Separation Anxiety

Abrupt changes have a bad effect on pets. Prepare now to avoid anxiety later.

1. What is separation anxiety

Do you have a "velcro" dog? Your dog follows you around everywhere in the house, bathroom included... When family members leave, do you notice: whining, scratching at the door or other damage usually near doors or windows? Or perhaps pacing, panting, trying to escape, barking/howling? Suddenly having accidents in the house? If yes, something is amiss. Your pet is confused about the change of being left alone. These are the basic steps to help your pet:

Treating Separation Anxiety:

  • Do not make a big deal out of arrivals and departures. Ignore your pet until he/she is calm.
  • Look into using a dog appeasing pheromone or pet calming sprays. These products are also available for cats.
  • Make sure your dog is getting enough exercise. Schedule a mid-day walk to break the day. A tired dog is a good dog.
  • Use high value treats that encourage chewing or licking for at least 20 minutes. A kong with a lick of peanut butter and frozen works for many dogs. Make sure you have the correct size kong for your dog.

2. Going back to work

If you know you will be going back to work, help your dog transition so it is not a sudden event going from a full house to a quiet house where your dog is all alone for several hours. If there is no other way and there is a sudden change, then do this:

  • Leave your dog in a secure spot where he / she cannot get into trouble and be destructive.
  • If your dog is crate trained that may be a safe place. Leave kong and treats
  • Hire a dog walker once but preferably twice a day.

The best thing is to help your dog over a duration of several weeks in preparation before then. Leave your dog alone for short and then longer times. Build in nap time or down time in a separate room.

3. Confidence Building

Daily training sessions will help to build your dog's confidence. Have at least one or two five-minute training sessions every day where you work on basic commands (sit, down, come, stay) and/or tricks (spin, shake, speak, roll-over). Remember - training should ALWAYS be positive, especially with anxious dogs. Use food treats as rewards (not as bribes). Performing behaviors on cue for food treats is a great way to build self-confidence in your dog.

Afterwards, build in some down time or nap time. Physical exercise can be as challenging as mental exercise. When your dog behaves well (meaning is calm and not pushy or whining for attention), make a point of going over and rewarding your dog for this wonderful calm behavior.

If your dog is not calm and is whining for attention, it means you need more practice in confidence building. Rome was also not built in one day: take a break and try again later or the following day. Never get frustrated or angry about it around your dog. It will not have the desired effect at all, so let it go and try again another time. Remember to resist giving your dog attention whenever he/she demands it. Ignore you dog when he/she comes to you and nudges your hand to be petted. Give attention on your terms, not your dog's.

4. Comfort Place

Your dog needs to have a place to go when you leave where he/she feels safe and secure. This could be a crate, a dog bed, or den-like room with a gate or closed door.

Start teaching your dog a "go to your bed" or "Place" command and praise + reward you dog when he/she does. Give your dog lots of attention and love when he/she is lying in his/her bed or place. In fact, you should make this the only place where your dog gets this kind of attention (at least while going through this program). Your dog will soon find it very reassuring to be in that place.

To have such a safe place in the house is soothing on a dog's mind. Especially if your dog has free roam of the house. Please keep in mind though that a dog has a different take on freedom than humans. When you give your dog a large space or free roam of the house, you are actually giving your dog a large space to look after while you are gone. Perhaps too large? Some dogs can handle it. Others get very nervous and will run from window to window, door to door to make sure no intruders are approaching. Poor mailman! He gets barked at so many times. For a nervous and anxious dog, the mailman is an intruder. The dog panics, gets upset and keeps running and barking. For these dogs the job to guard the house while you are out or to protect you while you are home is not a small thing. It is a responsibility that makes their mind anxious.

In other words, what you see as more freedom for your dog actually has the opposite effect on your dog's mind. They find it terrifying to be a/ left alone and b/ a huge space to look after. To give a dog a smaller space to look after is more comforting. That's why leaving your dog inside a crate is fine as long as the dog knows it as his/her place.

5. Independence Training

Confidence building also means teaching your dog to be more independent. Dogs with separation anxiety are often referred to as "velcro dogs" because they follow their owners everywhere. The first step is to break this bond a bit. This is hard for some people to do, but remember, you are trying to reduce the anxiety your dog feels when he/she is left alone and this is the first step. You cannot expect your dog to be able to feel okay about being left alone in the house if he/she can't even be alone in another room when you are home. Discourage your dog from following you around the house by teaching her a solid down/stay and making her stay in one room while you are in another. That room can be the dog's safe or comfort place as we previously discussed. 

To teach a solid down/stay you must start slowly. Practice for 15 min daily. It's actually fun. I do recommend using your dog's kibble or tiny treats. You begin by putting your dog in a 'down' and then start slowly increasing the time. Tell your dog to stay there before you give a treat. In the beginning, that means just stepping back one or two steps.

Gradually increase the distance until you are out of sight. Just like with distance you increase the time in down gradually. Add time in seconds, not minutes. Let your dog be in a down/ stay for 2 or 3 seconds and build up before you add distance. Once your dog can stay in a down for 30 seconds, start adding distance. Move one step away, then two etc. Each time they stay when you have stepped back, say "Good boy!" or "Good girl!" and step forward to offer a reward. Eventually you will be able to leave the room. The key is to return BEFORE your dog gets upset or walks towards you instead of staying put. That's why we first gradually work on seconds and then start adding distance.

