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Barking is one of those dog behaviors that can be cute (like when your dog “speaks” on command) or it can be an absolute struggle…like when your dog decides to bark at night.
Dogs can be trained to not bark at night but it’s not always the most straightforward process and the first step is to figure out why your dog is barking at night.
The most common reason dogs bark at night is a reaction to activity outside the house like people or more often nocturnal animals. Other dogs may need to go the bathroom or are simply bored and have learned that barking is the best way to wake you up at night.
Even though it can feel like dogs are barking for no reason, there’s usually something that’s motivating the behavior. We’ll take a closer look at each reason below along with some possible solutions.
Reason 1: Responding to Nocturnal Animals
Different species move around your home at night than during the day. Cats, opossums, raccoons, and others, depending on where you live, can all trigger your dog to bark. If your dog has a high prey drive, common in hunting breeds like hound dogs and terriers, they may be even more likely to respond to the sound or smell of animals outside by barking, growling, or even scratching at the walls– none of which are great to hear while you’re sleeping.
If your dog is barking because he can hear the movement of a nocturnal animal, you will likely see them sniff or listen attentively by a doorway or window and then bark in an excited way. Often barking is accompanied by scratching at the window or door and whining. This type of response is much more eager sounding, rather than being defensive as if a dog were responding to an intruder.
It can be very hard to reduce a dog’s instinctual response to bark at prey animals. Prey drive is a deeply seated instinct that is very natural for dogs.
Therefore, the best way to reduce barking at nocturnal animals is to prevent your dog from being aware of them. Keep your dog out of rooms that have access to the outside or keep your dog in a crate far from windows and doors. A white noise maker can be very effective for preventing dogs from hearing nocturnal animals outside.
Reason 2: Warning Intruders to Stay Away
Many dogs will bark if they hear a potential intruder outside at night, even if they don’t mind pedestrians passing by their front door during the daytime. Some dogs have a stronger instinctual protection drive at night when the household is sleeping. If people walk by your home in the evening, especially very late or in the early morning hours when everyone is asleep, your dog may bark protectively.
Dogs that are barking out of a protective instinct often have a deep, aggressive sounding bark. Barking may be mixed with growling. Dogs may look out a window or keep their ear positioned towards a door while they are barking. Many dogs that bark protectively run between the door and you and sometimes they may show some anxiety such as whining, pacing, and keeping their ears held back.
These may also be dogs that are quick to check on you while you’re sleeping or otherwise seem active when you’re asleep.
When dogs warn intruders to keep their distance and the pedestrians outside keep walking, your dogs barking is reinforced. This can make it very challenging for you to eliminate the barking behavior.
This is especially true since you may be sleeping and unable to immediately respond to your dog’s barking. The best way to eliminate protective barking at night is to keep your dog from being aware of people passing by outside.
Keep your dog away from doors and windows by keeping them in an interior room or a crate. A white noise machine can be very effective for preventing dogs from hearing people outside.
Reason 3: Barking in Their Sleep
Your dog may be barking at a stimulus in their dreams, rather than a real stimulus. Typically when dogs bark in their dreams, the bark is muffled.
However, just like with people, dogs have varying degrees of immobility when they sleep. Some dogs are able to move their bodies and produce a significant sound when they bark in their sleep. You may not even realize that your dog is sleeping when they bark at night until you see them sleeping.
Sleep barking is typically more muffled than waking awake or voluntary barking.
Reason 4: Separation Anxiety
If the only time that you are separated from your dog is at night, it may be separation anxiety that is causing the barking.
Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety often bark in a high-pitched way. Barking may be continuous or it may come and go in cycles as dogs feel waves of anxiety. Typically the barking will be immediately relieved when you reunite with a dog and will not occur in your presence.
If you don’t need to be away from your dog at any other time, the simplest solution for nighttime separation anxiety may be to let your dog sleep in the room with you. Giving your dog something that smells like you when they sleep can also be a solution.
Training to reduce separation anxiety involves desensitizing your dog to your absence by eliminating signals that you are leaving along with lots of rewards whenever you aren’t with them. But that’s a very simplified explanation and separation anxiety training can be a complicated process!
Reason 5: Needs to Go to the Bathroom
Your dog may be barking at night to tell you that they need to go outside. Even if they usually let you know in another way, if that way isn’t having an effect, they may turn to barking. It is very typical for puppies in the midst of potty training to bark to go outside in the middle of the night. This behavior also becomes more common as older dogs become incontinent.
Barking to go out to go potty is usually the bark that your dog typically uses to get your attention. Often there will be a single bark followed by a wait and then another bark. Your dog may also whine. When you come out to find out what’s wrong, your dog will typically run to the door or otherwise indicate that they need to go out in the way they typically would.
