"Help, my dog barks when I go upstairs, what can I do about this odd behavior?" The dog owner asked me this, but I had no quick answer for this behavior. This was mostly due to the fact that dogs are individual creatures and there are no black and white explanations, just as there are no quick fixes.
It takes a close evaluation to better understand a dog's behavior and identify the possible triggers before suggesting ways to solve the problem.
Not Wanting to be Left Alone
Dogs are social animals and they crave our attention. After all, this is not surprising considering that dogs associate us with many positive things. For instance, we provide our dogs food, we pet them and we provide them shelter and protection, therefore, dogs come to trust us and feel reassured by our presence.
Talking about reassurance, did you know? A recent study has demonstrated that dogs bond strongly to us to the point that we become our dog’s primary social partners. Many dogs would rather be with us than with their conspecifics! How wonderful is that? Dogs are called man's best friend for a valid reason!
Researchers at the University of Veterinary medicine in Vienna indeed have found striking similarities between the relationship people and their pets share and the relationships among human parents and their children.
When dog owners are around, dogs therefore tend to feel safe, secure and happy, while when left alone, they are prone to feeling distressed.
If your dog barks when you go upstairs there are therefore chances that your dog is upset or frustrated that you leave him alone, even if just a few minutes to go grab something. It's as if you're abandoning him by leaving your "homebase" when you leave for the upstairs world.
This is the most likely case if your dog likes to follow you around the home, from room to room, sleeps on your feet or keeps an eagle eye on you at all times.
If for some reason your dog is not allowed upstairs because he's destructive or is aging and struggles with stairs, then this can make him particularly distressed.
Looking for Attention
Many dogs are eager to receive attention and this need for attention is often more pronounced in dogs who are left at home alone for a good part of the day and crave more interaction with their owners.
Here's the thing: when you come home from work, your dog has waited for you for most of the day. He likely has spent many hours sleeping facing the door, patiently waiting your return. Perhaps he hasn't touched food or hasn't played all this time.
For a dog like this, your return is the biggest perk of the day. Your dog has been waiting for your arrival all day long, so when he hears your car approaching and the key turning into the lock, he is quivering in anticipation.
Imagine though how your dog must feel if, when you come home, you head upstairs and go on with your errands ignoring your dog. Your dog may therefore bark out of frustration or protest: "Hey owner! I am here! Can you hear me? You know I waited for you all day! Yoo-hooo!"
At this point, your dog is looking for any form of attention. He expects you to come back, look at him, touch him, interact with him. He likely may want to be fed, played with or walked.
Even negative attention can be preferable than no attention at all, so if you yell at your dog to shut him up (not recommended), this form of interaction will have reinforced his barking, so the barking behavior will put roots, continue and persist.
You Look Odd
Let's face it: dogs don't always perceive things as we see them and they can't grasp some concepts, so the world around them can sometimes be quite odd. Like take, for example, how dogs struggle understanding a shiny surface, tense up and dogs end up slipping on a hardwood floor.
With reflections on a shiny floor, it's not like dogs can use their logic and talk themselves through understanding them. Sure, we know that light reflects on certain surfaces, but dogs may not understand precisely why and what is happening, so they may instinctively want to avoid walking on shiny floors and some puppies even act scared of shiny bowls.
Walking up or down stairs may too appear odd to dogs. Depending on where your dog is, one minute you may look rather small and then you dramatically increase in size as you descend the stairs. Or just the opposite, you go from looking bit to looking smaller and smaller. In other words, going up or down stairs looks confusing to a dog.
On top of this, your dog may find it intimidating as you come up or down a flight of stairs quickly, making noise lots of noise and commotion.
In this case, your dog's barking may be out of fear. If your dog's ears are turned back and he shows a tense body, the barking is likely due to fear. And don't rely solely on a dog's wagging tail to understand what he's trying to communicate. You need to look at the whole picture!
Even though we often associate a dog's wagging tail with friendliness, in some cases a wagging tail may denote emotions on the total opposite spectrum, such as nervousness and aggression. So if your dog is barking and his tail is wagging, keep this in mind.
Now That You Know...
As seen, barking when you go upstairs can be triggered by a vast array of emotions. From separation anxiety or a need for attention to anxiety and even fear and aggression. Each triggering emotion may therefore require a different approach. Here are some tips for tackling the issue of dogs barking when people go upstairs.
- Evaluate whether your dog's needs are met. Ensure your dog has access to food and water and that he has had an opportunity to go potty outside. Also ensure your dog is exercised and provided with play time, training and mental stimulation.
- If feasible, allow your dog upstairs with you. Dogs are social animals, and may get anxious sleeping alone. Your dog doesn't have to sleep in bed with you to be happy. Just providing him with a mat to sleep on nearby your bed can be enough to keep him calm and happy.
- If being upstairs with you is not an option, make sure you don't reinforce your dog's barking by coming downstairs the moment you hear him getting upset. Instead, try to wait it out and come down only when your dog is quiet. Reinforce the quiet with your presence and praise. If your dog is quiet but starts barking the moment you are walking down, make an abrupt turn and go back upstairs. If your dog is barking due to anxiety or distress though, please consider seeing a dog behavior professional to help him better cope with these states of mind.
- If you work long hours, make sure to cut out some time for your companion. Walk him before and/or after going to work. If this is difficult, hire a dog walker or a have a neighbor stop by to walk your dog. Another option is doggy day care. It's not fair to expect our dogs to be calm when we leave them alone for extended periods of time and/or fail to meet their needs for companionship, exercise and mental stimulation.
- If your dog struggles being left alone, you need to work on this issue. There are chances your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety. A veterinary behaviorist may help with this issue with the use of behavior modification and possibly medications. For mild cases of dogs who like to follow you around the home, check out these tips for owners of clingy Velcro dogs.
- Turn making going up the stairs a redundant activity. In other words, go up and down the stairs. Stand at the top of the stairs, middle of the stairs, bottom. Sit on the stairs. Pretend you’re about to go upstairs, but then don't. Do this many times a day until your dog comes to the conclusion that there's no point to bark when you go upstairs because it has become such a meaningless activity.
- Consider management. Management means putting the dog in the position of not having the opportunity to rehearse the problem behavior. In this case, you can try to place something that can strategically block your dog's vision so that he can no longer observe people walking upstairs. Out of sight, out of mind. Perhaps try keeping your dog confined away from the stairs, or behind a baby gate in a separate area.
- Provide your dog with something that keeps him busy. If you must confine your dog to stop him from barking upon seeing someone go up or down a flight of stairs, consider giving him a Kong stuffed with high-value treats or some other long-lasting, high value goody.
- Enlist the help of a dog behavior professional. If your dog is barking out of fear, it's important to tackle the root cause. Hire a dog behavior professional who uses force-free behavior modification.
- A desensitization and counterconditioning program may turn helpful. This would entail splitting the act of going up and down the stairs in smaller components (desensitization) so that the dog doesn't feel too overwhelmed. At the same time you want to work on creating positive associations so to change your dog's emotional response (counterconditioning). So for example, you can start walking up a step and tossing a high-value treat as you go up. This little action should not trigger great barking. Then, you can increase criteria and start walking up a little more, always tossing treats as you perform the action. Once back down, no more treats. Gradually, you should get up the stairs a little more each time, until you have a solid response of your dog anticipating treats every time you go up the stairs. If at any time your dog reacts by barking, it's a sign you are going too fast through the process and you need to go back to taking a smaller step. For safety and correct implementation, enlist the help of a dog behavior professional to walk you through the process.