It is not uncommon for pets to develop barking habits that can be annoying to their owners and neighbors. But it is important to understand that barking is a normal dog behavior. Most commonly it is a signal to other pack members (yourself included) that there is something to be alerted to, such as someone who is perceived as an intruder in the dog’s territory- like a mailman or a squirrel. Barking can also be a sign of anxiety or nervousness. When a pet is left alone in a house for an extended period of time, they may suffer from separation anxiety, which may lead to excessive barking and howling.
Unfortunately, barking is commonly a positively reinforced behavior from your dog’s perspective: bark at the mailman and he goes away, bark at the door and you get to go outside, bark when master leaves and he/she comes back. All of this will positively reinforce barking, so it is important to control the behavior early if not desired and avoid positive reinforcement when possible (such as consoling your pet).
There are many alternatives to bark collars such as behavior training (which is more difficult and time consuming, but not uncomfortable to your pet), avoidance (simply avoiding situations where your pet barks), citronella collars (which spray a lemon scent instead of a shock) or using a soda can full of pennies (using an audible negative reinforcement instead of a shock). Bark collars ‘teach’ your pet not to bark by using ‘negative reinforcement’ – essentially they are punished (by delivery of a mild electrical current) when an undesirable behavior occurs. This has been proven to be an inefficient method of teaching pets, and should really only be used as a last resort, next only to debarking surgery.
Bark collars are made by a variety of manufacturers and styles, but the most common is a simple collar design with a buckle that has a black box to fit under the neck. The black box performs 2 functions: it to detects when a dog barks and it delivers a mild electrical current through two metal prongs when a bark is detected. More expensive options will have a variety of settings such as strength of current. It is best to start with the lowest current setting.
When a bark collar is first used, it should always be done under a supervised and controlled setting. You should never just place a bark collar on and leave the house for several hours. It should be used in conditions when you expect your pet may only bark a few times. The current is designed more to suddenly scare your pet, rather than injure them, but injury can occur for some animals. It may take several times before your pet understands that when they bark they will receive a “jolt”. Some pets will become very nervous and scared when this happens. If you think your pet might be suffering from anxiety, you should consult your veterinarian for other medical options first. Many pets figure out the bark collar relatively quickly, and eventually will learn that when they are wearing the bark collar they should not bark. Eventually, you may be able to take out the battery on the collar so your pet cannot actually get shocked.