Last updated: 16 Nov, 2020
Published on: 5 Nov, 2020
Separation anxiety training tips for your dog
Dogs struggling with being on their own for long stretches of the day is not a new phenomenon, but the Covid-era has certainly caused a unique change in the lives of many dogs and their carers.
While many dogs love the opportunity to have their humans at home for extended periods, the transition back to ‘normal’ life is creating challenges even for pet owners who have never known their dogs to have trouble with separation.
Dogs are creatures of habit. They like structure, stability, routine. Even the changes that caused people to be at home with their pets during lockdown caused disruption to their lives, though you were generally there to bring them comfort and assurance when they were struggling. Now, as we come out the other end and start going back to work or study for long periods, our dogs lose their sense of security and certainty once more, but this time without us at home to reassure them.
This is especially hard on dogs or puppies that were adopted recently. All they have ever known is someone being home with them for most of the day. They’re accustomed to having you nearby, receiving regular “procrasti-pats”, and maybe even extra treats throughout the day. The transition away from the only life they’ve known to one where they spend nine hours alone each day trying to fill in the time is an extremely challenging time.
While ‘separation anxiety’ in its purest sense is a formal condition that needs an experienced expert to diagnose, there is little doubt that these pets are suffering from anxiety about separation. Many pet owners might notice the struggle – dogs might be more clingy when you’re home, or more destructive or noisy when you aren’t. Some dogs will display their distress loudly and visibly when you’re leaving home, while others may become distressed with the passing hours, and instead, you may return to an anxious, wound up pup (and potentially the odd accident behind the sofa). So how can we protect our dogs from the inevitable impact of the post-lockdown lifestyle?
Firstly, we need to acknowledge that it’s an issue. Be sensitive to how hard Covid has been on all of us, and remember that your dog’s life has changed too – being aware of it is the most important way to make sure you’re best set up to help. If you think your pup is struggling, here are some ideas for practical solutions to reduce the issue:
Barley, available for adoption via Dog Rescue Newcastle
Set them up for success
Ideally, start planning for your return to the office in advance. Even in strict lockdown, try to ensure your dog has time alone and separate from you. For example, you can leave them behind on trips to the shops. Or even take a drive and park around the corner for half an hour if this is the only option to give them time alone every day. It’s also helpful to ensure they have time separated from you while you are in the house – like using a baby gate to keep them in another room during parts of the day, or simply close the door to the home office. If possible, build up the amount of time that they don’t have access to you and only reward them (by letting them in the room, or going to them) when they’re calm and settled elsewhere i.e. not while they’re whining at the door!
Zaidy, available for adoption via All 4 Paws Dog Rescue Inc
Slow the transition
If possible, return to ‘normal’ slowly. In an ideal situation, your workplace might allow you to build back up to being in the office full time so you can take the time to let your dog adjust. But even if this isn’t possible, you can still do some separation training in the days before your return to work. Consider getting a dog walker for a few weeks while you transition back, then slowly wean it down. This breaks up their day and helps ensure they’re tired enough to sleep rather than fret. You can ask a neighbour who is still working from home if they may be able to pop over for a visit at midday, or a relative who would like some company might be keen for a dog to walk. But even if you have to pay a professional, this is a small investment that could help with future behaviour interventions (or destroyed furniture).
Dixie, available for adoption via Paterson Valley Dog Rescue
As with almost all methods of dog training, getting a dog accustomed to being alone is about slowly building up to it. Start by leaving the house for 60 seconds. Wait until the dog is calm and quiet inside the door, then return. If that’s easy for your pup, wait a while and then try again for a bit longer. They may whine or be upset for a few minutes, but the trick is to wait until they settle, then return a short while after. Many dogs only take a couple of incremental steps over a few days to learn that you always come back eventually, but very anxious dogs that have become very accustomed to you being home may take many weeks of this. Try not to go too quickly or you’ll set them backwards.
Be sure to distract your dog when you leave the house. This will often involve food (for long departures), something that takes them a while is best, but for the sake of training you can simply scatter a handful of kibble on the floor (well away from the door), but other dogs may be better distracted by enriching toys or games. Be calm and quiet when you leave the house, and minimise ‘fuss’. When you return to the house, even if it’s after 60 seconds or a whole day, be sure not to make a fuss. Enter calmly and quietly, and do not look at or touch the dog while they are excited. If they jump up or are otherwise all over you, simply look straight ahead and continue walking past them without a word. Only when they stop being silly and start behaving calmly should you look at them with a calm, quiet word of reward and give them a calm pat.
Avoid making a big deal of coming or going. We want them to think that you leaving is no big deal (and in fact, that there are better things back in their bowl waiting for them) and that your return is a little bit boring. While it is nice for us to have them so happy to see us when we return, it’s often a sign that they’ve spent the last few hours anxiously awaiting this moment.
Izzy, available for adoption via Paws a Moment and Rescue
Our dogs are usually very switched on to signs we might be leaving the house. Picking up the keys, putting on your shoes, locking the back door are all giveaway moments that cause many dogs to start to panic. Even if your dog doesn’t become hysterical when this happens if you look closely it’s likely you’ll notice that they do become tense, or hypervigilant, or they may cling close to your side.
It is helpful to reduce the associations with these things. Be sure to pick up the keys at random intervals through the day, walk towards the door, then sit back down and don’t leave the house.
Notice when your pup’s body language relaxes again (it may take a minute, it may take 10), then get up and go and calmly reward them. Do the same with closing the back door, or putting on your shoes. Any behaviours that your dog usually associates with you leaving them, find ways to normalise those experiences into a calm day.
Boss, available for adoption via RSPCA SA
It’s vital to ensure that in the absence of your presence, they are enriched in some other way. Firstly, try to take them for a long walk in the mornings. Being physically tired will reduce anxious energy, plus sleeping off the walk helps make their day alone shorter.
When you leave, ensure there is ample enrichment at home. It is important to remember that not all dogs are the same – find enrichment that engages and thoroughly distracts your own dog. Switch it up – any game or toy too often gets boring. Alternate days that chew options, treat options, toys or games are the primary method of helping the day pass.
Jedi, adopted via Desperate For Love Dog Pound Rescue
If none of this is helping and your dog clearly is still struggling with being at home alone, it is best to seek professional advice. Ask for help early, since the longer these behaviours continue the harder they will be to resolve. With a good trainer and consistent approach, many dogs can acclimatise to the new normal within a matter of weeks. However, genuine separation anxiety can be a long term challenge for many pets and owners and you are going to want an experienced, compassionate behaviour expert on your side.
Just remember to choose a trainer that believes only in compassionate and positive training methods. If a trainer starts talking about “dominance” or “being the alpha”, it is almost certain that they are working from old-school methods and outdated knowledge about dog behaviour.
Treating anxieties with punishment is no better for dogs than it is for children; selecting the right trainer is essential in genuinely helping your dog.
Banner image: Chloe, available for adoption via CK Rescue
This article is a guest contribution by Dr Jessica Moore-Jones. Jessica was a veterinarian who found herself Senior Advisor to the largest Animal Management unit in the southern hemisphere. Since then, she has been Executive Manager and CEO of multiple animal welfare organisations in Australia and overseas, has advised governments on policy and legislation, was a finalist in the Not-for-Profit Leader of the Year Awards, and now runs Unleashed Coaching and Consulting – helping other animal organisations to strategically balance financial sustainability with community outcomes.