By Daniel Stevens and Martin Olliver
You can find everything from doggy psychiatrists to aroma therapy for treating separation anxiety in dogs. And, as per our pill-popping culture, there are of course medications you can ask your vet about. But this option is not advisable, at least not before a concerted effort has been made to address the behavior through training.
Training involves a combination of methods, including: 1) desensitizing your departure cues, 2) toning down your departures and arrivals, and 3) staging a series of absences that gradually increase the duration they are left alone.
Crate training also plays an important part in addressing your dog’s separation anxiety, and helps to keep your house safe in the meantime. However, what it might not do is keep your dog safe from itself, since severely anxious animals can rub their nose raw or tear up their paws on the crate door. You’ll have to follow a gradual training regime to introduce this method without making things worse.
Your anxious dog will sense any act or routine you initiate as you prepare to leave. Putting on shoes and picking up keys are the most common examples. These actions are like triggers for your dog’s uneasiness.
It has been shown to help your dog adjust to absences when these cues are “desensitized” – that is, you can break the association with these actions with you disappearing for a while. This is easy. Simply go through the motions of putting on your shoes, picking up keys (or whatever it is that clues in your dog to your departure) without actually leaving. The repetitive act, newly coupled with the outcome of ‘owner not leaving,’ will calm your dog and eventually allow them to pay less attention to these routines when they do mean you have to leave for real.
Obviously, everyone loves a wildly enthusiastic welcoming committee every time you walk in the door. But with a dog with separation issues, your ecstatically happy reunion repeatedly sends the message that, yes, this is a HUGE deal, huge enough to feel like it’s been years since you saw each other last, and could be years until you see each other next!
Extra happy returns will not cure separation anxiety; rather, they will make it worse. You need to resist the urge, and it is even advisable to ignore overexcited pets for a few minutes until they regain some degree of composure.
I trained one dog with a jumping problem and a mild case of separation anxiety. After we let him blow off a bit of steam and do a few cartwheels, he had to sit down before being rewarded with a greeting. Also, the owner would always kneel down to greet his friend, which not only helped with the jumping, but also allowed the exchange to take place in a more controlled and civil manner, and ‘on the dog’s level.’
Conditioning your dog to be alone, and to be comfortable without you, is the goal. It is necessary to budget time to undertake this training process. You will have to stage exits. That is, practice leaving him first, confined to another room in your house for a few minutes with you at home; next, getting used to very short exits and entrances – as short as a minute or two at first; then finally for incrementally longer absences.
You will NOT be able to leave your dog alone for longer than you have successfully “staged” with practice. Try crate training or arrange for a dog sitter in the meantime to make sure you are not taking two steps back with every step forward.
TIP: I’ve had success in some cases standing just outside the door after I’ve departed, then, upon hearing the anxious behavior – whining, crying, or scratching the door itself – I gently talk to the dog and let them know that what they’re doing is inappropriate. It not only corrects the behavior on the spot, but helps them understand that you don’t vanish when you walk out the door.
Finally, in the long run, time IS on your side. Dogs will learn that you’re always coming back, whether you’re leaving them in the car or a few minutes while running an errand, or in the house for an afternoon. They will grow in confidence as they grow in maturity.
In the meantime, some things to do and keep doing:
I wish you and your dog the happiness of many (un-anxious) departures and (low-key) returns in the future!
Daniel Stevens is the renowned dog trainer and author of Secrets to Dog Training: STOP Dog Behavior Problems!, one of the leading dog training guides on the market today selling over 25,743 copies (and counting). He currently heads the Kingdom of Pets dog training team.
Martin Olliver has over 12 years experience in dog training and is a proud member of the Kingdom of Pets team. He is the author of the newly released Ultimate Guide to House Training.
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