One of the best things about working from home is having that extra time with our canine buddies. They help reduce our stress levels, provide companionship and are a source of fun during much-needed breaks from work. They also motivate us to engage in healthy routines that improve our mental wellbeing. COVID-19 restrictions and isolation are taking their toll and some of us are struggling with the emotional strain and loneliness. Thankfully, having your dog with you means pats, cuddles, and non-judgmental emotional support, which makes it all a bit easier to handle.
While our dogs are generally loving the extra time with us, the shift to working from home has an impact on their lives as well. Changes to routine can be stressful for animals, so we must keep our dogs safely entertained and continue their normal routines as much as possible. They give so much to us, and we owe it to them to protect their wellbeing in return.
One potential problem to prevent is unwanted barking, especially while we’re working from home. This not only breaks our concentration but can be very distracting during work calls and digital business meetings via the likes of Zoom! And while we can’t read our dog’s mind, it’s likely they may be confused by having us around so much without being able to provide them with our undivided attention to them as we go about unusual activities, such as sitting in front of our computers for long periods.
Whatever the reason causing it, frequent barking can have a negative effect on us and our neighbours – but above all it’s usually a sign that some important behavioural need is not being met for our dog.
Barking is normal behaviour for dogs but what is “excessive barking”?
Let’s firstly consider why dogs bark. Barking is normal behaviour for dogs – it’s one of the ways that they communicate with us and with each other, and also how they respond to unexpected noises. A bark and wagging tail when they greet us, or an excited bark when setting off for an outing can be welcome.
Dogs are joyful animals, and it’s infectious! It is unreasonable to expect a dog never to bark. Excessive barking, on the other hand, is a problem, so we need to understand the potential causes so we can avoid them and help our dogs to be calm and relaxed. If your dog is already barking excessively, visit a veterinarian to check for any underlying medical cause or seek advice from a qualified behaviourist who uses reward-based techniques.
One of the reasons dogs may bark excessively is boredom. To prevent this, set up the routine of a morning walk before work to burn off energy, and then occupy them with stimulating activities to entertain themselves while you’re working.
Examples include interactive toys, long lasting chews, food puzzles, the classic Kong toy stuffed with small treats they need to work to retrieve, or hidden treats around the home. And there’s no substitute for your attention, so another way to prevent boredom is designated play time during your work breaks, when you can interact with your dog through games, walks or training sessions. The options are endless and will satisfy your dog’s need for company as well as provide mental and physical stimulation.
Another reason for excessive barking can be separation anxiety when your dog is left alone. If your dog experiences this and you start working from home, being together 24/7 is likely to make the problem worse when things return to normal. Separation anxiety should be addressed with the assistance of a veterinarian. You can also help prevent this problem developing or worsening by giving your dog time away from you during the day to spend in a comfortable, safe space that’s separate from the home office, where they can rest or entertain themselves.
To make their ‘alone time space’ attractive to them, include their bedding, a water bowl, treats and toys, and reward them when they go to this space. This will help your dog learn to relax while spending time on their own and away from you at home.
If your dog is territorial, beware of the postman while working from home! Territorial behaviour can be another cause of excessive barking, as your dog gives the warning of potential intruders. Ideally you should teach them that they do not need to do this by creating a positive association between the presence of visitors and something positive such as a treat, which they earn by remaining calm and not barking.
You should never shout at your dog to be quiet; this will only make the barking worse, and might add to everyone’s stress levels! Until your dog is relaxed and knows not to bark at outsiders, you can manage the problem by pulling down blinds or otherwise blocking their view of what’s happening outside, this helps to reduce the stimulus for them to get agitated and bark.
Never yell at your dog, or scold them harshly
Dogs generally love attention, but like children, they need to be taught to wait for your attention rather than yelling and screaming, or in the case of dogs, barking excessively! If, despite all your efforts, you find your dog barking for attention while you work from home, the best piece of advice is to ignore them until they stop barking. This means no yelling, scolding or even speaking to them, avoiding eye contact and even walking out of the room.
Once they calm down and stop barking, immediately reward them with praise and a treat. This may feel unnatural at first, but the key to effective training is positive reinforcement, which means rewarding ‘good’ behaviours and ignoring undesirable behaviours. And despite what you may hear or read from some sources, punishment (for example, yelling, smacking or using anti-bark collars of any type) only makes the problem worse as well as causing your dog distress.
So, now you’ve understood the reasons why dogs bark excessively and have removed any ‘rewards’ for this problem behaviour, the final step is to teach them an “off-switch”. This involves training them to ‘speak’, or bark on command, by encouraging them to bark and giving them a treat while you repeat the word ‘speak’. It’s important that you only praise them when they bark on command.
Once they’ve mastered this, wait until they stop barking and then say the word ‘quiet’ and offer a treat. To strengthen their learning, only reward them when they stop barking on command. This sets you up to ask them to be ‘quiet’ any time they are barking without being told to ‘speak’, which is exactly what you need when working from home.
We’ve all heard horror stories of dogs who won’t stop barking in the background of a Zoom call or Skype meeting. This is actually very common so be prepared in advance by teaching your dog ‘speak’ and ‘quiet’ and also by training them to sit or lie down beside you when they want attention, using rewards they love such as treats, praise and, best of all, belly rubs! And if the worst-case scenario happens and your dog is still in training, place your electronic device on mute and calmly take your dog to another room with something with which they can occupy themselves. And remember to completely ignore any further barking. With a consistent approach and some patience, your dog will learn to remain calm, which will improve the experience of working from home for both of you.
Working from home with our dogs can be a joy, and can support our morale and wellbeing, but we need to set things up to be sure our dog’s needs are also being met. If your dog is barking excessively or if you notice any changes in their body language or behaviour, see your veterinarian for advice. Check out RSPCA's guide for pets during COVID-19.
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3 Jul 2020