The effectiveness of a citronella spray collar in reducing certain forms of barking in dogs

Dogs tend to become habituated to citronella collars worn all the time

Source: Deborah Wells
Applied Animal Behaviour Science 73 (2001)
Starts p299, 11 pages long

Dogs may bark as a warning, greeting, to attract attention, or for other reasons, and this is often seen as a problem by owners. Citronella collars release a spray which is triggered when a microphone detects the dog barking. The interruption may surprise the dog enough for the owner to be able to get the dog to do something else other than bark. The effectiveness of the collar may depend on a number of factors, such as how it is worn, and why the dog is barking.

This study involved 30 labrador retriever bitches referred to Queens University, Belfast, for therapy. Ten of the dogs barked at the TV, ten barked when in a car, and ten barked from their gardens at passing traffic. Half the dogs in each group wore a citronella collar daily for 30 minutes, while half wore the collar on alternate days for 30 minutes that day. The stimuli that triggered barking were applied only during these 30 minute periods, for example, dogs that barked in a car only went in a car for a 30 minute drive when they had their collars on, while the TV barkers only watched TV with their collars on. The dogs wore the collars for three weeks, and were observed with no collar in the fourth week.

There was a reduction in barking in both groups, but it tended to wear off, apparently because the dogs got used to the collar. The barking was reduced more, and the effect of the collar wore off less quickly when dogs wore the collar every other day, rather than when they wore it every day. This was surprising because the spray is a form of punishment, and punishments tend to be more effective when they are inevitable rather than intermittent. It is unclear whether the dogs would eventually have got so used to the spray that it would have had no effect on their barking, since the collar was only worn for three weeks.

Dogs tended to bark more often when they were not wearing the collar, if they were wearing the collar every day, which could be because they learnt faster that they could bark without punishment. The dogs wearing the collar every day wore it more often, so had more chance to learn when they could bark unpunished. Both groups increased their barking in the fourth week, when no collar was worn, but the barking was less than at the start of the experiment, and the dogs that had worn the collar intermittently increased their barking more slowly. The collar was also more effective with dogs that barked when travelling in cars than with dogs that barked at TVs and passing traffic. The owners were not told how to deal with barking, and were just told how to use the collar. This was because the aim of the study was to assess the collar. There are, however, recommendations that owners should direct their dogs to do something else at the moment when the dog's barking is interrupted, and this recommendation is worthy of further research.

Owners often buy citronella collars and leave them on their dogs all the time because they don't have information on how to use them. This study indicates that dogs get used to the collars, and the collars become less effective over time, however they are used, but that they are effective for longer if used intermittently.