Sarah Wilson

Dog Expert

Alarm Barking: Why Does My Dog Bark at “Those People”?


Alarm BarkingDogs bark at difference. Not all dogs. Some dogs – whether because of excellent socialization or a placid personality – accept everyone. Other dogs, with the herding breeds often being the kings and queens of noticing difference, except more often.

Usually dogs notice and react to differences we can (mortifyingly) see ourselves: someone in a wheelchair or who has crutches, the little girl from next door or your friendly uniformed delivery person. Caras, my late-great Australian Shepherd, tutored me in this.

Once he was poolside with me as I swam. I put on a swim mask and he freaked out – racing back and forth, barking with pure alarm. My good buddy would not come near me. I simple moved the mask to the top of my head and he came right over to say, “Hi.” Slipping the mask back on right in front of him while praising him caused him to not recognize me a bit, no matter what I said or did. He was terrified. All I can imagine is that I suddenly became a monster before his very eyes.

Hats, glasses, hoodies, masks, beards and uniforms can all cause this reaction. Your nice, friendly dog can go to Zombie-alert level 10 in a way that makes you want to crawl under a rock. Which reminds me that Caras also went through a phase of barking at the homeless man who lived in the corner of a local NYC playground in the 80’s. After seeing him emerge from the box he lived in, Caras erupted in alarm and nothing I could do at that moment would calm him.

Because Caras was raised in New York City, racial variation was normal for him. But for a dog raised in a single-race area, differences in skin color can do it,  the way a neon-pink person might alarm us. When I lived in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn years ago, I was one of “those people” some dogs barked at because I was white in a largely black neighborhood. A number of dogs who had never left the area just didn’t know what to make of me.

Other times your dog may react to things we cannot see: people on prescription (or nonprescription) drugs or intoxication can create a canine commotion. All depends on the dog.

Regardless of the cause, you have to deal with it. Here are a few things to do.

1) At home practice difference. Dress up with hats, beards, glasses. Wear them around the house. Put them on before your dog’s favorite game so your dog learns difference = fun! Pick up a cane or some old crutches so you can hobble a bit. Have fun.

2) Give your dog something else to do if he erupts. The temptation can be to correct him because it is embarrassing and you want the person being barked at to know what is happening  isn’t okay with you but that won’t help much. It’ll usually just teach your dog that you have issues around this difference, too. Instead, I rely on skills I have already taught the dog: head turnssimple sits, touch to reorient the dog and create rewardable moments.

3) If your dog is too far gone to respond to anything when this happens then removing him from the situation or blocking his view may be the only way to calm him. Consider a head halter if this is a regular issue as that will give you better control over the bark while you work on getting better control in general. And, get professional training and behavior help as well. When serious, this is not a DIY dog issue.

4) Work your basics at home, so your dog is in the habit of listening. Whenever your dog fails life’s “Pop Quizzes” the answer is not more of those but rather more successfully completed homework. Practice your basics so you can ace the next quiz that literally comes around the corner.

If this ever happens to you and your dog erupts at some variation he’s not used to – a difference in height, age, mobility, race, dress or whatever – try to remember that he isn’t saying that person is one of “those people” at all. He’s just saying he’s alarmed. Your job is to get control over your dog immediately and then get some help for the problem so it doesn’t happen again.

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  1. This was funny. The zombie-alert 10 comment made me laugh. That would be my dog! I’ve done the same thing you did with the swim mask but with a full gorilla suit. He was very confused.

  2. So glad you posted this. Our Aussie came unglued when a different mail carrier came by a few days ago. Our regular carrier was on vacation. Even with the regular fellow back, though, our boy is still barking like mad. Had to get him a muzzle. It seems to make a real difference when he cannot physically bark.

  3. That’s my Australian Shepherd! Beards, sunhats, mirrored sunglasses used to send her into orbit. After much clicker training and calm redirection, I can now notice her start to alert and get her to sit or down/stay. Even saying LOOK makes her stop fixating on the person and calm down. Occasionally, she still barks a bit, but never approaches the person and settles down QUICKLY. It’s her only bad habit and I find it embarrassing and stressful. The silver lining is that it has made me spend extra time training her and she is the most obedient dog I have ever had…I am hoping that maturity (she just turned 2) and more consistent training will bring this behavior to an end…She is a love muffin with people she knows and doesn’t mind what they wear or do! I like your blog very much and this piece was encouraging. Thank you.

    • Well done, Brenda! And it is true, those difficult dogs cause us to work and then we bond and we get the other dividends. Good for you for sticking it out!

  4. Yes, this sort of thing is standard australian shepherd behavior, especially in those closer to working lines. Subtle things you wouldn’t think should make any difference seem to get ours all worked up. He ignores bikes completely, but you can guess what sort of comedy ensued when a unicyclist rode by us this morning. Context matters a lot too; ours ignores people walking past on the grass or paths on walks, but if somebody is standing in a strange place, like in the middle of a flower bed or on top of a dumpster or somewhere else they aren’t “supposed to be”…get ready to be notified.

  5. I was in a wheelchair for a while due to chronic illness. Most dogs were okay with me. I was in my wheelchair but not moving and met a dog. I’m a big animal lover and have a dog myself so I gave the dog cuddles. He was happy as anything. Then I moved. He gave a quick bark and ran away and his behind his owner. I didn’t take it personally and made sure the owner knew that. It was the chair not me. My own dog in fact acted rather strangely to the wheelchair when I first needed it. He wasn’t sure what to make of it, but eventually decided that he would claim it as his own by jumping into it from my bed, whenever I was in bed. He would sit in it and watch me. Until one time when the brakes weren’t on.

    • Hi Nikki – Good for you for realizing it is surprise about the chair and not a personal thing. The personal thing was the cuddling. “He wasn’t sure what to make of it” is the exact truth. Most dogs will accept all sorts of medical/mobility equipment with time.

  6. I like the point that it’s often the unusualness of something that makes it alarming rather than specifically how big/loud/intimidating or obviously ‘frightening’ it is. Another sensitive animal, yesterday my rabbit became very alarmed and stressed in response to some dripping laundry I’d hung up over a sheet of newspaper in another room, despite routinely ignoring far louder noises. A towel to muffle the sound fixed the problem, but it really brings home how subtle the things are that animals notice, especially animals who for one reason or another have a strong genetic need to recognize potential danger. They are naturally hypersensitive to small changes in the environment. (Though hopefully in a well-bred, well-socialized, well-trained dog this heightened awareness can be channeled in sane, safe and socially acceptable ways, while in a worse scenario it might become dangerous paranoia).

  7. Thanks for the good article. I became aware of this in my Jack when he refused to acknowledge me after I got out of the shower! I didn’t smell the same so I wasn’t the same person.

  8. Sarah,

    Our mix breed has some herder in her and she barks like crazy when our neighbors garage door opens when they are coming and going. We took classes and they said to not make her more alarmed but to make sure we let her know that we recognized she was alarmed and everything was ok. This has not eliminated the behavior. She is very skiddish especially with loud noises when outside. Any advice? Thanks.

    • Hi Butch – Absolutely. Your dog doesn’t know how to stop reacting so, without help. she’ll keep reacting forever. So… glad you asked. I’d start working her Simple Sits and Head Turns so you can give her something else to do calmly and then reward her to doing so. This will help her learn HOW to disconnect, something most dogs are delighted to do once they learn how.

      Keep me posted – Sarah

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