Preparing For or Fixing Separation Anxiety
We trainers often refer to this as separation anxiety (SA) and it is defined by an unwanted behaviour that only happens when the dog is being or is separated from its owner. This behaviour can cause distress for the dog and owner and sometimes cause rifts with neighbors. Some indicators that your dog isn't happy being left alone are things like:
Other less frequent signs (that can be more easily missed) include:
Trembling, whining or pacing
While we have spent a year at home due to COVID restrictions and lock downs or perhaps you have maybe been back and forth to the office, or you where lucky enough to get a new dog or puppy and haven't yet had to leave them for any length of time.
Prevention is better then cure!
Spend some time now (before our return to normal) to determine if your dog or puppy is comfortable being left alone. This is something very different to being left at night or in the kitchen when you are in the next room. This is an entirely different exercise or game to tackle the issue of SA. Even if your dog was fine before all this madness, if your routine has changed and any family member has been home more then usual, i would highly recommend doing this separation test.
Research suggests that 8 out of 10 of dogs will find it hard to cope when left alone, but half of these won't show any obvious signs, so it can be very easy for owners to miss. The good news though is that SA is preventable and treatable and by playing the Spy game you can see what your puppy/dog is up to when you leave the house.
This is the best time to answer that question of 'what does my dog get up to while i'm at work??..'
The Test & Spy Game
You might feel a little crazy and get some odd looks from your neighbors doing this but its all part of the fun! Get your Whole family involved and go through the motions of leaving your home as you would if you where going to visit granny, to a party, the zoo or shopping etc... Put your shoes on, your coat, pick up your bag, phone and keys, pop your dog in their spot if they have one, this could be your kitchen, crate (if trained) living room etc... then walk out the door, lock the door and walk down the road or get in your car and drive around the corner. Wait a couple of minutes and creep back to your house (remember dogs have extremely sensitive hearing) and peep through a window to see what they are up to, if they see you its game over! you will need to try again another day and find a new hiding spot.
Before now i have used my car mats to walk over gravel for this exercise and had my neighbors ask if they need to call the locksmith or men with straight jackets after seeing me stealthily peek in through our kitchen window after crawling past the front door, that's before the days of cameras and baby monitors. Of course if you can get one of those nifty cameras then i'd highly recommend it. My camera isn't great but didn't cost much and it does the trick, it also allows me to talk over the camera which is a whole other ball game. If you choose to use this function you will need to first speak over it while you are close by and put the action with the voice, our voices are very different electronically and our dogs may bark at it or just ignore it all together. So if you say 'in your bed' then go into the room and lure your dog to their bed and praise either in person or through your device.
You can also set up a webcam or phone to record your dog while you are out and watch it when you return, i wouldn't recommend climbing up a 3 story drain pipe to get a peak at your dog so do be careful and sensible but have fun which way you do it.
When you have a chance to see what your dog is doing you can see if they are settled and happy sleeping sprawled across your sofa or pacing and seemingly unsettled. You wont have to watch them for long to work out if this will be an issue for you or not, but if all is well it doesn't hurt to go for a walk and come back to check that is still the case and howling or barking hasn't begun. Once you are satisfied and have a good idea of how your dog feels about being left you can re enter the house, if your dog is distressed with your leaving try to re-enter during a quiet moment but don't worry too much about that for now.
Even if you think your dog is happy left alone, every once in a while check for 'hidden' signs that your dog may be distressed by checking them once and a while.
Why This Happens...
There are several reasons that dogs find it difficult to cope when left alone, i suppose the reasons in this case aren't all that important when fixing the issue. The challenge is just how bad the anxiety is, if your dog is really getting themselves into a state then it might be the time to consult with a local behaviourist like myself or local to you.
Working out why your dog reacts badly to being left alone can be tricky, particularly as research shows that half of dogs suffering with SA go unseen and untreated. That's why I recommend doing a practice run and maybe even some training before your return to work and i have put together some top tips and activities to help your dog with their possible anxiety.
These activities will also help you to determine whether problems are being caused by other factors, such as lack of mental stimulation, leading to destructive behaviour, or perhaps noise disturbances leading to barking.
Now we have determined the level of your dogs anxiety we can begin to put some training into practice. Starting with the end result, we want to be able to leave our dog and them to be comfortable so this combined with the techniques mentioned below can help your dog feel at ease at home alone.
