Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
What's Up With Dogs Barking When Left Alone?
There are many different types of dog vocalizations, but one of the most troublesome is barking that takes place when a dog is left alone. It's no coincidence that this behavior is often considered "nuisance barking," and it creates a disturbance in tight-knit neighborhoods which may sometimes lead to complaints and calls to the authorities (animal control).
The Types of Barking and Other Vocalizations
Why do dogs bark when left alone? There are different types of dog vocalizations that may take place when dogs are left alone.
There is the mournful howling associated with isolation distress, the distressed barking of dogs suffering from separation anxiety, the fear-based vocalization as a reaction to exposure to frightening sights, smells and sounds, and the territorial barking which may take place when the dog perceives some sort of invasion to his territory. Let's not forget social-facilitated barking, which takes place when dogs hear other dogs vocalizing and therefore join the chorus.
Some breeds are also more predisposed to it than others. Dog breeds that were selectively bred as watchdogs and high working-drive dogs can be more likely to engage in barking that is excessive or more challenging to control.
Why Is Barking so Annoying?
Regardless of the underlying cause of the behavior, the issue remains that barking is perceived as very annoying to those living nearby.
According to a report published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior titled "The Social Significance of Barking in New Zealand Dogs," the sounds of dogs barking and howling were perceived as much more annoying than the sounds produced by lawn mowers, skill saws and crying babies.
Intolerance may stem from the social aspect of barking being perceived as a nuisance, but also as a tiring stimulus to attend to that causes disruptions. In some cases, the barking is perceived negatively because the people hearing it perceive it as a dog's need for company and a sign of lack of well-being and neglect.
In any case, neighbors want the noise stopped, and dog owners may resort to some extreme measures such as shock collars, citronella bark collars and even severance of the dog's vocal cords.
We Bred Dogs to Bark
Ironically, over the span of many centuries, dogs were selectively bred for their barking abilities. Dogs alerted humans to the presence of intruders; as hunting companions, dogs barked upon spotting prey (eg. treeing coonhound). Barking also helped dogs move herds of stubborn animals. Nowadays, instead, dogs are expected to suddenly become silent companions, and repeated barking is at risk for becoming a big problem.
The Problems With Bark Collars
The use of a bark collar may seem like a quick fix, but it may lead to more problems down the road. Bark collars mainly work by using an aversive consequence that is activated by the dog's barking. The aversive consequence may include electric shock, an unpleasant noise or smell (citronella), or a startling blast of air.
The purpose of these aversive consequences is to extinguish the behavior after a few trials. In an ideal situation, the dog should start associating the barking with the aversive consequence which will lead to a reduction.
1. They Don't Address the Root Issue
However, these devices fail to go to the source of the problem, and they may lead to more problems down the road. Just because a dog is not barking doesn't mean the underlying emotions are addressed. A behavior vacuum is soon formed, and the dog's vocalization may be replaced by other activities often triggered by stress such chewing and digging, or even self-inflicted behaviors such as excessive licking, self-chewing and tail-chasing.
2. They May Be a Temporary Solution
On the other hand, for some dogs, these anti-barking devices may work, but only temporarily. Some dogs habituate to the consequence and soon are back to barking regardless.
3. They May Cause Negative Associations
In an ideal situation, one may assume that the dog would learn to associate the barking behavior with the consequence of shock, unpleasant noise or smell (citronella), or sudden startling blast of air, but things don't always go this way. While it is true that dogs learn through consequences (operant conditioning), they also learn by association with other stimuli in their environment (classical conditioning—yup, Pavlov is always on your shoulder!).
The dog may therefore risk associating the shock, unpleasant noise, smell (citronella), or sudden startling blast of air with a particular location and may start trying to avoid that place. Therefore, a dog who feels lonely and barks near the door may become afraid to go by the door, which may lead to a dog who is reluctant to go on out on walks or to potty if it entails getting past that door.
Not to mention, negative associations with what the dog is barking at are always a possibility. If a dog is territorial and his barking is addressed towards the mailman, he will likely start associating the mailman with the painful shock which will cause more stress and reactivity down the road.
