Updated: Jun 19
Yappy Valentines day! Please don't ever leave me...not even if you have to go to the bathroom!
Sound familiar? For Valentines Day we thought it would be a good time to talk about separation anxiety, as (tongue in cheek), isn't wanting to be near the one you love ALL THE TIME great? Well, yes it is in a way, but it is an anxiety, and also a kind of toxic love that isn't fair on your dog or you.
Most of us are spending more time indoors than usual, because of Covid-19. Our pets are getting very used to having us around all day, and many will find it very hard to get back to the old routine once restrictions are lifted.
As this can be a complicated situation to solve, and beyond the skillset of yours truly- the humble website author- we spoke to training and behaviour expert Frankie Howard, who has over a decade working with animals behind him, and has worked for some of the UK's largest rehoming centres and animal sanctuaries. Aside from working as a training and behaviour manager at a major rescue, he also runs Frankie The Dog Trainer, his own behaviour and training programme (these are available both virtually, and in person where restrictions allow). Frankie has produced the following blog for us. The full version is also available to read on his website. You can also read Frankie's blog about barking here.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Frankie Howard currently offers dog training and behaviour advice, and is based in South Wales. He offers both remote and in person sessions, in line with current government guidelines regarding Covid-19 restrictions. You can take a look at his website here.
Separation anxiety is one of the most common issues faced when homing a new dog, particularly if the dog is a rescue. Your household routine, such the times you're there for the dog and how frequently you may be out the house are unlikely to line up with the routine the dog was previously used to. If a dog has been left at a shelter after having lived in a home environment, then the change from family to kennel, followed by another home, leaves them anxious about being left alone again. They develop a negative association to being by themselves, which stresses them out, leaving them unsure how to cope.
Separation anxiety is manifested as problematic behaviour in dogs when they are left alone, or without access to their bonded handler. Even in a house full of people, a dog with severe separation anxiety can still experience these anxious behaviours if they aren't within sight of their bonded person. However, this isn't the only reason and separation anxiety can have many causes. It can develop suddenly in a dog you've had for a long time, and it's likely to become a problem that many more people will face as the world eases back into normal life post Covid-19. A dog that has got used to receiving constant attention, will likely develop separation anxiety when this is suddenly taken away.
Separation anxiety can also show in dogs with too much energy and not enough outlets. Historically we've bred dogs to do mentally challenging tasks which take great amounts of thought and physical exercise, but we expect them to be content sitting at home whilst we're out all day. One positive thing to come from the Covid-19 Pandemic is that we might be a little more understanding and sympathetic to our separation anxiety suffering dogs now that we've had a taste of what it's like to be stuck in the house. But we are lucky, as we can still take ourselves for walks, watch TV, and keep ourselves entertained fairly easily. It's not that simple for a dog, and this pent up frustration, this confused mind, this anxiety can manifest itself in problematic behaviours such as excessive barking, whining, destruction, restlessness and in extreme cases self-harm.
These behaviours should not be taken lightly as they do get worse over time if left unattended. Separation anxiety is detrimental to a dogs mental well being, and a dog with anxious behaviours in one area can quickly develop them in others. For instance, a dog suffering from separation anxiety can quickly become anxious around other dogs, people, parks, and situations where the dog would normally do well. It is extremely important to implement plans to prevent separation anxiety from developing in the first place, or to stop it from getting worse than it already is.
What to do if you think your pet has separation anxiety As with any behaviour modification, it is important to be adaptable. Fixing separation anxiety has many approaches and some will work with your dog while others might worsen the situation, so apply the techniques and monitor your dog's behaviour, and be prepared to adjust your strategy appropriately. There is no quick fix, but if you don't start to see gradual progress with your dog, it might be necessary to seek the help of a professional. Again, with behaviour modification, it is important that you and any dog trainer you seek help from, uses positive reinforcement techniques. You don't want to punish your dog for their anxiety, as this will simply suppress the behaviour and heighten the anxiety in the dog. As frustrating as a destroyed sofa, accidents in the house, or noise complaints from the neighbours are; taking this out on the dog won't help the situation.
Part 1: The first approach is the simplest, ensure your dog is living a fulfilling life.
Step 1: Make walkies interesting
If your dog is bored, under-exercised and hyperactive when you leave them at home, it's only natural that they find things to do for themselves. Ensure that your dog is being adequately walked. Getting up earlier before work to take the dog out for a walk, even if its short, will go a long way in helping the dog shake off excess energy before being left alone. Your walks need to become more interesting- if you walk the same rushed route around the block every day there isn't much to look forward to, and it won't fulfil your dogs' needs. Change it up, walk a different street, go to a different park, let the dog interact with people and other animals if they're comfortable around them.