Puppies typically cry in the middle of the night to go out, and it’s best to accept that this will be a part of your routine until their bladders are large enough to hold it through the night.
Reason 6: Boredom
Sometimes dogs bark at night just because they don’t know what else they should do. If your dog sleeps most of the day when you’re gone at work or school, they may not be tired enough to sleep through the night as well. Energetic dogs may find themselves with hours to kill in the middle of the night, which can lead them to bark just to entertain themselves or in the hope of getting you up to pay attention to them.
And even though you’d think dogs would get tired of barking, that’s rarely the case.
Dogs that are barking out of boredom may be playfully yipping at their toy or they may bark in a high-pitched way to try to get you to come out. Typically barking comes in short bursts between your dog finding other ways to entertain themselves.
Make sure that your dog gets exercise before nightfall. Try giving your dog a food distributing toy and a selection of great chew toys before bed. If they wake up in the middle of the night, they’ll be able to entertain themselves with these things instead of barking.
Why Do Old Dogs Bark at Night?
Barking in the middle of the night can become much more common as your dog gets older. Older dogs have specific concerns related to nighttime barking:
As dogs get older, they often lose the ability to hold their urine as well as they did in the past. Your older dog may ask you to go out much more frequently than they did when they were younger, including in the middle of the night.
Dogs barking because of incontinence may start out barking as they normally would to go out or to get your attention and become increasingly frantic as they get closer to having to relieve themselves.
Dogs can get a sort of dementia that looks very similar to human dementia. They may be confused and their sleeping and waking cycles may be unusual.
Symptoms can get worse as night comes on. Dogs may become irritable, needy, and perform repetitive behavior like pacing or barking for no reason. Dogs may also wake up in the middle of the night displaying these behaviors.
Dogs with dementia seem to bark at nothing at all. The bark can be any type between alerting, defensive, and excited. Typically, barks are intermittent and have a sort of flat tone to them. Barking is often accompanied with whining, pacing and other repetitive behaviors.
Some dogs with dementia can benefit from white noise, music, or another soothing stimulus.
Things to Avoid When Handling Dog Barking
Being woken up by your dog barking at night can be extremely frustrating, especially if it becomes an ongoing trend. If you don’t know what to do, you may find yourself trying just about anything to stop the barking. However, there are some things you should not do if your dog is barking at night:
Don’t Punish your Dog.
Your dog is barking for a reason, whether it’s because they are trying to alert you to something outside, experiencing instincts like prey drive, or because they want to be near you. Punishing your dog will hurt the relationship between you, but it is unlikely to affect the barking.
Don’t Just Ignore it.
Many types of barking are self-reinforcing. If every time your dog barks at a pedestrian walking by that pedestrian leaves, your dog will be rewarded every time they bark. Ignoring the barking is unlikely to make it go away and will allow it to keep being reinforced.
Don’t Make Your Dog Wear A Bark Collar.
Bark collars can sense when your dog barks and provide a deterrent to the barking like a spray of citronella into the face or a shock. These collars can be very confusing and frightening for dogs and often lead to other problem behavior and neurosis.
How Do I Get My Dog to Sleep All Night (And Stop Barking)?
Naturally, you would love it if your dog slept through the night without making a peep. Thankfully, there are some things that you can do to help your dog sleep through the night:
- Have your veterinarian rule out pre-existing conditions. Your dog may be barking because they are becoming incontinent secondary to a medical issue or old age. The first step is to rule out medical problems.
- Make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise before bed. A tired dog is less likely to wake up and bark. Make sure your dog is thoroughly tired out and they will be more likely to sleep through the night.
- Eliminate access to stimulus. If your dog is barking because of a stimulus like a prey animal or person outside, preventing them from being aware of the stimulus by using white noise makers and by keeping your dog away from windows and doors can solve the problem.
- Provide food distributing toys and chew toys. If your dog is barking out of boredom or separation anxiety, providing toys to entertain them when they wake up in the night may eliminate the barking.
- Make sure they’re comfortable. Your dog is more likely to sleep through the night if they are sleeping comfortably. Make sure they have a comfortable bed to sleep in.
Respond to Nighttime Barking…But Don’t Give In
Appropriate responses to barking include putting your dog in a crate so they won’t have as much access to a stimulus or drawing their attention to something to entertain them like a stuffed food toy. Inappropriate responses include petting your dog, playing with them, or otherwise giving them what they want, with the exception of potty breaks.
What you don’t want to do is unintentionally reinforce the barking behavior by getting up and playing with your dog or giving them treats. By doing that, your dog will quickly learn that barking gets your attention or even a nice snack!