4. They Don't Work for Multiple Dogs
Many times, dog owners who own two dogs may purchase two bark collars in hopes of getting both their dogs to hush. However, this only leads to more problems. Basically, whenever one dog barks, both collars will go off. This only causes confusion, and the dogs won't learn anything.
5. They Have Emotional and Behavioral Repercussions
A dog barking from separation anxiety or fear will obviously suffer deep emotional repercussions from an antibarking collar which can potentially lead to disastrous emotional and behavioral outcomes.
So what are owners left to do? There are several options to help reduce nuisance barking when dogs are left alone.
"The use of shock is not treatment for pets with behavioral concerns; the use of shock is not a way forward; the use of shock does not bring dogs back from the brink of euthanasia; instead, it may send them there, and; such adversarial techniques have negative consequences that those promoting these techniques either dismiss or ignore."
— Karen Overall, board-certified veterinary behaviorist
Tips to Manage Dog Barking When Left Alone
There are several options to manage dogs barking when left alone which can help reduce the barking. Some forms of barking though may require the intervention of a behavior professional.
Bring Outdoor Dogs Inside
Most dogs left outside the yard are more prone to barking for the simple fact that they are exposed to a larger number of stimuli and the stimuli are more intense. I often tell my clients to bring their outdoor dogs indoors when they must leave the house and their neighbors report a dramatic reduction in barking.
Why is this? The walls often reduce the intensity of outdoor sounds and this buffering of sounds is often enough to help keep dogs better under threshold. On top of that, indoor dogs often feel safer and therefore this may help reduce some forms of barking such as fear-based barking and territorial barking which often has a fear component.
Keeping an outdoor dog though inside the home out of the blue may take some transitioning time. You will need to get your dog used to staying in the home to ensure that he doesn't become destructive or performs unsafe behaviors.
Making it a habit of letting Rover spend more and more time indoors when you are around can be a good starting point. Provide him with guidance on what behaviors are acceptable and make sure you keep him out of trouble (keep trash bins out of the way, remove items he may destroy or swallow).
If you fear your dog may be destructive or may engage in unsafe behaviors, you can keep him just in one room that is dog-safe (possibly, an area in the home that is the farthest away from the complaining neighbor and/or outdoor triggering noises) or you can train your dog to stay crated when left alone.
Keeping a dog in a darkened room or crate covered with a blanket may help calm the dog down, however consider that many (not all) dogs with separation anxiety cannot be crated.
Reduce the Intensity of Stimuli
An effective way to reduce barking is reducing the intensity of the bark-triggering stimulus by making it less salient. Often this entails paying close attention to what exactly triggers barking. Dog owners can watch their dog while at home and find what mostly triggers barking and they can record their dog's behavior when left alone and see if there's a particular trigger.
For dogs who bark looking out the window, closing blinds and curtains may work, but in persistent dogs who move these away, it's best adding no-see window films so to reduce this form of barking.
Outdoor noises can be reduced by keeping some sort of white noise going on, such as a radio (classical music preferably, there are also calming CDs for dogs such as Through a Dog's Ear) or television (eg.YouTube music videos specifically made for calming dogs) or keeping on some white-noise producing machine. The volume should be just enough loud to override any outside disturbances.
Provide Exercise Prior to Leaving
Some forms of nuisance barking come from dogs who are bored, under-stimulated and under-exercised. It may help if you can take your dog on a long nice morning walk before going to work.
This may sound a bit like a hassle for some owners, but once into the routine, many dog owners start looking forward to their morning exercise as a good way to start the day before being stuck behind a desk in the office from 8 to 5.
Dog owners who do not have the will or time to walk their dogs may find it helpful to hire a dog walker to walk the dog. The walk can be scheduled first thing in the morning, or the dog walker may swing by midday as a pleasant distraction.
Leave Interactive Toys
It's a good idea feeding the dog when left alone so that the dog has something to do. Also, when dogs have a stuffed belly they are more likely to relax, especially if eating involves some "extra effort" which can be tiring. One of the best ways to accomplish this is through food puzzles and interactive toys.