Step 2: Stimulation
Let your dog stop and smell things- t's so important for a dog to use their sense of smell when they're on a walk, and stopping to sniff along the way isn't something that needs to be corrected. Let them engage their senses on their walk and they'll come home feeling more relaxed.
Step 3: Engage your dog to build confidence
Your dog needs to feel confident in themselves to be left alone and building your dogs confidence can be achieved in a variety of ways. The simple and most effective way is to challenge their mind. Try teaching your dog to walk to heel while on a walk. When they're at the park try some trick training or obedience. If they know sit, stay and lie down - teach them something new. Once they know the new trick, teach them another. Occupying your dog's mind will go a long way to building confidence and making them more comfortable when left alone.
Part 2: Working on leaving, and returning home
Step 1: Leave the RIGHT way Although it is important to ensure the dog has burned off any excess energy before leaving, there is a balancing act to be played here.
Don't play rough and tumble, high energy tug games right before leaving the house. This will simply overstimulate the dog, leaving them in high gear and alone.
Your dog loves you, and when you leave it can be quite distressing for them. It's important to teach your dog that you coming and going from the house is not a big deal. This is one that people struggle with, but stop making a fuss over your dog before you go and when you first get home. If you spend 5 minutes fussing over your dog to say goodbye before you leave the house, or if you go as nuts as they do when you first get home, all you're telling the dog is that you leaving is a big deal. We want to get rid of this thought and teach the dog that sometimes you'll leave the house, and it's nothing to be concerned about.
When you return home and your dog rushes to greet you, don't engage. Ignore them completely, and very calmly get on with your day. Get your shoes off, make a cup of tea, take five minutes to yourself. Then when the dog has lost interest, that's when you engage with them. Reward their indifference with praise. With practice, the dog will reach the calm indifference quicker, and the time you have to spend ignoring your dog before you get calm behaviour will decrease.
Your dog quickly gets used to your routine, and can actually tell when you're supposed to be home. They have a sense of time by using their heightened sense of smell. If you're usually out of the house for 5 hours your smell starts to leave, and once your smell particles reach that 5 hour absence period the dog will know that's when you're usually home. This can excite them and if you're late cause anxiety too. So if you come home to a hyperactive dog, it doesn't mean they've been in this state all day. They're just anticipating your return, and if you're late and the behaviours worse - don't be surprised, and again don't punish the behaviour.
Think about your dogs trigger points When leaving the home you want it to be the most natural non-anxiety inducing part of the day. Dog's are smart, you've probably noticed if you pick up your dogs lead they get excited because they know that their lead equals a walk, or a dog food bowl means food is coming. It might surprise you just how much dogs pick up on things and associate our behaviours with leaving. Everyone's leaving routine is different, but we all have this routine. Start to notice your dogs behaviour and pinpoint exactly what the trigger points for your dog are, every dog is different and we want to desensitise them to our leaving cues. A few examples would be picking up your keys, putting on a coat, getting your shoes on and obviously leaving the house. We can start to make these actions less stress-inducing by making them more regular i.e. lifting keys does not necessarily mean that you're leaving.
Step 5: Identify and use the trigger points
Once you've found your dog's trigger point apply some desensitising training around it, pick up your keys and then give your dog a treat. Do this when you're not engaged with your dog, if you're watching tv or relaxing with a nice book - pick up your keys and give the dog a treat, this requires your dog to do a lot of unlearning so again it will take time. But what we are trying to achieve here is a change of thought pattern in the dog, they will start to associate the trigger (your keys) with something positive rather than something negative.
If your dog's trigger is the coat going on, practice putting a jacket on throughout the day and then just sitting down to relax. Maintaining a very calm attitude throughout this is vital. Go outside the house and return a few seconds later, again ignoring the dog on exit and return, teaching the dog that this isn't a big deal - leaving the house does not mean the dog will be left for prolonged periods of time, it's something that will happen and it's nothing to worry about. You can build up or decrease the amount of time you leave the house during these training sessions depending on your dog's reaction.
Step 6: Practice "wait" commands
Practice a wait command with the dog in the house, use their bed or a mat any defined area will do. Ask the dog to sit and wait, turn your back walk away and then return rewarding the dog once you have come back to them. It's important not to call the dog over and reward, as we're teaching a wait here not a stay followed by a release. If while you're walking away the dog gets up and follows you, then you've gone too far or waited too long. Return the dog to the area and try again, but this time don't walk as far away. Build up the distance you're able to leave the dog slowly and according to your dog's ability. This is a game you can also play while out at the park, engaging your dog's brain by challenging them, but also teaching them a skill that they will be able to generalise to being left alone when you're not there.
