Many times barking is not about territoriality or boredom but, rather, is a result of separation anxiety. A dog simply cannot bear for his owners to leave him alone in the house and vocalizes from distress. “I often see the problem of barking secondary to separation anxiety,” says Tufts animal behaviorist Nicholas Dodman, BVMS. “Someone will bring her dog in and say, ‘When I’m out he barks constantly — the entire time I’m gone — and my neighbors have been to the authorities.'” Indeed, some research suggests that more than 60 percent of dogs vocalize excessively when left home without their human families.
Unfortunately, separation anxiety is a difficult problem to treat — dogs who suffer from it suffer acutely. And there’s often recidivism. Even once it’s dealt with successfully, there’s a tendency to backslide, with a renewal of efforts required. But there are strategies that have been shown to be helpful.
One of them is to make sure your pet gets lots of exercise before you leave. As with people, physical activity relieves some anxious energy. Thus, even if you’re very rushed in the morning, it’s important to make time to do more with a dog than let him out in the yard to do his business. Take him on a half-hour walk, or work with him on perfecting tricks or learning new ones. Or play fetch with him, perhaps by throwing a Frisbee back and forth — anything to wear him out a little.
Second, do not give your dog with separation anxiety a morning meal. By which we mean, do not put it in a bowl after he relieves himself or while you’re going about your business. Make his meal a food puzzle like a Kong that you put out right before you leave the house. Hunger is one of the strongest biological drives, and spending his energy and attention on getting through the small rubber hole to reach his meal ration (that you have previously frozen) has a good chance of taking the edge off your dog’s anxiety about your having left — thereby cutting down on the barking. Some research has shown that feeding only from a Kong decreases barking by 90 percent across the board — a pretty amazing proportion. It makes sense when you consider that it takes a dog about an hour and a half to retrieve all of his frozen kibble from the toy. After 90 minutes your departure is way in the past, allowing your pet’s blood pressure to fall and his respiratory rate to slow down.
Third, do not show your dog sympathy about how awful it is that you’re leaving and he has to be alone. That only solidifies in his mind that his being left home is as awful as he thought, reinforcing his belief that he has to bark for you in your absence. Don’t be mean or withhold positive feelings, but leave on a chipper note rather than a forlorn, worried one.
Unfortunately, because separation anxiety is such an ingrained problem, in a number of cases medication needs to be prescribed for the dog to be able to cope. There’s what is known as background medication —anti-depressants like fluoxetine to help an anxious dog’s mood in general — and situational medication, like the drug clonidine, which helps with panic by depressing the cascade of fight-or-flight neurochemicals.
Background medications have a latency period of four to six weeks, so they’re not going to help off the bat. And a drug like clonidine needs about two hours to kick in, so you have to plan accordingly. It won’t do your dog good to slip him the pill just before you walk out the door. There are other “chill pills,” too, like the classic relaxation drug alprazolam (Xanax). Your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist can help you choose the right medications in the right doses for your particular pet. They really work. Giving calming drugs to a dog who barks from separation anxiety often solves the barking problem by resolving the underlying anxiety that causes it.
We will return to the issue of separation anxiety in more detail in an upcoming issue. There are a number of strategies for helping a dog cope through the long hours that you might be away from home.