After having drained a dog's energy, it's a good habit to leave some "safe" puzzle toys around so that Rover can keep occupied rather than thinking about barking. Many dog owners have had a good level of success by stuffing Kongs with their dog's meals in strategic ways so that their dogs would spend time getting all the goodies out.
A Kong Wobbler is a great food dispensing toy that can be used to feed bored and lonely dogs. This toy has a small hole in it and dogs will have to push the toy around to let the kibble fall out. I like to add in a few pieces of cookies so that that kibble doesn't come out too readily which makes it a longer-lasting toy. I also like to hide kibble around the home in some hard-to-find places before leaving so to trigger a fun hunting game.
Many dog owners complain about their dogs finishing their food puzzles rather quickly. Some dogs owners have success freezing their dogs' Kongs with goodies that require repeated licking in order to melt. Some dog owners instead opt to invest instead in automated food dispensers that come with a timer so to dispense at regular intervals.
Provide Calming Aids
There are several calming aids for dogs who have a tendency to be anxious or fearful and bark as a consequence. Several are available in pet stores or online.
For example, pheromone-based plug-ins such as Adaptil can provide a calming effect on dogs. There are also several calming supplements that may help. Severe cases of separation anxiety may require prescription medications along with behavior modification.
Desensitization and Counterconditioning
Fear or anxiety-based barking may require the intervention of a dog behavior professional for safety and correct implementation. If your dog barks due to separation anxiety, you will need to work on desensitizing your dog to your departures. Great books offering tips and protocols are I’ll Be Home Soon by Patricia McConnell and Don't Leave Me! Step-by-step Help for Your Dog's Separation Anxiety by Nicole Wilde.
Desensitization along with counterconditioning works well also to reduce barking associated with certain stimuli. This requires that anxiety-triggering stimuli are identified so that dog owners can reproduce them following an intensity gradient that can be controlled. Prior to initiating the process though it's important that, exposure should is avoided or at least the stimulus is reduced in intensity so to prevent rehearsal of the problem behavior. See how I used the "hear that" method to help barking triggered by certain noises.
Use Technology Devices
Sometimes, talking to a barking dog is all it takes to reassure him/her and stop the barking. With today's technology, it is possible to watch the dog remotely on camera and provide a verbal cue (practiced beforehand at home until a really fluent response is obtained) to redirect the dog's barking.
Pet Monitor is an app that allows you to get notified when audio and motion takes place and provides the possibility to use two-way audio and video to communicate with your dog just to say hello or soothe him if he's suffering from separation anxiety. Other possible helpful devices are Samsung SmartCam and Clever Dog camera.
A word of caution is needed though, while some dogs calm down upon hearing their owners' voice, some dogs get only more upset as they hear their owners but cannot see them. Other dogs may learn to bark just to get their owner's attention.
A new product that appears promising for dogs with separation anxiety is the Furbo Dog Camera which not only allows you to interact with your dog, but also to toss treats by simply pushing a button.
Look for Help
Finally, if despite your effort, your dog still barks a lot, you have some other options before thinking about relinquishing your dog. Hire a pet sitter to swing by when your dog is more likely to bark to keep your dog some company. Sometimes, you can find nice neighbors who spend time at home most of the day and are willing to watch your dog or bring your dog to their home and set up play dates with their own dogs.
Alternatively, take your dog to daycare if you cannot find a solution. Although daycare has its pros and cons, it will provide a way for you to keep your dog without having to worry about your neighbors. When you then pick up your dog from work, your dog will be happy to see you, but he will also likely be quite tired which works well for dog owners with busy lifestyles.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2018 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 28, 2019:
Alyssa, these are very good questions! Yes, it is very possible for a dog to start associating treats with the owner being away. They soon learn that "when I am given this food, it predicts my owner will leave soon." This can cause these dogs to be reluctant to eat and grow anxious because they have detected the routine. For this reason, it's a good idea to provide these treats also when the owner is around.
However, even more important is tackling the issue. There are chances that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety. It may help to record what your dog is doing when you are away so to determine if this may be what you may be dealing with.
If your dog's barking reduces when your room mate arrives, then by all means, that it is fine. We don't want your dog kicked out. Some dogs with isolation distress do fine and are reassured with other people around.
