Dogs Bark Until Gate Disappears

Everything changes with the barrier gone
By Karen B. London PhD, June 2018

Dogs who are barking at each other through a fence are an unpredictable lot once the fence is no longer in the picture. Some of them improve their behavior if they are given the opportunity to meet and interact without a barrier, but others may cause real injury to one another.  A rare few have no interest in any interaction other than barking at each other through the gate or fence, as is the case in the following video.

I once saw a similar reaction with two German Shepherds who were barking at each other and walking along a fence. After traversing 50 meters of fence, they came to a spot where the fence was broken and suddenly there was no barrier between them. Both dogs stopped barking for a few seconds and looked stricken as they stared at one another with nothing to keep them apart. Then, one dog moved back where he had come from and started barking through the fence again. The other dog followed on his own side so that soon they were back at it, barking away at each other on opposite sides of the fence as though they wanted to tear each other to shreds.

Although this reaction to suddenly finding themselves without a barrier is unusual, most dog behaviorists have seen it from time to time. It’s certainly a curious behavioral response. It’s reasonable to expect the dogs to fight if given the opportunity since they appear to be threatening each other, or to appropriately greet and perhaps play if they were acting out of frustration at not being able to interact.

I believe that this peculiar reaction of ceasing and desisting when there’s no fence to separate dogs can best be understood as a form of bluster. Imagine that the barking dogs are communicating to any dogs across the barrier something along the lines of, “Boy are you ever lucky that this fence is here! Why, if it weren’t for that fence, I would tear you paw from tail!” At the same time, those dogs could be thinking, in some canine sort of way, that the fence protects them from having to follow through. Their behavior suggests they understand that the barrier prohibits physical contact and that this understanding affects their behavior.

The situation is analogous to people, perhaps in a bar, who are talking about fighting each other but are being physically restrained by their buddies, at which point they become more threatening with their words. They may say something like, “You’re lucky my friends are holding me back or I’d put you in the hospital!” while actually feeling relieved that they don’t have to fight. The physical prevention serves as a face-saving device for individuals who can talk a big game but don’t really want to follow through. Those people and these dogs can both accurately be described by saying that their bark is worse than their bite.

It’s hard, even for professionals, to predict how particular dogs will react if they no longer have a fence between them. In the video above, few would have predicted that when the gate is removed that the dogs would completely abandon their barking efforts and walk away from each other. Have you ever seen dogs act in a similar manner?

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

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