Step 7: Reward independence While at home, if your dog shows independent behaviour i.e. going and playing by themselves or going and lying down, then you should calmly reward this. Treats are good because you can reward the dog and continue to allow them to be independent, no engagement from the handler is necessary. If your dog is clicker associated then you can click when they display independent behaviours.
If your dog struggles to take themselves to bed or to play independently you may have to teach them how to do so.
Step 8: Crate training
Crate training is a great idea for dogs with separation anxiety but it is something people frequently get wrong. The idea with crate training isn't getting the dog used to being locked up in the crate, this will just exacerbate anxiety and make things worse in the long run. You utilise the crate as a safe place for the dog, somewhere they feel safe and comfortable so when they're left alone they take themselves off to their happy place and relax until you return. You can do this by positively associating the crate, reward when the dog goes into the crate, have their favourite toys in there. Leave a chew or a toy they can be left alone with, within the crate when you leave the house.
Never use the crate as a punishment, or to put the dog away as this will undo all the positive associations you've been working on. If you ever need the dog out of the way while you hoover, or while you're cleaning etc. put the dog in a different room, the crate is the dog's happy place and should only be associated with positive things.
Step 9: Sound therapy
As well as needing to utilise their sense of smell to relax, dogs also benefit from using their ears. There are studies to indicate that dogs benefit from being left with music, a small radio on top or nearby their crate is something for them to focus on while you're gone. The voices from the radio can be distracting enough to help some dogs settle. Music is shown to help dogs settle and relax, classical music and relaxing reggae seem to have the best results - most rescue and rehoming centres will play reggae music for dogs while they're in kennels.
If you play a certain song or album while you're creating positive associations with the crate, the dog will associate those sounds with good things. When you leave them with that music playing, they will have a positive association built up and therefore find it quicker to relax.
Step 10: Mind games
Your dog needs to have something to do when you leave the home, even a calm dog left for too long in the house with no outlet for them will lead to potentially destructive behaviours or excessive vocalisation and anxiety.
Food puzzles are a great way to have the dog's mind occupied while you're gone, toys that the dog can play with by themselves and chews to help them relax. Food puzzles are helpful with desensitising the dog to you leaving, because if you leave them with a puzzle, they will be so occupied with completing the task they may not even notice you leave.
Step 11: Think about help from others It is important to realise that even the best of us can only keep ourselves occupied solo for so long; if you're likely to be out of the house for an excessive amount of time then it would benefit you and your dog if you looked into a dog walker to break the day up, or potentially doggy day-care if you're gone for most of the day.
Something else to consider is the dog's relationship with the family, if there are multiple people in the household but the dog is only showing separation anxiety with one or two people, or if the behaviour is worse when those people leave then you need to devalue those people and get the other members of the household to build a stronger connection with the dog. If one person does the walking, the play, the feeding and the training then it's only natural that the dog will have a stronger bond with that individual and therefore worse separation anxiety when they leave. That person should take a step back, have others in the house take more responsibility with the dog's daily care - this won't have to be forever and is only to help alleviate the symptoms of the dogs over-attachment to the individual.
As a final note, it's important to rule out any medical or dietary caused issues. If your dog's behaviour is excessive and you don't see any, even gradual improvements after a period of weeks then a check-up at the vet to rule out anything more serious is a good idea. In terms of diet, you want to make sure you're not feeding your dog into overstimulation. You wouldn't have a coffee if you were trying to relax, and by that same merit, you shouldn't be feeding a dog excessive sugars if you're trying to help them relax. For more information on feeding your dog an appropriate diet, I'd recommend getting in contact with a nutritionist who can help in choosing biologically appropriate food for your dog. Good food doesn't have to be expensive and it's often the bigger brands using the cheaper ingredients in the food. In summary dog separation anxiety is something that will need your attention before it gets worse. If you know your routine is about to change (i.e. you're going back to work) then you can start to implement these strategies to stop separation anxiety developing in the first place and ahead of time. If separation anxiety is already manifesting in your dog, you need to ensure your dogs physical and mental needs are being met: better walks, harder challenges. You need to desensitise your dog to your coming and going, this does, unfortunately, mean no goodbye hugs before you leave, and you need to start rewarding independent behaviour when your dog displays it naturally in the home.
Once again every dog is an individual and what works for some may not work for others, it's important to be adaptable, creative and calm. If you don't start to see progress call a professional and get a consultation, have a personalised plan developed for your dog and in no time at all your dog will be indifferent to you leaving them at home.
How we, as dog parents deal with being apart from our dogs all day, is an entirely different story, a problem I still have not managed to fix within myself, but I at least rest easy knowing my dog is happy at home, not a care in the world while I go off to work to pay for all her treats!