How to help dogs suffering from separation anxiety

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As we see an increase in dogs suffering from separation anxiety it can be a very tough issue to deal with and there is no one simple solution to solve this for every dog.

There are many reasons why dogs become anxious when left alone, and it is important that you understand the underlying reasons for this ie: Are they left alone too long each day? Do they not have enough environmental enrichment when left alone to keep them mentally and physically stimulated,? Are they getting the exercise and socialisation they require each day? Are there ‘triggers’ that they fear that create the anxiety? Do they have a genetic disposition or some puppyhood trauma that has led to anxiety?

Whilst there are many treatments for the varying causes of anxiety that need to be identified then appropriate treatments applied, one technique that anyone with an anxious dog should start with before walking out the door, is to change up the departure routine each day to help reduce the build up of anxiety and create a calmer departure, so that in the long term, we are helping dogs suffering from separation anxiety to cope better when you leave.

Change your departure routine

From the moment you wake up your dog is watching you and is already anticipating your next move, working themselves up into a state of anxiety before you have even left the house. As creatures of habits, we tend to have the same routine day in day out as we get up and get ready to head out to work.

So, one way to help desensitise them to your departure, is to stop being a creature of habit and start changing how you do things… and not becoming complacent about it after a while.

For example, your usual routine may be to get up, put the kettle on, have a shower, get dressed, grab car keys and bag and depart. Instead, break this up by going outside, or out to your car with your keys and bag, and then come back in, sit down on the couch, turn the TV on and then head out again, only to come back inside to have your shower.  Then go outside and come back in again, and do something else before quietly departing for the final time with little fuss.

Do it a different way around the next day and so on, so that your dog doesn’t get to know your every move and avoids working themselves into an anxious state as they anticipate you get closer to leaving (due to knowing your set routine).  If you go outside with the items that normally signal you are leaving for the final time, but then come back in and sit down, you can really start to leave them guessing as to whether or not the exit really is final, or for how long.

We want them to start thinking that you could come back at any time and not setting them off with cues or ‘triggers’ that they association with you leaving for a long day out of the house.   If you have the same routine then pick up your bag and keys every time you disappear from their life for a long period, these become ‘triggers’.   It works similarly for other cues such as shopping bags (you might have a dog that doesn’t get too bothered when you head out with your grocery bag if it is usually a short half hour trip every time, versus how many dogs react when they see an owner start packing a suitcase when they associate that with you disappearing from their life for days or weeks on end).  By shaking things up with those ‘triggers’, and not having them always signal a long departure, you can start to desensitise them to those ‘cues’.

This is also why I suggest if you are going away without them that you pack your suitcase when they are not around, especially if they have learned that the suitcase is a cue for you going away and leaving them at home, or at a boarding kennel, in the past.  (Here are some more tips on preparing your dog for a boarding kennel too).

Take them out for a walk before you leave, or find a friend

Ideally you would also fit in a walk before you go to work each day, even if it is just a 5 minute one so they can get out and have a sniff around outside. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for a dog to get out and smell the world around them every day.   A good 30 minute walk when you get home from work is great, but if you can set their day up well by giving them at least a little time to get outside and communicate with the word before being locked inside or in the yard all day, it can really help their mental and physical well-being.

Talk to friends or neighbours to see if you can drop them off for play dates on some days with dogs they like, share the load with friends or get a doggy walker to come in as well on some days. It’s about keeping their brains and bodies active during the day (as in the wild they would be out roaming hunting for food all day) to stave off anxiety and boredom and prevent problem behaviour such as barking, digging, chewing.   You may be surprised how many friends may love to take turns with you hosting the dogs to have play dates – it can help you both!.

This does take a lot of time and patience, but it is worth a try.

Don’t make a fuss

It is also really important that you don’t make a big fuss before you go or when you get home. Of course, don’t startle them by disappearing suddenly, but just go in and out a bit with a calm, “good dog” reinforcement when they are acting calm or disinterested, (which they will if you start to bore them with all your comings and goings).  Then when you start going out for longer periods of time they will  hopefully start getting used to you coming and going and not be as fussed.

You also need to build confidence in your dog and be a calm and assured leader, so that they know you are safe out in the big bad world without their protection, and that they are safe in the house or backyard.   It’s also important that you are not reinforcing the anxiety in your dog across the board.

Most of all it is vital that they are kept mentally and physically active when you are out using interactive toys, adequate exercise and providing them with a warm, safe spot to sleep and keep out of the sun or rain.

If your dog is suffering from severe separation anxiety then it is strongly recommended to talk to your Vet and seek the help of a qualified and experienced, positive dog trainer with the NDTF.

About the Author: Lara Shannon is co-Host of Pooches at Play and has completed a Certificate III in Dog Behaviour & Training with the National Dog Trainers Federation. Lara also runs her own dog training, minding and walking business in Melbourne’s Bayside area.

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