Yahoo! Voices invited professional dog trainers to answer questions submitted by community members. Here’s my answer to one dog owner’s dilemma.
Josh Brown writes: “I have a 10 month male Boxer. Every time I leave the apartment he starts barking. He does not stop until I get back home. How do I correct this behavior?”
Josh has a common problem: a dog that barks. In an apartment situation, this can be annoying to neighbors that might complain. It’s unfortunately far too common for some dog owners to rehome the dog or relinquish a dog that barks to a shelter in this kind of situation. Josh is doing the right thing – asking how to address the situation.
First, it’s actually not common for a dog to bark incessantly for hours upon hours, non-stop. I had this very same problem – or thought I did – when I rescued a street dog. She barked when I left my home and she was barking when I came home as well. Turns out though, she wasn’t barking non-stop – but knew when I was within earshot!
I’d recommend that you find out if your dog truly is barking quite as non-stop as you think, because resolving a brief barking problem is a bit different than a dog that truly is barking all day. See if you can purchase/borrow a video baby monitor or a relatively cheap security system. Set it up to monitor where your dog usually stays. If you are not crating, you may need to experiment as to where the best place to set the monitor up. Use the monitor to leave as you normally would, but use the receiver to check on your dog and what he is actually doing – not just at the moment you leave, but check 15, 30 and 60 minutes after; spot check if you can during the day and then again before your dog knows you are home. You may need to pretend that it’s a regular workday and do this on a non-workday – don’t endanger your job!
You may be surprised, as I was, to find out that your dog may be not just quiet most of the day, but even sleeping much of the day, only barking when they realize you are returning or at the time they expect you to return. This is a pretty normal situation. If, however, your dog is truly barking non-stop, your dog may actually be displaying anxiety. While all the tips for normal barking can help, you may need to take it a step further and ask your veterinarian for a mild anti-anxiety agent for your dog.
A common mistake that owners make when they are leaving and hear their dog barking is to re-enter the home, telling the dog to be quiet, or shush. Hello, your dog is barking for your attention, saying “Hey! Where are you going? Don’t leave me here, I want to go too!” Coming back in is actually rewarding your dog for his barking! When you are ready to leave, you leave calmly and decisively – and don’t come back in because you hear your dog barking.
Another common mistake that owners make when leaving is to make a big scene with the dog. “Oh, baby, I’m going to miss you so much, but I’ve got to go to work (or shopping or whatever it is)” in a high-pitched, emotionally-laden voice. If you are doing this, stop. When you are preparing to leave, you should be doing so in a calm manner, not emotionally charging up your dog. The act of leaving should be a simple, routine matter.
Also consider if you are giving your dog enough exercise before you leave, as well as giving him a chance to do his business. Boxers can be high-energy dogs, just like any other dog bred to work. A ten-month old puppy is going to have energy. If you are taking your dog out for a brief do-business walk, then back into the apartment so that you can get ready for work and then leaving him, you should try to carve out a bit more time in the mornings to tire your puppy out a bit. A tired dog is more likely to sleep, rather than stare at the apartment walls all day and bark periodically.
Another point: keep in mind that Boxers were bred to be hearing guard dogs, so some may have a tendency to bark more easily as various sounds. One way to help is to leave something on in the apartment for sound – a TV, music, radio or white-noise machine – to help cover any sounds from outside of the apartment that might be causing your dog to bark.
If you are using a monitor system to observe your dog when you are not home, you may also find that your dog is barking at very specific sounds.
For example, when I moved to my current home, every time the oil heating system started, my Jack Russell-Chihuahua mix would bark for several minutes. It was an unfamiliar sound and he couldn’t figure out the source of the sound from his crate. Once I realized what was happening, I brought him to the oil heating system and waited for it to kick on. Sure enough, he started to bark and I corrected him with a simple “Shush” and resting my hand on his shoulder. And I found he was also barking when it shut off! After repeating this exercise a few times, he started to look at me when the heating system cycled, expecting more of the “Shush and Touch” treatment – and he forgot to bark. I instantly rewarded him for not barking by handing him a treat. After a few more times, he associated the sound of the heating system as being a good thing – and stopped barking about it entirely. You may need to find out if there are sounds near your apartment that your dog is hearing and alerting on – and then desensitize him to those sounds in a similar manner.
Some dog owners find that if they crate their dog when they are gone, that the dog settles down sooner. Crating takes away the option for the dog to run around the apartment to chase down and bark at a particular sound. Also some dogs feel safer in a crate, treating it instinctively as a den. If you crate, be sure to make the crate as comfortable a place for your dog as possible – a comfy bed, appropriate treats, water, and very durable toys. Some dog owners also report good experiences using a ThunderShirt.
When you come home, try to avoid ramping up your dog’s level of excitement. Take your time to hang your coat, put your things down, and wait for your dog to settle down before going to him. Otherwise, if your dog is barking when you come home and you immediately rush to him, you are once again rewarding him for barking.
If you have the ability to take your pup to doggy daycare, consider that as an option as well. Some owners find that the day after a day of daycare, their pup is still tuckered out. If you are lucky enough to work close to home and have a doggy daycare nearby as well, see if you can even do an occasional half-day of daycare. A morning of daycare may leave you a sleepy pup for the afternoon.
Remember to be patient as you work through this. Your pup will not stop barking in one day; it may take several days for him to realize that barking is not getting him the attention he wants. Patience, persistence and consistency are your friends.