With vaccinations rolling out by the millions many of us may start leaving the house for longer periods of time or, even planning a wonderful vacation (can you imagine?). However, this brings up a serious subject - Separation Anxiety in dogs! While am delighted that so many people have brought new dogs into their homes during the pandemic, I also understand that some of these dogs haven't really had to be alone much. This may come as a BIG surprise to all when the time comes. Helping your dog with separation anxiety before it starts is the best approach. Or, if you have a dog with separation anxiety, here are some tips to help.
Before you leave your dog consider:
1. Crate/Pen training: If your dog is young or untrustworthy when left unattended (not fully house trained, destructive, anxious) you should consider implementing a crate or pen training program for them. Crate training is a great way to keep your puppy or adult safe from harm. Crate training can also help with the potty training process BUT they need to be conditioned to stay in a crate (or pen) first in order to avoid or treat Separation Anxiety. I have provided two crate training links below to give you some ideas on how to start and complete the process of crate training.
NOTE: Separation Anxiety can be complex and the term is general - if your dog already has it, please seek the help of a Positive Reinforcement or Force Free trainer before attempting crate training. Confinement training is not for every dog and it's important to understand (and honor) those dogs that do not fair well in confinement.
2. Desensitize your dog to "triggers". Your dog will find that the tasks of you putting on your shoes or jacket or grabbing your keys or purse signals you are leaving the house. Over time, these tasks could become "triggers" to your dog. For some dogs these triggers don't mean much but to others it could begin a stressful sequence. I recommend you take a few moments each day to practice these tasks without actually leaving the house. Next, leave and come back quickly (grab your keys or purse to take out the trash for example). Find ways to practice desensitizing your dog to the tasks that normally mean you are leaving the house for some time. (This will not necessarily solve a true separation anxiety problem, but there is certainly benefits to being proactive). Any time we can take a few moments to work on something before it's an issue is time well spent.
3. Music/Television. If you do need to leave, start putting on some music or television for your dog (again, try not to turn this into a "trigger" by also doing these things when you aren't leaving or a few minutes before you actually leave). Sound helps to break up the silence of your absence.
4. Keep your comings and goings boring. It's fine to say goodbye to your dog but don't make a big deal of it. When you come back home, keep it BORING. Keep your excitement inside and greet your dog casually. We want our dogs to feel safe and calm when we come and go, they are already excited so it's best not to add to it.
4. Puzzle feeder/Kong. It's often advised to leave your dog with a food feeder to keep them busy when you leave. This may work well for some dogs and that is great, but, for others it can begin to represent time alone and they may not touch it. Start offering your dog such things now, have them enjoy it in your presence and try leaving the room momentarily to see if they continue eating or stop to look for you. This can be a subtle indicator of trouble to come (but don't panic, it doesn't mean you will have a big problem). Although there are some dogs that simply don't eat unless their human is around but they don't have separation anxiety so it's best to be understand and be aware of our own dog's preferences.
5. Video. Setting up a video (or old phone) can help you to see how your dog feels when you leave. Do they pace? whine? stare out the window? scratch at the door? It's a good idea to find out how your dog feels when you leave. A video camera will help you to check to see how long the reactions are so you can work backwards from the time they remained comfortable. I like this one from Amazon. It's affordable, has two way audio and you can rotate it from your phone to see where your dog is in the room! Video camera for pets:
Here are some FREE crate (or confinement) training videos and tips to help you transition your dog to spending time alone. You can apply the same methods to leaving your dog in a room, a pen or in general, alone in the house.
Video One (first steps): https://vimeo.com/466376781/132b8363c9
Video Two (extended crate time): https://vimeo.com/466376720/7b5f074444
It's important to learn how your dog feels about you leaving - even if it's just the room. If their reaction is subtle, practice leaving in very short bursts of time, only building up when your dog is comfortable. If it's extreme start proactive training now!
Christine Durrant, Professional Dog Trainer and Pet Care Consultant