react to or threaten the stimulus);
• play behaviour (dog sees something/someone it desires to interact with in a friendly manner);
• social facilitation (reaction to other dogs barking in the surrounding area); and occasionally
• cognitive dysfunction (dysfunction of the dogs ability to perceive and reason).

Dr Cross said the research identified three possible reasons for excessive barking: animal-related factors such as the dog’s breed, owner-related factors, or environmentally-related questions.

“Herding dogs like Border Collies and Australian cattle dogs are bred for activities as moving livestock, so barking is an essential part of this role. Consequently, these dogs may become frustrated when housed in a small back yard for a long time and may bark as an outlet for unused energy,” she said.

“Working dogs, such as German Shepherds and Rottweilers, however, are used by such organizations as the police force and the army to work in a quiet manner and willingly obey commands, This may explain why they are less likely to exhibit problem barking behaviour.”

Environmental factors included the proximity of other dogs. This suggested that social facilitation played a large role in excessive barking and the presence of other dogs could initiate a “chain reaction” effect and influenced the onset of problem barking. It was also found that the presence of a tall solid fence reduced problem barking. As a result, the dog had reduced interaction with the external environment and less external stimuli to cause it to bark.

Dr Cross said problem barking appeared to decrease in households in which a main dog owner could be identified.

“This may indicate that having one main owner to which the dog primarily responds may be beneficial to the dog’s psychological health,” she said. “There was even less of a problem when the main owner was over 46 years of age. This may be due to these owners having increased experience in keeping dogs and indicate that younger, less experienced owners are likely to have problems with excessively barking dogs.”

Dr Cross said it was hoped that the research would allow people working with behavioural problems in companion dogs to make educated decisions regarding the treatment of barking and aid owners in making an informed selection when choosing a canine companion.

Dr Cross said the conference would help focus attention on key issues facing animal welfare and ethics.

Guest speakers will include Australia’s Chief Veterinary Officer Dr Gardner Murray, who will discuss national and international developments in animal welfare; and RSPCA president Dr Hugh Wirth, discussing the role of Non-Governmental Organisations in improving animal welfare in Australia. Australia Zoo celebrity Steve Irwin will give a video address on wildlife welfare and conservation.

Topics will also include the ethics of stockmanship, issues relating to live exports, aged horse management, xenotransplantation (transplantation of an organ of one species of animal into the body of another species) and public attitudes to food-producing animals.

People wishing to attend should contact Dr Cross, telephone 07 5460 1368 or fax/email registration details to: 07 5460 1444 or n.cross@uq.edu.au.

Further information about this research or other Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics activities can be found at www.uq.edu.au/cawe

Media wishing to attend the conference or receive more information contact Dr Cross (telephone 0754 601 368 or mobile 042 9968 766) or Jan King at UQ Communications (telephone 07 3365 1120). Abstracts will be available closer to the conference.