In this blog, we will delve into a particular kind of fear in our dogs: separation anxiety. Sometimes our dog or puppy might develop distress at being separated from a beloved pawrent, or they might arrive with us already exhibiting separation anxiety. Separation anxiety manifests itself as a fear of being left alone and often your dog may exhibit this by engaging in destructive behaviours while you’re out, having accidents in the house, or howling and crying until you return. Before attempting to train this away, it’s key to remember two things.
- Reluctance to introduce or encourage separation anxiety shouldn't prevent you building a strong bond with your dog or puppy. In fact, creating a close relationship based on trust and loyalty will develop your dog's confidence. Don't worry, letting your furry friend share your bed or your furniture isn't going to make their separation anxiety worse! For some dogs, separation-related behaviours are caused by boredom, which means that meeting your hound’s mental, physical and social needs is the first step in tackling separation anxiety. If your dog is physically and mentally tired out from walks, training sessions, or food foraging, he or she is more likely to relax and sleep in your absence. And if they know that they have your full attention while you’re present, they are less likely to try to get that attention by chewing your slippers while you’re at the pub! Focussing on giving your dog the waggiest possible life means strengthening, not weakening, your bond, and this reduces the frustration that often leads to separation anxiety.
- For dogs that have been abandoned or left alone for long periods in the past, separation-related behaviours are much deeper rooted. But regardless of the cause, separation anxiety is a genuine fear response for your dog and they are experiencing real panic. Deliberately leaving them alone for long periods to ‘get them used to it’ is not being cruel to be kind: it’s simply being cruel and will likely worsen their anxiety disorder. If you can, temporarily suspend absences from your dog while you train them, calling on friends and family to help you (just as you would with a new baby!) This point applies even more for puppies: forcing them to be alone in a crate for long periods of time early on will only create trauma and potential future separation anxiety. The key takeaway? Do not leave your dog alone before they’re ready!
Alone Time Work
Instead, you need to show your dog that while you might have to leave them occasionally, you will always come back. That means practising ‘alone time’: leaving the house or a room for very short periods of time and gradually building this up. This is what dog trainers call absence desensitization. Your aim is to be able to leave your dog alone for a time that doesn’t trigger a panic response. Initially, this might mean a 30-60 second trip to the bathroom while they enjoy a dental chew. Very slowly, you might build up to actually leaving the house to go to the garage for five minutes. Then a short drive to the shops for half an hour. Eventually your dog will trust that even if you leave for several hours, you will always return! It’s hugely important that you do not allow your dog to experience anxiety: if they’re crying out or demonstrating fearful body language, it’s crucial that you return to them as quickly as possible.
Note that for some dogs, anticipatory separation anxiety may be triggered before you even leave them, as they notice signals like you putting on your shoes or coat or picking up your keys. In this case, incorporate this into your training so these actions don’t trigger alarm bells for your pup. You might start by putting your coat and shoes on but not actually leaving the house, desensitising your dog to actions that usually prompt anxiety. Once they’re comfortable with these ‘leaving signals’, you can build up actual alone time work.
A Safe Space For Your Dog
When you begin to leave your dog for longer periods, it’s a really good idea to set up a camera so you can a) notice if their anxiety is kicking in and return to them promptly and b) find out if there are any specific triggers that may be making your dog more anxious. So, if the sound or sight of people passing the house is frightening your dog, you can consider leaving them in a different room where they can’t see or hear the street. If your dog already has a ‘safe space’ in your house, this is obviously a good place to settle them when you’re out. If not, work on creating this safe space slowly, choosing a quiet, enclosed area of your house where they nap easily and reinforcing their presence in that space with tasty treats, toys and cosy blankets. When you begin to leave them alone in this space, make sure they have toys and/or a puzzle feeder to keep them occupied and mentally stimulated.
Offer Reassurance, Not Punishment
Never punish your dog for their separation anxiety. When your dog behaves in an anxious way, whether that be having an accident in the house or chewing your furniture, they’re asking you for help. If you punish them for this, they will only become more frustrated, and you will become another source of fear, rather than reassurance. Separation anxiety might be a challenge, but the last thing you want is for your dog to become anxious about you coming home! Instead, be your dog’s ally and address their anxiety together.
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