The lady called me because she wanted her beautiful eight-year-old Golden Retriever, Harvey, to ‘stop barking’ when she goes out. One friend suggested she tried an ultrasonic sound device (he ignores it) and another a muzzle to keep his mouth shut.
It’s not gadgets that are needed, but time and patience. Harvey’s barking needs to be looked at in a completely different way. Stop barking? The distress that is causing the barking needs to be addressed. The actual barking itself isn’t the problem (though it may be so for the neighbours).
Harvey is the most friendly, stable and well-adjusted dog you could want to meet in every respect apart from his fear of being parted from the lady. As a young dog he had been more or less abandoned, underfed and neglected, so it’s a big tribute to her care and love for him. He really is the perfect companion for her. On the right he is looking adoringly up at her (and she was eating a biscuit too!).
It seems that it’s not so much a fear of being left alone itself as a fear of losing the lady. Although he was very friendly with me, he became anxious within a few seconds when she walked out of the room and shut the door, as you can see on the left. It’s very possible that he feels he should be looking after her as she has a medical condition that he will pick up on.
He will certainly sense her emotions when she has to leave him, never for more than two or three hours, and that will merely add to his distress because he can’t possibly realise the reason she herself feels anxious – and guilty.
In addition to desensitising Harvey to being away from her and counter-conditioning him to feel her departures are nothing to worry about, the lady herself can change a few other things that will help. If she can behave in some respects a little more like ‘guardian’ in terms of who protects whom in particular. She can then come and go as she pleases without being accountable to Harvey. Departures should be breezy, happy and good news. Coming back home should be boring and no big deal. At the moment it’s the opposite.
The desensitising requires a huge number of comings and goings, starting with duration and places that are very easy for Harvey and gradually ramping it up, over a period of probably many weeks. The counter-conditioning, at the same time, should gradually have him feeling happy when left rather than distressed.
The lady is prepared to ‘give it a go’. She will ‘try’. I have found that the people who succeed are those who stick at it until they do succeed for however long it takes – and don’t give up after giving it a try if things don’t show much improvement after just two or three weeks, as proved by another lady and her dog who I went to quite recently – read here.
Four weeks have gone by and the slow approach is working. ‘I feel we are getting on slowly but well. Harvey can be left happily for about ten minutes now and went to my immediate neighbours for an hour with no fuss apart from barking at the front door briefly as I left and he was quite happy. Next week we will be gradually extending the time. Fingers crossed!!!
NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Harvey, which is why I don’t go into exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).