Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to email@example.com. We love dogs and cats equally, and reserve treats for questions about your turtle, guinea pig, bird, snake, fish, or other beast.
Dear Beast Mode,
Our sweet 6-year-old rescue pooch has become a neighborhood menace. My fiancé and I live in an apartment, and our pup spends most of the workday alone (except for our cat, who keeps her company). The dog gets three to four walks per day, has puzzle toys to keep her occupied, and seems quite well adjusted to her routine. But about a year ago, we noticed that whenever we worked from home, she developed a nasty habit of barking at the door if someone she deemed suspicious was out in the hallway. Since then, the situation has devolved to her snarling and throwing herself at the door eight to 10 times per day when packages are delivered, handymen visit our neighbors, or the floor’s recycling bin is emptied. She is a harmless, 30-pound Chihuahua mix, but her bark makes her sound like a vicious wolf that has been tied up in Ramsay Bolton’s basement and starved for weeks. We are so embarrassed that our neighbors have to live with this noise. How can we get her to stop her overprotective nonsense? It’s worth noting that she doesn’t make a peep when we (or her favorite maintenance woman who gives her treats) are in the hallway.
—Under Bark and Key
Dear Under Bark and Key,
I had to Google Ramsay Bolton, and I’m relieved to learn that he is a Game of Thrones character and not some cruel, wolf-abusing neighbor of yours. If Bolton’s Wikipedia page is to be believed, Ramsay got what was coming to him. That’s nice! (I think?) Since apparently, his situation took care of itself, let’s move on to your dog’s issue.
From the dog’s perspective, barking makes total sense. It’s better to be safe than sorry, right? Plus, the move almost always works: The neighbors go into their apartment, the delivery person leaves, the recycling bin gets emptied, etc. She’s making things happen, and she doesn’t even expect anything in return (besides food, water, shelter, toys, walks, love, regular vaccinations, and attention).
Full disclosure: My dog also barks at surprise visitors. She also sometimes barks at innocent passersby. It can be a real crapshoot. I have learned one ironclad piece of advice from my own experience: Do not yell at or chastise your dog while she is barking. This will only make her do it more, as she’ll figure that you, too, are in the business of screaming at outside invaders. Next thing you know she’ll start thinking she’s an influencer, and then you’ll have a whole new problem on your hands.
I’m not sure how your apartment is set up, but try restricting her access to the front door with a dog gate or a blockade of chairs. She may be less inclined to go berserk if she can’t get right up to the portal where all the sounds and smells are coming from. At the very least, this will force her to stand away from the door, thus keeping the noise down for those in the hallway.
Because this barking occurs when you are at home, you should be able to address it proactively. Keep treats on hand. If you hear someone coming—or if the dog alerts you first—pull her aside and distract her by rewarding her compliance to a few commands like sit, lie down, or whatever else you want to work on. If you can refocus her energy on winning treats, she’ll be too distracted to fulfill her security duties. Do this regularly (even when she is not barking), and she’ll start looking forward to these training sessions.
Another benefit of being at home is that it’s easier to carve out time for extra-long walks or visits to the park. Exercise is the single best thing you can do to get a dog to calm down, and any extra hikes or play dates you can provide will eventually help keep her quiet.
I don’t know how your relationship is with your neighbors, but if things are cordial, then it may help to check in with them and let them know that you are working with your pup on this issue. They might appreciate the update, and if they like dogs, you can introduce them to your ferocious guard Chihuahua. Provide the neighbors with treats to use as bribes, and the pooch may even change her tune regarding those erstwhile invaders when she hears them in the hallway. We’ve already established that they’re not a bunch of Ramsay Boltons, so making peace should work out just fine.