Dogs use vocalizations, such as barking or whining, for exactly the same reasons we do: to communicate. And while we love them more than anything, we’re not always the best at interpreting their messages.
If your dog always starts barking uncontrollably whenever you get ready to head out the door, they might not necessarily be saying a happy “Good-bye!” or a relaxed “See you later!”
Why does my dog bark when left alone?
A certain amount of barking or whining from your dog when you leave them alone is normal. After all, dogs are naturally pack animals, and you are their pack.
However, for many dogs, barking when left alone can be excessive and become a problem. If this is the case, your dog could be displaying signs of more persistent feelings of anxiety at being left alone, known as separation anxiety.
What is separation anxiety in dogs?
Canine separation anxiety, sometimes known as “separation related behavior”, is a set of excessive, usually unwanted behaviors that a dog displays either just before being left, or while being alone.
It is estimated that up to 40% of dogs in the U.S. experience separation anxiety in some form or another. The factors that cause it are varied and complex, but studies show that it is more common in some breeds than others, can increase as dogs age, and can often occur as a consequence of traumatic experiences.
Signs of separation anxiety
Repeated barking, or other vocalizations when being left alone, such as whining or howling, is one of the most common and immediately obvious indicators of separation anxiety.
Other signs include:
- Destructive behavior (chewing furniture, digging, scratching floors or carpets)
- Inappropriate toilet behavior, such as urinating or defecating indoors
- Self harming (excessive itching or skin chewing)
- Attempting to escape
- Excessive salivation
- Repetitive behavior, like pacing, running around in circles or up and down along a fence
- Depressive behavior
- Excessive excitement upon your return
TIP: Some of these, such as pacing or depressive behavior when alone, might not be obvious if they only occur when you’re out. Try setting up a camera on a laptop or smartphone before you leave to get the bigger picture of how your dog copes when you’re out.
How to prevent a dog barking when leaving them alone
Separation anxiety usually requires a combination of approaches, including targeted changes and general training, and in some cases, even medication. Start by speaking to your vet, not just to find out about medication — but also to rule out any other possible causes.
Natural supplements to reduce barking
If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of medication to treat anxiety and separation barking, there are also several natural products that are vet-approved for promoting calmness.
- Ashwagandha. A natural extract recommended for humans and animals that helps to regulate levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. It has been found to reduce signs of stress in humans — and it is effective and safe in dogs, too.
- L-Theanine. L-Theanine is an amino acid that boosts activity in part of the brain responsible for relaxation—without inducing drowsiness. It’s also been proven to help dogs with noise phobias.
- Magnolia bark extract. In humans, treatment with magnolia bark results in lower cortisol levels and improved mood. In dogs? Studies have shown “significantly reduced fear-related behaviors”.
At Front of the Pack, we’ve actually combined the clinically-proven benefits of all three into Harmony, our all-natural dog supplement specifically designed for soothing pup anxiety.
These improvements can then be supported through a variety of behavioral changes and training habits. Next, we’ll explore some of these techniques.
Changing routines to reduce excessive barking
Slow down your leaving routine
If your leaving routine is the main trigger for your dog’s barking, vets advise slowing down how long it takes you to go out.
For example, try putting on your shoes or coat a while before you actually leave. Then watch some TV, make a snack or check some emails. When you do head out, go with minimal fuss, so that your dog isn’t faced with the sudden alarm of being about to be left without you.
Make a habit of doing this over and over again and in a different order, to keep things less predictable.
Don’t overplay your return
By coming back and immediately making a loud fuss over your pup, you reinforce the notion that you leaving is a terrible thing. Even if you’ve missed them, and you want to spoil them with treats, games, or walkies, try not to time activities to coincide with your return home.
Come back in and give them a quiet greeting with a quick pat, without giving them too much overwhelming attention immediately.
Counter-conditioning, also known as “systematic desensitization”, has been shown to be successful in some dogs to curb excessive barking when left alone.
This involves exposing a dog to very short periods alone to help them overcome their fear of it, and slowly building up the amount of time you’re away, so that they learn to feel comfortable without you for longer periods.
What about bark collars?
Bark collars are a short-term aid to help prevent dogs barking when left alone, particularly with dogs who persist with barking long after your departure.
They work via a small microphone that detects when the dog barks and responds by releasing a spray of unpleasant fragrance, such as citronella, which dogs don’t like.
A study at Cornell found that citronella collars were effective at stopping nuisance barking.
However, bark collars don't address your dog’s underlying separation anxiety. If your pooch’s excessive barking is coupled with other negative behaviors such as pacing, drooling or destroying furniture, a barking collar won’t stop any of these. In fact, it might make them worse.
It is therefore recommended to use longer term measures to reduce your dog’s separation barking longer term. After all, the aim of the game should be a happier, more relaxed dog, not just a quiet one.
Improving overall anxiety
If your dog has general anxiety in other areas as well, consider taking some of these broader steps to encourage more general confidence.
Manage your dog’s boundaries at home
If your dog gets treats, cuddles, playtime and other interactions with you whenever they demand them, and are never expected to entertain themselves when you’re around, the skills to feel relaxed and secure when you’re not will be poorly developed.
Speak to your vet about instilling boundaries with your pooch, which will often give them more emotional stability.
Encourage independence with wider experience
Dogs who have had less varied experiences, less exposure to other humans besides their household and fewer friendly interactions with other dogs are often more anxious in general. Ask your vet if they have some suggestions for how to build up your bestie’s confidence by slowly increasing their range of experience.
A tired pup is rarely an anxious pup. Several studies, including this one of 3,264 dogs have found significant links between lower daily exercise and separation anxiety.
If your companion’s separation barking has increased recently, try to fit in extra or longer daily walks, and as much energetic play as possible; over a few months you should notice their general anxious behavior starting to reduce.
Manage your own anxiety
Finally, as dog owners, it is easy to forget that our pups take a lot of their behavior cues from us. If we are anxious ourselves, we are likely to perpetuate a cycle of emotional instability, which is a major trigger for anxious behavior like barking.
On the other hand, if you do your best to be calm around your dog when you’re there, and remain calm and unstressed as you’re leaving, you may notice a change in their barking patterns sooner than you thought.
As is hopefully clear, stopping your dog from barking when leaving them alone often requires multiple approaches, usually applied consistently over a sustained period.
The right supplements can accelerate these training processes and introduce a feeling of calmness to your dog that really helps to support the changes you would like to instil.
Front of the Pack’s calming product, Harmony can help promote a stress-free sense of calm for your dog in under 90 minutes. By combining these effects with a few changes in behavior, you could be within reach of a happier and quieter home for you and your dog.