How to stop your dog from barking at a family member

Image by dahancoo from Pixabay

This is a very common complaint many dog owners have – your Fido is the most wonderful pet ever, except when he barks, and barks, and barks driving everybody crazy, everybody in the house and your next-door neighbor who is threatening to call the police. Your concern and exasperation are understandable, especially if this aggressive behavior is directed against a family member, but before we can talk about a solution to this problem, you need to figure out why exactly is your dog barking like crazy? 

Why do dogs bark? This is how they communicate with other dogs or with their human family. Dogs don’t bark without a reason, this is their way to express desires, feelings, and fears. Here are the main reasons dogs bark or growl:

  • Marking and protecting their territory
  • Expressing happiness to see you back from work
  • It’s playtime!
  • Frustration over not being able to get or reach something
  • Separation anxiety
  • Trying to get your attention when something is bothering them, including the need to go outside and do their business
  • They’re not barking at you, they’re talking to a dog from across the street
  • Compulsive behavior – this is a problem that might require professional help from a certified trainer.

Once you’ve identified what is the dog trying to convey by the incessant barking, you can figure out a solution to the problem.

Is there a difference between a dog barking and one that growls? 

Many pet owners are irritated by a dog’s barking and try to correct it, but in terms of aggressive behavior, growling is sometimes more important. 

When a dog barks out loudly he’ s trying to alert you to some problem, make a demand or, indeed, show irritation with something or someone.

Growling is a low-pitched way for dogs to express their anger and send out a warning. Owners should listen closely to the growling and heed the warning – the dog is telling you he’s about to snap and he just might do that. 

Obviously, this is a behavior you will want to correct, but to avoid an escalation examine the cause of the growling and put an end to it. Punishing a dog for growling is not a good idea, as the next time something is stressing him he will not issue any warning and simply jump to the snapping phase.

Barking at strangers and barking at family members – what’s the difference?

There is a big difference, barking at strangers is annoying but understandable up to a point. Barking at one or more family members is more than just an annoyance and it can turn into a serious problem.

If there’s someone at the door, the dog will bark to alert you and if it turns out to be a complete stranger he will bark his head off just to warn the guy to back off and leave the premises. It’s a simple question of territoriality.

Dogs tend to be afraid of unfamiliar faces, especially men, who are usually taller, stronger, or hairier than women. It’s an intruder and the dog will perceive their presence as a threat. 

When we’re talking about family members, the dog has no excuse. It cannot plead not guilty, like ‘I didn’t know who it was and I just thought we might be in danger’.

Why does my dog bark at my partner?

When your dog barks at the salesman at the door or some kids running down the street you can at least wait till the crisis is over. But a partner, that’s completely different because he or she is always there and you don’t know what little gesture might trigger another barking fit, in the middle of the night, because that’s just your luck!

Looking at the main reasons a dog barks listed above, you’ll discover your dog might be trying to protect you. Protecting you from your spouse might not make sense to you, but it does to a dog – if you’re the main human in his life you’re his vital resource. You’re the one who provides food, water, and comfort, so you can bet the dog will want to protect you.

There might also be a hint of jealousy in this aggressive behavior toward your partner. They might be getting too much attention from you and the dog is bound to resent that. ‘Why is my human wasting so much time talking to this Helen creature when we could go to the park together?’ OK, maybe the dog lacks the capacity to put it just like that, but that’s the main idea behind his constant barking at your partner.

What to do:

The best thing you can do is teach the dog he can trust your partner. If you’re the one usually in charge of the dog – you feed him, you take him out, etc, let your partner gradually step in as a carer. You want your dog to identify your spouse as another valuable resource. Your partner can:

  • Give the dog treats or feed him
  • Take the dog out for a walk, without you
  • Play with the dog
  • Offer the dog a new toy

It does sound like you’re bribing the dog into accepting another human into his life, but it usually works.

Why is my dog aggressive to a family member?

If it’s not a question of jealousy and territoriality as was the case with your partner, there might be other reasons to explain the dog’s aggressive behavior towards other family members.

One of the worst situations is the dog’s being aggressive towards one of your children. If it’s just barking, that’s annoying, but if the dog is increasingly more aggressive – growling and lunging towards the child, the situation can easily escalate and become dangerous for the little one.

Small children tend to grab and pull indiscriminately, and such an incident might be the root of the problem. Or maybe the birth of a new child brought some changes in your household and the dog is angry about that. 

Whatever the reasons, you need to address the situation quickly and firmly, before things get serious and the dog bites someone.

How to deal with an aggressive dog?

The first thing you need to assess is the gravity of the situation. If the dog manifests itself by barking and growling at a family member, there’ s hope the issue can be resolved. 

Here are some counter-training techniques to correct your dog’s behavior:

Use positive reinforcement: Allow the dog to bark a few times when the family member he dislikes walks in, then give the command ‘quiet’. Call the dog to you and gently hold his muzzle before repeating the ‘quiet’ command. Make sure to use a calm but firm voice. Ask the dog to ‘sit’, praise him if he complies and offer a treat. Do this over a few days every time that family member comes in.

Distract the dog: If the above method fails, distract the dog’s attention with a loud noise every time that person makes an appearance. Use a bell or clap loudly when issuing the ‘quiet’ order, then try to calm the dog by patting his muzzle and offering a small treat. You can make it a special treat, something the dog rarely gets to make compliance more palatable.

Seek help: After trying and failing 10-20 times, it is time to call a professional trainer who can help identify the root of the problem, whether the dog has a compulsive behavior problem or there’s an anxiety issue associated with the person he’s showing aggression to. 

Should I keep a dog that is aggressive toward family members?

Before making a drastic decision you will have to try everything in your power to correct the dog’s behavior. If you’ve tried counter-training and bribery, and the trainer cannot get the dog to change his behavior, the best thing you can do for the safety of your family is to find another home for your dog. 

This is especially true if your dog starts biting and biting hard! Every pet owner knows dogs sometimes bite, but they can usually control the force of the bite. Many times a bite will leave no mark, as the dog doesn’t really want to hurt anybody. However, once the dog loses control and starts biting hard enough to pierce the skin and draw blood, that’s a sign he’s unable or unwilling to control his rage. One isolated incident can be overlooked, but if he does it again and a pattern starts to emerge, retraining the dog might be impossible and it’s best to make new arrangements for him. 

Quick recap:

There are many reasons a dog barks uncontrollably. Whether he’s afraid of a stranger or he is trying to protect his territory and you, his owner, you can use positive reinforcement to correct his behavior. Try making the dog understand that other family members pose no threat to him and help him identify them as friends and carers. If the dog continues to show hostility, enlist the help of a professional trainer specialized in behavioral problems. However, should the problem persist, you should consider removing the dog from your household.

No matter how much you love your dog, the safety of your family comes first!