Updated: Jun 1
Imagine you’re working on training absences with your dog that suffers from separation anxiety. You have the camera set up and you’re watching on your phone, when the dog leaves the camera view and starts barking. Of course you return, because barking can be a symptom that a dog is over threshold, and you know the importance of ensuring your dog experiences as little anxiety as possible when you aren’t there.
As you walk through the door you see your dog barking out the window at the neighbor kids playing in their yard. So your dog wasn’t barking because of separation anxiety, but because of something unrelated. Barking because of regular dog stuff is great news when you're trying to work through separation anxiety. We'd much prefer that reason over barking because the dog suddenly panicked!
But relying on vocalizations as one of the signals that indicate your dog is becoming anxious during absence training is one reason why you don’t want your separation anxiety dog to bark because of noises they hear, or things they see out the window. It’s much easier to do the training exercises when you’re clear about your dog’s signals. You don't want to habitually interrupt your training sessions unnecessarily because it will slow down your dog's progress.
But another reason why we don’t want dogs barking at external stimuli is that when they do so it puts them in a state of arousal, with adrenaline pumping and energy level elevated. With desensitization for separation anxiety our goal is calm and comfortable, and a state of arousal makes it easier for the dog to enter into a state of anxiety. Reducing your dog's responsiveness to noises and other things happening in the environment will help them reduce their stress levels and become more calm.
If your dog isn't suffering from separation anxiety you may have other reasons to try and prevent barking. Is your dog's barking disturbing neighbors and now you're getting complaints? Or maybe you are just worried that when your dog barks at every noise in the house it's stressful to your dog.
Dogs will naturally bark since it's a normal dog behavior. We can't expect to eliminate it 100% anymore than we should expect to eliminate the way they explore their work through sniffing.
However, prevention of excessive barking is a goal that we should aspire to, whether the barking is due to anxiety, or to alerting to some change in the environment. In an earlier post I wrote about one method that can be used to stop, or at least minimize, barking to things happening out the window.
Stop a dog from barking when left alone
Depending on the dog, training may not completely eliminate the barking. You could also be worried about not knowing if your dog barks when home alone, since you're not there to hear it. In addition to training, another tactic you can take is using management of the environment to minimize barking. Small changes to your dog’s space can prevent them from noticing things that may trigger barking.
While not a dog separation anxiety fix, management can prevent alert barking that interferes with training.
Adding noise to mask noise
If your dog startles and barks at noises, then think of ways that you can add noise to the environment to mask external noises. You could leave the TV on with the volume up, but be sure that what it’s showing won’t be disturbing to your dog. Some dogs do watch TV and will get worked up at the sight of dogs or other animals on the screen. Additionally you probably don’t want an action-adventure movie playing with the sound of bombs and gunfire.
There is research that shows that some types of classical music can be calming for dogs, and there are even DVDs made specifically for dogs to help them relax. Playing music at a level loud enough to mask external noise may also help with reducing the stress level of your dog.
Using white or brown noise is another option. Inexpensive box fans are really great at masking sounds. There are apps for people who like to sleep with the sound of waves or rainfall or other soothing sounds, and inexpensive machines that produce a variety of options as to the type of sounds. Additionally there are videos on YouTube that produce white or brown noise for as long as 10 hours at a time.
The downside of masking external noises is that when you’re absent and watching your dog for signs of approaching threshold, you most likely won’t be able to hear many of the subtle vocalizations your dog may make, such as whining.
Prevent your dog from looking out the window
If one of the triggers for your dog’s barking is seeing things happen out the window, then it may be helpful to prevent your dog from being able to look out the window. It could be as simple as closing the curtains or the blinds, although be aware that there have been cases of dogs destroying blinds, or even injuring themselves by getting their heads caught between the slats. And most dogs will just push curtains aside.
There is a stick on film for windows that works through static cling. They come in a variety of designs with some merely making a window look like frosted glass, and others that look like stained glass. Although the film is inexpensive, it doesn’t look cheap at all. And because it’s static cling it's temporary and can be easily removed.
Preventing your dog access to your windows may be another option. If one or two windows are causing the most problems it could be that preventing access to that room could be your easiest course of action. You can also put up barriers, such as an exercise pen, to keep your dog from getting to the window.
Having a dog alert to every little thing is counter-productive to your absence training, and may also impact your dog’s happiness. While the management ideas I listed may not work 100% of the time for every dog, they can be an effective means to get your dog to stop barking at every little thing they see and hear.