The sound of dog hearts breaking

I’ve been on ‘staycation’ this week to catch up on home chores, read, write and relax. Bliss! However, being at home for a few days has made me realise how many lonely and neglected dogs there are in my suburb.

There are three in particular that I regularly hear barking during different times of the day. Each time they do, it stabs me in the chest. Because every single one of them very clearly sounds heart broken.

The one who lives the closest to me and that I can hear the loudest, has a bark that sometimes ends with a little whine. The same sound of pain as if it has hurt its paw. The other one, a little further down the road, has a hoarse, enquiring bark that ends on a high note. As if it’s asking the question of when the endless loneliness will end. The third, even though it’s a few blocks away, has a bark that ends in a long howl. You can hear its vocalised grief every single time. And it breaks my heart too.

I know from observation that two of these dogs are outside-only dogs. The one with the lonely bark has a family that leaves for work early and comes home late. Sometimes they go out at night again, which is when that heart-breaking sounds start up again. The dog gets a plate of food shoved out the back door but I have never seen the owners interact with it. Ever. Either take it for a walk, or play a game.

My local council reports that dog barking is the number one complaint lodged with them every year. While an endlessly barking dog nearby is not easy or fun to live with, we must remember they are doing so because they are in emotional pain. While they bark for various reasons, in the majority of cases it’s because they are lonely, isolated, anxious, frightened and unsure. Imagine feeling like this every day of your life with nobody prepared to help you. As animals that live in a family-orientated structure, being left outside alone, day after day for a dog is like being put in jail. These dogs have essentially been given life sentences of emotional starvation. It’s not fair on them and in my mind, is as much a form of animal cruelty as is physical violence or torture.

I’m not saying that dogs shouldn’t be left alone, but we need to teach them to cope and that means human effort is involved. Here are some of my observations about dogs that can handle being left alone:

  • They are acclimatised to being alone over small periods of time, which are gradually built up.
  • Every single time when they are left alone they are given something to do such as play with a new toy, chew on a meaty bone and find treats scattered across the yard. Make being outside fun – take the food out of the bowl and make them hunt for it. There’s a large variety of ‘home alone’ stimulation options or calming techniques such as leaving the radio on.
  • Before the human leaves the house, that dog is well exercised. That means getting up 20-30 minutes earlier and taking the dog for a run, to the park or playing games – so their energy is expended before the family leaves and if they are left to hunt for their food, they’ll be tired with a full belly and more likely to sleep until the humans return. Dogs do not exercise themselves in the back yard, no matter how big it is and bored dogs are more likely to bark or chew on things they shouldn’t.
  • Dogs that cope being outside better are allowed inside for periods of time. Either joining in when the family are home, or left inside when they are out (either for a small amount of time or ensuring they can get out through a doggy door). This reduces their feelings of isolation and that every day is the same over and over again.

So next time a barking neighbourhood dog is annoying you, think about why they might be barking and speak to your neighbour about making them aware of it and helping their dog, as they may not even know it’s happening. I also regularly ask my neighbours if they hear my own dog bark when I’m out so I can take action if I need to help him be calm and happy when left home alone.

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