Start your spy game again and if your puppy or dog starts getting excited or anxious pause at a step and continue with your day. So lets run through this: you put your shoes on (dogs ok) you put your coat on (dog starts barking), you say 'no' and wait for your dog to calm down then gently praise (dogs ok) you pick up your keys (dog gets excited) walk to your kitchen and put the kettle on, go and sit with a cuppa (dogs ok) pick up your keys again (dogs ok) get up and walk to the door (dogs excited and running around) stand and say 'No' and wait for your dog to calm (dogs ok) hand on the door (dogs whining) sit down and play on your phone (dogs ok) get up to go, hand on door (dogs ok) leave the house (dogs ok) lock the door (dogs ok) so open the door and walk back in (dogs excited) make another cuppa and when your dog is calm you should praise them.
Now... it might not be in that exact order but it might look a little like that, start with leaving for a couple of seconds and then build it up to longer times and always try to return before your dog gets unsettled but if your dog is barking and howling and not letting up (and not causing themselves harm or damaging objects) just be sure to only re enter in a brief moment of quiet.
If your dog does show very distressing behaviours, endangering themselves or destroying objects i would highly recommend you re enter the house and seek the help of a behaviourist before continuing to make sure matters do not worsen. Even in Lock down a behaviourist can work with you if its essential for the dogs welfare.
The more you do this now, the more at ease your dog will be with your leaving them, when the time comes. build it up, start for 10 seconds and slowly increase the time to a couple of minutes over a few days and you can start to increase in larger increments until you can see your dog is comfortable with hours on their own.
This step is so important and is often over looked because it's unnatural for us humans and can in fact make us feel cold and unloving (us Brits should be good at this right ;-P). When you re enter your home or room after leaving your pup for any length of time DO NOT make a fuss of them, walk in and sort yourself out first, make a cuppa and sit on the sofa and when your pup is calmly waiting for your affections this is when you can CALMLY welcome them. If you walk in and smother your dog in kisses and hugs you are causing great excitement and dogs being creatures of habit will sit alone thinking that's whats coming next and will work themselves up and up in anticipation of your return.
If your dog has emptied the bin and messed in their bed do not tell them off, you will need to clean the mess and be sure to let your pooch outside encase they still need to toilet. There is an old fashioned training concept in that dogs know when they have done wrong and this has, in recent years, been disprove and the shying away and 'guilty' style behaviour is the dog responding to your body language and cues in a submissive way and not a show of guilt.
Check this study out for more information and reading on the topic.
Unless you catch your dog in the act of emptying the bin then your efforts to control this unwanted behaviour will be lost and completely misinterpreted. Think of dogs as gold fish, it's one of the reasons we need to be sure our praise and rewarding is at the exact right moment because you are actioning the last behaviour that happened.
I'll explain; if you are teaching 'sit' and your dog does it, you go to reward and your dog jumps to the reward as you give it, you have just rewarded for jumping up and not for the sit. Another example is when you are working with your dog and want to teach a 'come when called' so you call you dog, they come to you and you ask for sit then reward with praise and food, you have only rewarded for the sit and accidentally taken the learning away from your recall. So to relay this to our current situation if you come home and see your dog had emptied the bin all over the floor and you tell them off, you are telling them off for wagging their tail and greeting you with enthusiasm, not for emptying the bin.
Leave a 'special' toy
We have a dog toy basket in our house, our dog can freely roam in the basket for toys, sometimes we do it together and i will hide treats in the basket for her to find. When i leave the house i will at times turn the toy basket out and spread the toys about including treats and chews all around so there is plenty for her while i'm out, if she has a habit of chewing a favorite location i will just place a chew by that spot for her to find (paired with consistent chew training). I will also fill a Kong, a common mistake with these toys is to not fill them or fill them with the wrong thing.... think yummy moist smelly stuff like chicken, pate, liver, cheese and stuff it all in there! Give it to your dog 30 seconds or so before you leave.
'YUM! thanks mum!'
Tip: if you want the Kong to last longer, have a rotation and keep one in the freezer ready to go.
Encourage your pet to relax during their independent time
Try to take your dog for a walk before you are due to go out so that they have the opportunity to go to the toilet and exercise. Return half an hour before you plan to leave and feed them a small meal or do some training with some kibble and treats - your dog will be much more inclined to relax!
Some dogs will bark at the sight of other people or dogs passing by their window or in response to noises outside the home. Closing the curtains to reduce what your dog can see outside, leaving them in a quieter room or leaving the radio on to muffle outside noise can prevent your dog from being disturbed and barking.
Use a Doggy Day Care or Walker
We recommend that you don't leave your dog alone for more than four hours. However, if your dog struggles with being alone they may start feeling anxious within minutes of you leaving. Using a dog sitting service means that someone can keep your dog company and take them for a walk while you're out so that they are not left alone. This is a good way of easing the stress they may feel when you're not there.