Barking/Crying – When Left Alone
There are two main reasons why a dog will cry when left alone. There is the conscious thought process in which a dog will attempt to get what it wants and can learn to bark to gain the family’s attention and there is crying that is driven by stress and anxiety. When a dog is left alone, it is likely that at some stage owners will hear both. Some dogs will have learnt to bark for attention because they have found it rewarding in the past. We handle the different reasons for barking differently. It is easy to misjudge how long to leave alone and sometimes accidents happen and stress can be caused.
It is important to note that any reprimanding of barking, going back to them and telling them off or simply shouting at them to stop is going to reinforce the behaviour and compound the problem. The reward they want is your attention, even negative attention at this point is a reward to the dog.
When the dog is barking or crying out of panic, it is important not to leave them in this state and prolong this feeling. We must address it and remove them as soon as possible. If we know a dog gets panicked when left alone then we must build their tolerance gradually. These barks sound desperate and the dog will often not take a break in between each bark or cry.
Attention seeking barking when the dog is not stressed is also common. They may be uncomfortable with the fact that they have been separated but not panicked. A healthy degree of separation is often a good thing to build your dog’s tolerance to, in case of a situation that the dog has to be left alone or removed from a situation without causing distress.
This is where the practice of “Nothing for free, Sit means please” in general may be beneficial to you. We must not reward the barking in this instance because we will be rewarding the wrong behaviour. Expect an extinction burst. Which is the dog escalating its behaviour (in this case, barking/crying) before it finally settles. It will push the behaviour harder than usual because it does not know what it is we want from them. Once the dog does settle – for 10-15 seconds – we can bridge that behaviour by verbally acknowledging it with a “good” “yes” or a clicker, then repeat the process bullet pointed below as we approach the dog. Always letting the dog out calmly after sitting and being invited out.
When we go back to the dog, in either case we want to reward calm behaviour. Taking the time to settle them down before greeting them with pats and affection or before letting them back in is important. Take treats and present them to the dog. Begin to ask the dog a known behaviour – sit – and reward the dog regularly. The aim of this is to reduce the stress levels of the dog and create a positive experience of being in there. If the dog can calm down and begin to respond, it is no longer panicking or overstimulated with the excitement of you returning, we can make them calm comfortable again. When asking them to sit what we are really checking in on is how coherent are they, are they so stressed or overstimulated that they cannot hear me? Using a known behaviour, such as ‘sit’ increases the chances of them being able to complete it and so we are checking:
Can you hear me?
Can you process the information being given to you? (sit)
Can you complete the behaviour?
Can you settle while completing this behaviour?
If not – get them out of there asap.
It is important to leave the dog with enrichment to occupy it while it is left behind. The enrichment that we leave behind must be calming and rewarding. Avoid leaving stimulating toys such as balls that will spike the dog’s arousal, they may keep them occupied but they also keep the dog in a frame of mind that is not helpful in the long run. For the dog to be able to spend time on the item/resource left for them it must be high enough value for them and achievable enough for them to be convinced that it is doable while separated. The size of the item and how long it takes for the dog to get through it can determine how achievable it is. For dogs that are easily distracted we can recommend goat horns, deer antlers and cow hoofs. For dogs that are not ready to drop their guard long enough then we advise leaving high value resources for the dog such as kangaroo tendons and other chews that are achievable in a time span of 10-15 minutes or a Kong toy that they have to work on to release the food/treats. The higher the value food and more achievable it is the more likely the dog is going to be able to defer onto it. The aim is to gradually build up what the dog can defer on to, to the point that it is comfortable with the longer lasting chews.
It does take time to learn your individual dogs’ cries, barks and general communication patterns. Therefore, we encourage people to take their time and train gradually. You will make mistakes, we all do, but if you remain consistent and settle the dog down whenever they are in there, and when you return to them, rather than rushing, you will be able to salvage most situations.
It is important to remember that the timescale of how long we can leave a dog alone that shows signs of panic and anxiety is ultimately determined by the dog and how comfortable they are with the process. We must build tolerane of how long the dog can be left alone gradually.