I wish I could take Ben everywhere with me. I often joke that I would love to leave a mobile phone with him so he and I could text each other, just to make sure he is OK. Crazy. The fact is that there will be times where you have to leave your dog home alone. How do we get them to cope without us? How do we cope without them?
Our dogs do miss us when we are gone, some crying or edginess before you leave is perfectly normal for any dog. However, separations become problems when your dog is harming themselves, destroying the house and yard, or the neighbours are complaining.
Some dogs harm themselves through the process of trying to escape the yard or to get ‘closer’ to you. Often their paws will be bloody or they will engage in repetitious behaviour such as licking until they have licked themselves raw.
When I mention the destruction of the house, I am not talking about the odd plant that has been chewed or a few holes dug. Concerning behaviour includes the destruction of the structure of your home or yard in an attempt to ease suffering. Often side gates or back doors tend to be the targets, as these are often the final barrier between you and your dog.
Dogs bark, but vocalisation as a result of separation is often howling combined with crying noises. It is often accompanied by the above behaviours too. This vocalisation may start as soon as you leave and continue for some time after you have gone. It tends to decrease as the day goes on, but makes a resurgence before you come home. Dogs are very good at predicting events, and will often know when you are due home.
Quite often the above behaviours can present themselves whenever your dog is stressed. However, you will know that it is a separation issue if these behaviours are occurring when you leave home.
These behaviours serve as a reinforcer for your dog, they help distract your dog and may make them feel better. We all have a little repertoire we go through to help us through a stressful situation. For some people, it can include behaviours like nail-biting or toe-tapping. It’s when these behaviours are destructive and are impacting on everyone’s quality of life that they become a problem.
If your dog suffers from separation anxiety there are few things you can do to ease the suffering. Perhaps the quickest way to solving this problem is to install a dog door so that your dog can come and go as they please. In my experience dogs are far happier when they are inside surrounded by familiar smells. If your dog is not trained to be in the house you should create a safe indoor space for them to live while you are gone that can be accessed via the dog door.
When you are at home crate train your dog, or restrict access to parts of the house. This will help your dog to get used to being alone every now and again while you are just in another room or coming and going from the room.
Do not make a big deal about leaving or coming home. Keep things really low key and relaxed. If you are stressed your dog will pick up on it and react.
A tired dog is a happy dog, if you can exercise your dog before you leave for the day they will feel better. The exercise you give them should be enjoyable and relaxing. Some dogs become even more ‘hyper’ after an off lead run or chasing the ball, and these dogs may be better off having a slow, relaxing, on lead walk, around the block to scratch and sniff.
You can employ a dog walker to come in and walk your dog during the day to break up the long hours alone. Doggie daycare is another option, but be warned, some dogs will find the constant busyness of these places very stressful.
Another wonderful thing you can do for your dog is to enrich their environment with lots of edible chews and stuffable chew toys to distract them from your departure and keep them relaxed. If your dog is so stressed that they will not eat, and a dog door is not helping, your other option is the slow journey of counter conditioning- teaching your dog a new way to behave by changing their feelings towards being alone.
counter conditioning is the process where you change the way your dog has been behaving. It can be a slow process because your dog has already learned one way of behaving, and now it needs to be changed, for whatever reason.
It is not easy to convince a dog that what they have been doing needs to be changed, because on some level the behaviour has been working for them, otherwise they would not have continued with it. Dogs only continue to do what works for them.
Counter conditioning for separation anxiety involves changing the way your dog behaves (through building positive associations) when you leave the house. Your dog can then start to cope with the little steps towards being left alone. Often, in cases of separation anxiety, any sign of your imminent departure will start to affect your dog, even before you have left the house.
You can start this process by observing your dog for a week. Become familiar with canine body language so you can identify signs of stress in your dog. You will find a pattern of when your dog starts to show signs of stress before you leave the house. Dogs are very good at understanding routine, if you brush your teeth, put your shoes on, and leave, they may start to stress while you are brushing your teeth.
After observing your dog for stress signs, you will need to take some time off work or school. A full day alone should be worked up to slowly.
Over a few days, as long as you are running through your departure stages and do not leave, you will notice your dog relaxing. Through this process you should reinforce your dog if you notice any signs of happy behaviour in your dog- a tail wag, laying down, slow relaxed breathing, taking and eating treats etc. This will create a positive association with your departure routine. You are starting to change the way your dog behaves through counter conditioning.
The hallmark, and perhaps the biggest problem, with treating dogs with separation anxiety, is that they will not be occupied with any food or toys because they are too stressed. By slowing going through the above process of counter conditioning, you will be able to get to a point where your dog will occupy themselves with an edible chew- hooray! This is a huge step because once you get to this point, you can use food to occupy your dog while you are gone for increasing amounts of time.
Your dog needs to feel comfortable at the above stages before progressing to you actually leaving. The next step would be to run through your departure routine and leave the house (don’t forget to leave your dog with an edible treat). Perhaps you can simply go out and check the mailbox and work up from there, with such exercises as- walking to the end of your street, then around the block, then leaving with the car for a minute etc. Your goal is to work up to a full day, or however long you will usually be gone for.
Here are some things, seemly unrelated, that work well in conjunction with a counter-conditioning program for separation anxiety….
In some instances, perhaps the most extreme cases, at the beginning of your counter-conditioning program you may like to see your vet for some medication or calming pheromones (as a plug into an electrical socket). You can use these with the long term view of eliminating the need for these interventions as you progress.
I would also encourage you to enrol your dog into basic obedience. Find a trainer that uses reward-based training to shape behaviour. This kind of training will build your dogs’ confidence. When dogs participate in this kind of training they are not punished for trying something that may be wrong. They are rewarded for behaviour that is correct.
This method of training requires your dog to use their brain to solve the problems of which behaviour elicits food, and which behaviour does not. This brain training builds confidence and resilience, something that is missing in dogs that suffer separation anxiety.
Teaching your dog to ‘stay’ will also reap rewards. This is an obedience exercise that can help with separation issues. It helps your dog learn to be comfortable while you move away, and that you will return. Although, ‘stay’ should only be used to leave your dog for a short amount of time (no more than a couple of minutes), and you should always return and release your dog from the stay position.
Separation anxiety can be extremely disruptive and stressful. This post is intended as a preliminary guide only, and if your dog is suffering please employ the help of a good trainer or behaviourist that uses a gentle training method.