Separation anxiety in dogs

In the first half of Separation Anxiety in Dogs, we looked at why some dogs struggle with being left on their own, and what signs indicate that your dog might be suffering stress in your absence. This article looks at the nuts and bolts of helping bored, lonely dogs and those with separation anxiety, to become more comfortable with being left alone for periods of time.

Helping bored and lonely dogs

separation anxiety in dogs
soft toy… check, chew… check, comfortable bed… check!

For all dogs, try to turn being left into a pleasant time, associated with treats and comfort. Get the dog accustomed to using the ‘leaving area’ as a lovely, happy place, while you are still at home. Provide a comfortable resting area, water, toys (including things to chew as this is a comforting action for a dog) and slow feeders, such as a frozen Kong, a treat ball or a stuffed hoof.

Make sure that your dog spends time in the area as a routine part of each day, and use a physical barrier that he can see past – such as a stair gate or crate (if he is crate trained) – so that he can watch you working and yet, not feel completely isolated. When you do come to leave him, it may help to leave a talk station on a radio and something that smells of you, so long as you don’t mind if it gets chewed. Walk him shortly before leaving, so that he is well exercised, and then do some quiet training exercises back at the house. This mental stimulation will further tire him and allow him to be calm and in control before you go. Initially, you should leave him only for a short period, while you attend to things elsewhere in the house or garden, working slowly towards leaving him for a longer time.

Do not make a big deal of leaving – or of coming back – and never scold him on your return, if he’s done something you consider to be ‘bad’ while you were away. Any cringing submissive behaviours are a response to perceiving your displeasure and not guilt or remorse at having done something ‘wrong’. He doesn’t perceive chewing, scratching or digging as “naughty”; they just help him to work out his anxiety at being left alone. Try to figure out *why* he has done what he’s done (was he bored… scared… lonely… in need of comfort?), and maybe take a step backwards and slow the process down.

Try to look for creative ways to meet his needs during the separation, that is, if he’s bored, how can you provide him with things to do? If he’s lonely, how can you comfort him (or give him ways to comfort himself) in your absence? A bored, lonely dog may respond favourably to a canine companion – whereas a dog with true separation anxiety probably won’t, because it is usually the lack of their human that is the trigger.

Dealing with true separation anxiety in dogs

Separation anxiety in dogs
The Thunder-shirt (anxiety wrap)

All of the practical provisions above should still be provided for a dog with true separation anxiety, plus you may want to add in Adaptil pheromone stress relieving products and calming body wraps or a Thundershirt, at least during initial training [NB don’t leave your dog alone in a bandage body wrap, once you are leaving for any significant length of time]. Your dog will probably not eat – even the most high value treats – while you are away, as stress supresses appetite, but you can offer them none-the-less. In extreme cases, your vet may wish to prescribe anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication to help during the initial behavioural therapy.  Alternatively there are a number of natural remedies for separation anxiety in dogs, such as Rescue Remedy and KalmAid

The corner stone of the treatment for all separation anxiety is a behavioural modification programme. The process of modifying fear driven behaviour is slow and needs to be taken in tiny steps. It is essential that your dog never feels overwhelmed. If you need to leave your dog during this training period, then at least make provision not to leave them alone, even if it means you need to arrange a sitter or home based day care at times. Remember, it might not be being alone that is the problem for your dog, but rather being separated from you, in which case, time needs to be given to familiarising your dog with any human who is going to provide substitute care. Everything you do during the training period needs to be planned to ensure that your dog doesn’t experience ANY full blown separation anxiety, as to do so will negate some or all of your progress.

The training to help separation anxiety in dogs is essentially behavioural modification, desensitisation and habituation. If you’re uncertain about how to progress, then please seek the help of a behaviourist who can guide you through the process. Some of the elements that may need addressed are described below, but this is no substitute for the help of someone with the experience and knowledge to help in your specific situation. Dogs with fairly manageable signs of separation anxiety, may only need consistent kind, low key comings and goings and a comforting environment to improve over time.

Try to move away from over bonding in everyday life with your dog. Don’t allow here to constantly dictate how much touch, time and attention you give. Gently insist that she doesn’t climb onto your knee every time you sit down, and teach her ways to self comfort outside of your personal space. Warmth, licking, chewing, food and such like are all comforting to a dog. Find ways of giving your dog access to these activities that don’t involve you.

Try to help your dog to unlearn your pre-leaving cues; the things you do as a mini-routine before going out. Mix up *how* you leave the house and often do your pre-leaving cues, but don’t leave, such as putting on your coat and just sitting down and reading a book, or picking up your keys but just carrying them around. Mix things up enough to make it impossible for your dog to anticipate your leaving in advance of it happening.  

Slowly begin to teach ‘out of sight’ stays in the house. Sessions should begin with second long absences and build up a few seconds at a time, once the dog is calm and relaxed throughout. Keep the time you are back with the dog in between absences much longer than the absences, so that he is always relaxed before the next ‘stay’. Give high value treat rewards at the point of leaving with the stay command, so that the absence is rewarded, not the return. Keep everything calm and quiet. There should be no ‘excited greeting’ on return. Don’t hurry to lengthen the ‘away’ times. You should not progress until your dog is stress-free throughout the whole of the ‘out of sight’ stay exercise for a given length of time. Signs of stress are: pacing, panting, whining, barking, over the top excitement on return, trembling, yawning and salivating. Please also note that this is not an obedience ‘stay’ (sit-and-stay or down-and-stay) and your dog should be free to move around within the confines of the safe and comfortable area that you are leaving them in. All the provisions for leaving a dog alone as detailed above should be made available.


Separation anxiety in dogs
Now I can relax and sleep.

It may take weeks of daily training sessions, to build up to a half hour absence, by increasing just a few seconds (rising to a minute or two) each time, but patience is essential if you want to succeed in re-programming a highly anxious dog. Don’t increase the away time in larger chunks (say 10 or 15 extra minutes) until you have reached at least 30 to 40 low stress minutes of absence. All hellos and goodbyes, whether part of a training session or not, should be calm and quiet. Say a gentle goodbye and give a stroke, or an ear rub before leaving, then a calm, cheerful hello on return, before proceeding to ignore all of the dog’s over the top greetings until she has calmed. If, in your away time, she has done something you perceive as ‘bad’ you absolutely must ignore this and remain calm and consistent in your low key, cheerful return.

A great tool to use during this re-training period for separation anxiety in dogs is a webcam or video recorder, left running in the area where the dog is kept. This will enable you to watch his behaviour while you are gone and to return quickly if the anxiety behaviours begin to escalate. This is useful in preventing the dog from reaching the level of anxiety that can undo weeks of good work.  It also helps you to properly monitor your progress. Be sure to record a baseline before you even begin to work with the dog. If you have a long way to go it is sometimes hard to remember exactly how far you have come and the visual (and audible, if your dog makes a lot of noise) reminder will serve to encourage you when you feel you aren’t getting anywhere.

If you’d like to add anything that has worked for you and your dog that might help others, please do so via the comments.

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