Important: If your dog gets upset and you return to him/her and say "it's okay", then you are reinforcing anxious behavior. If your dog gets upset or gets up and walks away at 10 steps back, ignore and simply go back to nine steps away for a few more trials.

6. Alone Time

Put your dog in a room or crate (only if your dog loves the crate as a comfort place), shut the door, and leave the room for short bits of time. Slowly increase the time you are out of the room, starting with a few seconds and building up to 15-30 minutes.

Give a stuffed Kong toy, or other chewy that takes time to consume, before you leave.

If you give treats regularly when you are home, you want to scale back on this. Use treats and the kong for the exercises. Later, you will be giving this treat or the kong when you leave for real, but for now ONLY give it to your dog during the exercises or he/she will start to associate it with his/ her anxiety. Meaning if you only give the treat or the kong toy when you leave, then your dog will associate the kong with being alone = I am scared. Just like dogs will associate you picking up your keys at the door as "she is going to leave me, help, no, I am scared." If we can get your dog to start enjoying the stuffed toy, treat or kong when you leave, he/she will be less anxious while you are gone.

7. Low-Key Departures and Arrivals

Usually when people have a dog with separation anxiety they often make a big deal before they leave the house. Maybe you recognize this: "don't worry fluffy, mommy will be home soon", kiss and hug, another series of petting... Then when you return you again make a big deal coming home with exclaiming a warm welcome with lots of hugs and kisses again. This does not help your dog with his/her anxiety, in fact it is feeding into it. When you do these things you are creating a huge disparity between the time you are home and the time you are away. Therefore I recommend that you do not have long good-byes or greetings. Keep them calm, controlled and short. In fact, it would help your dog if you ignore him/her for 15 minutes before you leave and for 15 minutes after you get home. It sounds cold but while your dog is adjusting to the new ways, it is tough love which will make a difference longterm.

It is also advisable that you learn the signs of your dog's anxiety (whining, trembling, not eating, panting, pacing, ears back etc.). They usually begin before you actually leave the house. As cold as it seems, resist reassuring your dog before you leave.

8. Habituate to departure cues

The following is another good exercise to help establish low-key departures or arrivals. List all the things you do preparing to leave the house that make your dog anxious. Examples include: picking up your purse, briefcase and/or keys, putting on your coat or taking lunch out of the fridge. Begin to perform these tasks in repetitions of 5, several times a day but without leaving the house. Work on one at a time and when your dog no longer reacts to the task, move on to the next one that triggers anxious behavior.

9. Counter-conditioning and Desensitizing to your absence

After you can leave the room for 10-15 minutes and your dog does not become upset, begin leaving the house. Again, go slowly. Leave by a different door if possible during training and desensitization. Tell your dog "go to your bed" or "Place", give her the food stuffed toy/ kong/treat, and walk out. Close the door and walk to your car or down the walkway. Come back after 3 or 5 seconds (before your dog starts to get upset), take the toy away, and go about your business (don't say a word). You can also turn on a radio or TV before you leave. This will become another sign that you will not be gone long.

Start to stay away for longer periods of time. Leave for one minute and come back, and then two minutes, etc., then longer and longer. Use a variable schedule for how long you stay away - 1, 2, 5, 11, 7, 2, 12, 1, 14 minutes - so that your dog will never be able to predict when you will return.

Once you can go outside and stay there for 5-10 minutes you will have to start adding other cues, like the car. Start by simply opening and closing the car door, before you return to the house. Do this several times. Next start the car, then pull out of driveway, then go around block, etc. Go slowly. Do each step until you know your dog is not getting upset. Use a video or audio tape if you have one so you will be able to see your dog's reaction inside. If he/she ever becomes upset at a certain time away, simply back up and stay away for a shorter time period.

When you have gotten to the point that you can be away for 30 minutes and your dog is no longer getting upset, you should be okay. At this point you should leave your dog with the stuffed Kong and the radio or TV on for all real absences.

Conclusion

Depending on how severe your dog's anxiety is it could take a month or longer to curb the anxiety. Separation anxiety is a serious and unfortunately common behavior issue that cannot be fixed overnight. This is why we want you to take care and observe how your dog behaves when left alone. During COVID-19, your dog has become accustomed to you and your family members being home most of the time. If you are preparing to go back to work and school, the time is now to do some exercises and find out how your dog will react to that change. Even if it is a slight form of anxiety, do some of the exercises mentioned above and nip it in the butt. If you ignore the issue it will only get worse.

As a professional dog walking company we know first hand how upset dogs can be when their family leaves them home alone for the first time during a trip or to return to school/work. A midday dog walk definitely helps but is not the only fix. Make sure your dogs are in a safe room where they cannot hurt themselves, chew up a whole couch, scratch doors or eat through walls. That sounds extreme? Think again...

If the exercises above sound too much for your family to handle or when your dog's anxiety is severe, please hire a certified dog trainer and consult with your veterinarian.

Next time you see a funny meme or an online photo of dog destructive behavior, remember it may seem funny now, but a lot of anxiety and danger is involved in the making of that photo. The one below is staged so I am happy to share:

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