If this is truly separation anxiety, you will have to work on this (possibly with the help of a professional) , and it can take some time and lots of management. Here is a link to get you started: https://hubpages.com/animals/How-to-Use-Desensitiz...
There are also many books on this topic that can turn helpful. Best wishes.
Alyssa Carson on October 27, 2019:
Hi! I’m in college and my dog (1 year old mini aussie mix) is on campus with me as my emotional support dog. He barks when I’m not here- on and off, i’m told. IMy suite mates (we share a bathroom) check on him when he starts to bark... But that reinforces the behavior. Should I tell them not to check on him as long as he’s barking, and wait until he stops to come in? I’m not sure because I don’t want him to get in trouble and get kicked off of campus.
Also, is it possible for dogs to grow to not like “only when i’m away” treats because they associate them with you leaving?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 27, 2019:
She may need time to acclimate to the crate. Make sure to create lots of positive associations with the crate and if she seems to have containment phobia, it may help to keep her enclosed in an exercise pen with the crate with door open. Determining whether she has separation anxiety versus containment phobia may not be easy, but if you can record her behavior when in the crate and left alone and then when behind an exercise pen and left alone you can generally get an idea of what you may be dealing with. Showing your recordings to an experienced dog trainer can also help determine if you are dealing with separation anxiety. Many rescue dogs have separation anxiety and some can get hurt if they are constantly biting the crate and trying to escape, so a recording can show what is exactly happening when you are away. If you cannot provide exercise, you can provide mental stimulation through brain games and interactive toys.
Erin on August 23, 2019:
Hi. I just adopted a 1-2 year old from the shelter. She is super scared and timid and won’t go on walks bc she is so frightened. I’ve noticed that when we crate her she barked and cries, she’s totally fine when I let her out. When we leave, I can hear her crying when we are coming back in. She doesn’t play just yet since she is still getting used to us, so tiring her out isn’t something that can be done just yet. Do you think she will grow out of this as she gets more comfortable? Or will be more likely to have separation anxiety? Do you have any pointers we should do.
Ann Porter on April 11, 2019:
Your first photo of a dog barking made me laugh. This is my dog! We have a medium sized Labradoodle the same colour and coat type! We did all the separation training and I could leave her for an hour but she has started barking when we leave her, all the time we are out on and off. I know this because I use my iPad to video her. Having just read your article I think we'll try a stuffed kong toy as she is very food motivated! And go back to leaving her for 1 minute, 2 minute, etc.
Gabriella F on December 30, 2018:
I took my puppy from a dog foster home about a year ago. I love him to bits; he has a great personality, and I feel that he loves our family so much, but he barks A LOT... So, leaving home is always a challenge for us. My husband and I were thinking about taking him to 'doggy school', but then again, it’s extremely expensive, and the nearest 'doggy school' is far away from us. Maybe you have some advice? THANK YOU!!!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 09, 2018:
Hi Claudia, I think you mentioned to me about your dog when we met last April. I hope some of the tips will work for you. You are right that when dogs are older and have rehearsed the behavior for a while some behavior issues are more dififcult to overcome. Many older dogs also become more clingy as they age. I see that with my dogs too. They are 10 year old now which is quite advanced age for Rotties. Leaving them with a stuffed Kong has helped them a lot, although like you, we live in an area where luckily even if they do bark or howl they won't bother neighbors. I sometimes record their behavior when we are out. They wil bark/howl for about 5-10 minutes, then they work on the Kong and then settle and fall asleep facing the door. My recording device though only records for the first 30 minutes, so I am not aware if outside noises trigger them at times.
I sometimes have doggy guests with bad separation anxiety. I am curious to try the Furbo camera and see if it helps. I might get one to try out and maybe will write a review on how it goes one day.
Claudia Mitchell on June 07, 2018:
Well this is my house and I will be sharing this! Our one dog, Max, has horrible separation anxiety and he barks continuously. Luckily are neighbors are not so close but even if we are outside doing something, he barks and it drives us crazy. He's an old boy now so I'm not sure how easy it will be for him to change. Thanks for another great article!