Baldwin the Bulldog barked and barked and barked when he was left home alone. Because his guardians, Samantha and her fiancé Paul, received complaints by their landlord and neighbors about the noise, they purchased a “bark collar” in hopes of quieting Baldwin. First, they used one that sprayed citronella in Baldwin’s face when he barked, but that didn’t motivate him to stop. So, they upgraded to a collar that gave Baldwin an electric shock when he barked, which did work … until it didn’t.
Since a good number of individuals who reach out to us for help ask about using some sort of electronic collar for their dog’s separation anxiety, I thought it would be helpful to talk about what they are, how they work, and what we think about them.
First, let’s review what separation anxiety truly is (and is not). A dog with separation anxiety is truly panicked about being alone — we’re talking an extreme fear or phobia. While it seems totally rational to us that a dog would learn that people always come back after they leave the house, when anxiety kicks in, rational thinking tends to goes away.
How many of us are genuinely fearful of spiders (raises hand quickly), and how many of us are actually in danger by the presence of a spider? Not so rational, right? The odds that you will be killed in an airplane crash are reported to be one in 11 million, and yet the odds that you will be killed in a car crash are one in 5,000. Why then are so many people deathly afraid of flying but not of car rides? You see? When anxiety is in play, rational thinking leaves the room. There are so many more examples, but I think you get the gist.
A dog with separation anxiety does not just “get it” that someone will return home. And, when dogs with separation anxiety do such things as bark, chew up the doorframe, and pee on the rug, it can be easy to jump to the conclusion that they are behaving out of spite or are just being naughty — but they are not. They are scared. They are so scared that they basically “wet their pants.” How scared would you have to be to do that?
The Quest for a Quick Fix
One thing that I understand unequivocally (as a parent to a sep-anx pup and as a trainer), is that there are many problem behaviors associated with separation anxiety that are quite difficult for guardians to handle. Complaints from neighbors about barking is one of the top concerns, but there are also mounting costs from destructive activity and, in some cases, even veterinary costs due to the dogs injuring themselves when left alone. Some dogs urinate or defecate in the house each time they are left alone as well, which can be very distressing to deal with every day.
When faced with these difficult behaviors, it makes perfect sense that we would want the problem fixed — preferably right now. Complaints from neighbors and landlords can be so stressful that it can feel like if the barking continues for even one more day, we will just crumble.
Because of this, one commonly recommended method of quelling the vocalization is a bark collar.
For these collars to be effective, the dog must find the zap or stinky spray frightening or, at the very least, startling. While many people will say that electronic collars don’t really hurt the dog — “it is just a tickle, a spray, or a little stim,” — they would simply not work if they weren’t at least somewhat aversive. The dog must want to avoid the spray or shock, or there would be no motivation to stop barking.
Do bark collars work? Yes. They can — for at least a while. But, any time a dog is made to feel afraid or uncomfortable, there is a risk of “fallout” problem behaviors developing. And when we use such devices on already fearful dogs? We now also run the risk of exacerbating the problem.
Let’s look at it this way – if you are afraid of flying on an airplane and start to scream in panic, and I whack you upside the head, will that make your fear better or worse? Think that through for a moment. We are coupling a debilitating INVOLUNTARY panic response with something aversive. You may snap out of it for a moment to address the whack on the head, but will your anxiety actually subside? Not likely. You may be afraid to make more sounds, because I might whack you on the head again if you do, but your actual underlying panic will remain.
The same is true with dogs. The shock or the spray in the face may halt the vocalization, but the collar is adding a further scary stimulus to the already frightening occurrence of being left alone. We are coupling something quite unpleasant with something that is already terrifying to the dog. Often times, when using these collars, we see that the dog stops vocalizing (typically temporarily) but then has a “pop out” of some other anxiety related behavior — destruction, elimination, self-mutilation, or a host of other things.
Thus, a bark collar, in my opinion, is not at all an effective strategy
Going back to what I said earlier, I absolutely understand that these dogs are wreaking havoc on their guardian’s life — trust me, I totally get it. So, I do appreciate that something needs to change.
The good news is that we can change it, because treatment is possible — without resorting to fear or punishment, which again has that fallout.
Rather than do things that might scare away the symptoms of separation anxiety, by tackling the fear itself and teaching the dogs to feel safe, the problem behaviors actually go away. We do so by using a process called “desensitization,” where we gradually increase absence durations — at a length the dog can handle — until he or she no longer feels scared when the door closes and the feet walk away.
Are Quick Fixes Actually Quicker?
So, how did things turn out for Baldwin, Samantha, and Paul? Well, after a few weeks, Baldwin’s fear of being left alone grew so much bigger that even a shock to the neck did nothing to quiet him. Now he wasn’t just barking —he was barking nonstop and, because of it, he ended up getting shocked continually.
After Samantha broke off the engagement (because Paul wanted to keep using the collar and she found that too upsetting), she had an even bigger mountain to climb to help Baldwin feel safe again.
Quick fixes are … as they say … “quick,” but they seldom are a long-term solution. You could starve yourself for a few weeks to drop a few pounds but what will happen when you start eating again?
I urge you to look at this problem in such a way that takes the welfare of your dog into play. I won’t, for a moment, pretend that YOUR stress and worry aren’t happening, but please know that there is a solution that doesn’t involve fear, startle, or pain.