Many of us have dreamed about working from home and getting to spend all day with our pets. However, when we share space all day every day, even minor pet-behavior problems can become major challenges. And some of us may now be thinking, “Be careful what you wish for.”
For example, your dog’s barking may have been no more than an annoyance in the world before COVID-19. But when your workplace is the kitchen table with the computer open to Zoom, excessive barking can be a headache.
Of course, some barking is normal for dogs. Some breeds—and we all know which—bark more than others. Fortunately, excessive barking can usually be reduced to a tolerable level with the help of some simple guidelines. Dogs bark for many reasons, including territorial barking and barking for attention, so be sure to follow the approach that addresses your dog’s root cause.
If your dog barks when people or dogs walk by the house, yard or car, he is likely to be motivated, at least in part, by territoriality.
It is difficult to eliminate all instances of territorial barking—and completely eliminating this form of barking is probably not desirable. (After all, we want our dog to warn us when a would-be robber sneaks up to the window.)
That said, territorial barking can be managed with a combination of proactive avoidance and an effective “Quiet” cue (or command).
First ensure your dog is tired by the time you sit down to your computer by giving her dog plenty of exercise before your workday starts. Make and store a few delicious long-lasting treats for your dog, such as Kongs (or other hollow toys) stuffed with a soft food like peanut butter, spray cheese, or canned dog food. Freeze the stuffed Kongs so they take longer to eat. And just before your virtual meeting starts, encourage your dog to go to a quiet place and enjoy the treat. (To prevent excess weight gain, cut back her normal rations and add them to the mix in the Kong.)
To reduce exposure to passing dogs and people that could trigger territorial barking, close the blinds or cover the lower part of the windows with a translucent film that uses static (not glue) to stick to the glass. Alternatively, you can use gates or doors to keep the dog out of the rooms that overlook the street. If your dog is triggered by outside sounds, add some white noise. If you don’t own a white noise machine, don’t worry. The Simply Noise app is an inexpensive and effective source of white noise. It can be downloaded for $0.99 from www.simplynoise.com.
To teach your dog to be “Quiet” on cue, or command:
- During training sessions, uncover the window and sit with your dog to watch for passing people and dogs. Attach a long leash to her collar and, have a bowl of high value dog treats such as cheese ready at hand. Wait until she barks.
- When she barks, say “Quiet” once in a conversational volume and friendly, upbeat voice. Wait until she stops barking. Do not repeat the cue. When she stops barking, praise her immediately and give her a food reward. If she does not stop barking after a few seconds, pick up the end of the long leash and gently move her away from the window. The instant she is quiet, praise and reward her. If she does not settle when you use the leash to back her away from the window, start training at a greater distance from the window toward the middle of the room.
- Repeat with each barking tirade until she begins to interrupt the barking tirade when you give the “Quiet” cue. (If you had to start far from the window, repeat steps 1 through 3 progressively closer to the window until she gets quiet on cue when you are right next to the window.)
- Once your dog consistently stops barking when you say “Quiet,” begin to extend the period she must remain quiet before getting her reward. Begin by waiting a second (one “Mississippi”) after she is quiet before praising and rewarding her. Very gradually work up until she can remain quiet for five “Mississippi”s before earning praise and a reward.
- When your dog consistently stops barking on cue, begin to reward intermittently (i.e. every other time, then every third time). Consistent rewards work best when a dog is learning a new behavior, but intermittent rewards work best to maintain a behavior once it is learned.
Veterinarian Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil heads the behavior service at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center. She is a 2007 graduate of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.