It’s a common problem, but an annoying one: Your dog is well-behaved when you’re home. But as soon as you leave, he can’t keep his mouth shut. The barking and whining is driving your neighbors nuts.
Your dog has his reasons for acting out. Boredom, restlessness, fear, and separation anxiety are all common reasons that your dog might bark and whine while you’re gone.
Instead of being ousted from the neighborhood, try these tricks to distract or redirect his behavior from barking, courtesy of Mary Burch, Ph.D., Director of AKC Family Dog and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist.
Make sure your dogs have an adequate amount of exercise before you leave in the morning. Tired dogs are more likely to want a quiet rest time. If possible, have a dog walker come mid-day.
Toys, canine puzzles
There are a number of commercial and homemade products that give your dog something to do while you’re gone. Treats can be placed inside a Kong toy, and the dog will work to get the treats out. This is a behavior that is incompatible with barking.
A common suggestion by trainers for dogs who bark when owners are gone is to leave the dog with some familiar sounds such as a radio or television. The idea is that these approximate the household sounds when the owner is present.
Citronella collars spray a burst of citronella when the dog barks. Citronella is made from the oils of lemongrass, and it is often used in perfumes, candles, and incense. This collar is seen as a humane alternative to shock bark collars. There can be a problem when more than one dog is barking and the collar is sometimes hard to fit on very small dogs. Online reviewers report that some dogs learn to bark in tones and frequencies the collar does not detect.
Anti-barking devices (non-collar)
There are several anti-barking devices that do not involve collars. These devices detect barks and sends a high-pitched sound that only dogs can hear.
If your dog is barking because he’s bored, providing a distraction to keep him busy — e.g., a Kong filled with treats or a “brain puzzle” to keep him entertained — may solve the problem. But if his barking continues, you might need to play detective and explore beyond the simplest solutions.
Keep in mind that as the dog’s trainer (or animal behaviorist), finding the function of the behavior is important. Once you identify what triggers his barking, you can go about reducing or eliminating that trigger.
What About Separation Anxiety?
A recent study confirmed what many dog behaviorists and owners already know: separation anxiety in dogs is a complex problem. “Remember that anxiety is a term that means your dog is sufficiently stressed that there will be some physiological signs that will be manifested by behaviors such as pacing, whining, panting or drooling,” Dr. Burch says.
She also adds that your smartphone can be a very useful tool for diagnosing the root of your dog’s behavior. Consider using a smartphone app like Barkio or Pet Monitor VIGI to observe your dog remotely, or a simple nanny camera. By watching your dog’s behavior from afar you’ll be able to watch for signs of anxiety in your absence, or see if the barking happens when squirrels are in the yard, or if your dog gets destructive when it’s simply bored.
Separation anxiety can be a tough problem to treat — but these best practices from Dr. Burch can help you make inroads on the problem. Some of them are similar to the more general fixes for barking:
- Exercise your dog vigorously before you leave. This allows your dog to rest well in your absence.
- Leave “activities” to keep your dog occupied. Examples include a safe chew toy, or an interactive game where your dog works to get a treat out of a puzzle.
- Provide training while you’re home. Leave the dog for a few seconds, come back into the house, and reward him for quiet, calm behavior. Add a few seconds at a time. Although this process does work, it requires a lot of patience; and if you try to add too much time at once, it won’t work.
Depending on the severity of your dog’s anxiety problem you may also need to work with the dog’s veterinarian, who can prescribe medications that you’ll eventually phase out.
Recruiting a professional dog trainer can also help. Training an anxious dog isn’t always easy, and your dog is very clued in to your mood. Involving a professional makes it easier for you to stay calm and relaxed, which in turn helps your dog stay calm too.