Does your dog bark, even for a little, while when left alone?
There are several reasons this can be happening, some of which are easier to fix than others.
First, let’s consider why your dog might be barking:
Let’s say you put your dog in her room where her bed and toys are and there is a baby gate at the entrance so you know she is safe and has access to a comfy bed, toys and water.
You walk away and your dog starts to bark! Oh dear, you think, I must have forgotten something! You run back and your dog stops barking. “Good girl.” you say and leave again.
Dog says, “Bark, bark.” Human returns to see what’s going on and leaves again. “Bark, bark.”…and so on and so on. If you find yourself in a situation such as this, you have taught your dog to bark to call you to her.
Trainers call this demand barking. My Jake does it when he wants to get his paws on something he can’t reach. He barks, I come over, he says, “While you’re here, want to hand me that thawing chicken from the counter?”
I come when Jake calls because some of the time he actually needs help because an area rug shifted and he’s afraid to walk on the wood floors (he slips). However, if you don’t want to be at the beck and call of your dog’s bark, all you have to do is stop responding. It’s a simple fix, no trainer necessary.
One warning I’ll give is that if your dog is used to you coming when called (because she trained you so well), the first time or two that you don’t go to her, she will bark all the more (in case you didn’t hear her, etc.). Trainers call this an extinction event. It’s like the old adage that a situation will get worse before it gets better.
If you stick it out, you’ll be fine.
Make sure your dog has plenty to entertain herself with while you are gone. A peanut butter filled Kong toy, snuffly mat or other treat puzzle or chew toy will help her alleviate any boredom that may be causing her to want you there to entertain her.
If your dog isn’t just demand barking/whining, you have to ask yourself the next question:
Is this separation distress or a more serious case of separation anxiety?
Separation distress (or isolation distress) is when “the dog doesn’t want to be left alone – any ol’ human will do for company, and sometimes even another dog will fill the bill.”(Pat Miller, Whole Dog Journal, July 2008). No one really knows what causes this but, essentially, a dog with separation distress just isn’t all that comfortable being on her own.
Sometimes your dog misses you or is upset when you leave and decides calling for you – as in “Bark, bark, bark (translation: mommy, please come back!)” is a good plan. This is separation distress.
Separation anxiety, on the other hand is a “serious emotional problem where the dog becomes panicked when his owner leaves. Dogs with full-blown Separation Anxiety act as though they are in terror about your departure, and about being alone in the house while you’re gone.” (I’ll Be Home Soon: How to Prevent and Treat Separation Anxiety by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.)
Dogs with separation anxiety may exhibit the following behaviors:
- Excessive barking, even to losing their voice
- Pacing and restlessness
- Whining and crying
- Heavy panting
- Potty accidents
- Chewing (including their own paws)
- Eating through walls to escape
- Destroying doors to get out
- Jumping through open and/or closed windows and glass doors
If your dog is harming herself, destroying the house and won’t eat while away from you, separation anxiety is likely the cause. Separation anxiety is a serious problem and if you suspect that’s what your dog has rather than a case of separation distress, consult your veterinarian and a dog trainer experienced in working with this issue.
If you’re not sure what is going on with your dog, consult a veterinarian or experienced dog trainer for help.
For now, let’s assume your dog has separation distress and you want her to be more comfortable being left along for short periods of time.
The first step is to set your pup up for success. Do this by making the place she will await your return a terrific place to be. For this example, we are using a room with a baby gate at the door.
Follow these steps to stop your dog from barking when left alone:
- Walk your dog before starting. A tired dog will be more relaxed for this exercise. In general, you want to always walk your dog before leaving her so she is ready to relax and doesn’t have to potty.
2. Make sure your dog has entertainment (we trainers call this enrichment) such as food puzzles, her favorite toys, a comfy bed and anything that will make her feel comfy and content. Bored dogs get up to mischief! You can also try calming music such as Through a Dog’s Ear.
3. You want to get your dog used to the idea that she will sometimes need to spend a finite amount of time on her own and when she does she will be comfortable and have her toys or a kong to entertain herself so that she can be OK with it.
4. If your dog knows the “settle” command, this is a great time to use it. If not, don’t worry about that. Just encourage your dog to lay down or engage with a toy.
5. Now you go through the motions of leaving your dog alone without really leaving – as in leave the room and turn around and come right back in. Praise your dog for being quiet and give a treat. We’re assuming here you were gone for such a short time that your dog didn’t have the chance to start barking. If your dog starts to bark before you get out of the room, don’t leave the room. Simply settle your dog and walk toward the door and come right back giving praise and a treat. You want to avoid having the barking start at all because there is a good chance that your dog will think the barking brought you back. If you have to walk one step away and then back, that is where you need to begin.
6. Once you can walk a few steps away without your dog barking (or out the door and right back in), extend the distance (if you haven’t left the room yet) or the time you are gone (if you’ve made it out of the room).
7. Don’t push your luck! This process will take some time. Give it the time it needs. If you want a lifetime of a happy quiet dog while you are out put in the weeks/months it will take to get your dog comfortable with being alone.
8. Although it may be difficult, until you reach the point where your dog is content to be alone for a bit, I wouldn’t leave her alone. Doing so will make the training take longer and force your dog to feel distressed. Look into doggy day care or dropping her at a friend’s house who’s home all day when you have to leave. This process won’t last forever and you and your dog will be happier and far less stressed at the end of the process.
Take your time and don’t be afraid to get creative with your enrichment ideas. Dogs are beautiful emotional creatures and, since we don’t let them roam around on their own, we owe them a happy life at home, especially when we can’t be there.
I want to hear any questions you have about this process AND your wins if you give it a try. Feel free to share a video of how your dog handles being on her own and I will give you tips/feedback. Share here in the comments or over in our Dog Parenting Club on Facebook.