Separation anxiety is a problem that can develop in a young puppy, a rescue dog who may have suffered in its previous home and has now attached itself to a new owner, or even a well-established family pet dog who has become used to always having a human friend around and now, for whatever reason, finds himself left home alone, maybe even only for a short period of time.
This anxiety may present itself in a number of ways, such as constant barking or howling, particularly when his humans have left him alone in the house, but can start to occur when his humans have retired to bed and he has been left alone in his bed area, in say the kitchen or whatever.
It is common for a dog under such stress, to damage the fabric of the room that he has been secured in, particularly in the door and door frame where his humans have made their exit, or it could be that the dog will go to the toilet in this room, and it could be a number of times within the time that he has been left alone.
Dog behaviourist, Mike Mullan, has shared some advice with us to try to help owners prevent the problem developing in the first place. Here are his theories.
My motto is 'prevention is better than the cure', this particularly applies to a new puppy or rescue dog in the home. Firstly, before the dog comes to live with you, you should take a clean piece of bedding or a hand towel over to the present keepers of the dog. This bedding should be placed in the dog’s bed for a twenty-four hour period before you pick him up.
When you collect him you must place this blanket in an airtight plastic bag, this will make sure that it retains the scent of your dog's previous living quarters, and when it is placed on his bed in your home it will give him a sense of security because he will recognise the established smell. If he is a puppy and leaving his litter mates, a hot water bottle should be placed under the blanket as this will replicate their body heat.
When your new dog arrives home with you, walk him around your secure garden then let him follow you around the house. Keep this tour calm and quiet using a soft, quiet voice before you introduce him to his bed and water bowl. Then, take him back out into the garden for not more than five minutes, this will allow him to relieve himself.
Now take him back indoors to the place where his food and water bowls are to be stationed, give him a small meal (this should be the same food that he has been fed on in his previous home). After this routine he will now be tired, encourage him onto his bed using a hand signal and a positive command such as 'bed', he should settle quickly, it is important that you just go and sit quietly a short distance away from him. This will make him feel secure and he will go to sleep.
When he wakes up, take him straight out into the garden and stay out with him for between five to ten minutes. This will allow him to relieve himself again and a routine will be set for you to follow for his initial house training.
Now take him out straight away each and every time he wakes from his sleep and also every two hours in between, and also after he has eaten. During these visits to the garden introduce some fun and games using a solid rubber ball, fun recalls, hide and seek and even a little bit of fun heel work such as walking together for four or five paces, then running backwards calling him in for three or four paces. All of these will act as a foundation to his proper training programme – remember, a trained dog is a happy dog.
Tips for managing Separation Anxiety
For the dog that has developed separation anxiety we need to introduce a programme that will break down the triggers that we have allowed to become established, such as never ever allowing him to be apart from us around the house, or always using absolutely the same routine when we go out leaving him on his own, continually fussing him, treating him like a little human. Or never ever rejecting him when he insists on becoming the centre of attention when we are trying to have a conversation with somebody else or other such times.
We start with the above toileting training scheme. This introduces discipline with a small “d”, it also ensures that he has nothing left in his bladder to use to seek our attention (by leaving little puddles around the floor when we leave him).
Repeat the same routine of getting your dog to his new bed when you first brought him home, we put him on his bed and we sat a short distance away from him. We build on this by keeping quiet for longer periods whilst we do this and over time we move further and further away from him.
As he gets used to this we can then leave the room, initially only for a few seconds but then very gradually build up the time of this action, making sure that we never speak, touch or even look at him. Just treat these actions as normal as you can, then each time you leave and return and sit down or walk about ignoring the dog his confidence will start to grow and he will not be concerned as to whether you are present or not.
Now, let’s look at the procedure that you carry out leaving the dog alone in the house as every part of this is a trigger to your dog and as he watches you preparing to go his confidence will be ebbing away and his anxiety will start building.
So to de-sensitise him we carry out the full procedure of preparing to go out this includes picking up keys and putting on your coat, but instead of going out we go and sit quietly a distance away from him and read a book or a newspaper, ignoring the dog. After five to ten minutes we take off our coat, hang up the car keys and unlock the back door, then we go about our normal routine within the house. Then, fifteen to twenty minutes later we repeat the whole process.
Carry out this procedure as often as you can over seven days - and when you actually have to leave the house use a totally different routine to the one that you had normally been using and that the dog had picked up on and learnt and used to trigger his anxiety.
Next, as your dog’s anxiety is beginning to ebb, instead of sitting down and reading you go out of the door that you usually use when leaving the house.
Quickly and quietly walk around the outside perimeter of the house, come back into the house through another door, this should be to the room where the dog was left, you just come straight in and sit down where you sat when carrying out the first part of this programme – you ignore the dog unless he is scratching at the door or barking/howling, in which case you will quietly but sternly command him onto his bed, “Fido, bed”.
After five minutes you will remove your coat, hang up your keys and divert your normal business within the house, fifteen to twenty minutes later you repeat the whole process and so on.
Article continues below >>
On the fourth or fifth day, once you have worked out your daily programme with regard to your dog you can introduce an activity ball if you are feeding dry food or a toy which can be filled with food, such as a Kong.
To make sure you aren't overfeeding and encourage interest in the treat-filled toys, you can reduce your dog’s evening meal to half the normal amount, this will enhance his appetite greatly by breakfast time, take the dog and give him a good walk/run, this will also enhance his appetite.
You do not give him his breakfast in his normal food bowl, but you either load the activity ball with his normal dry food adding a few smelly treats or if feeding wet food you load the Kong toy completely with canned meat which can be prepared the evening before, or you can ask a family member prepare them while you are out with the dog.
When you return with the dog you take him to his normal feeding station and produce the ball or Kong, hold it in front of his nose and then roll them around the floor in front of him, dry food will start to come out of the ball or if using the Kong, your dog will pick it up and immediately taste as well as smell the food.
With a little assistance from you, he will quickly learn to get all of the food out of either of these.
Once you have done this for two or three days he will be looking for this game and eventually you will be able to leave him a fully loaded ball or Kong toy, particularly if you have ensured that he is a little hungry the first few times, when you leave the house and have taught him how to access the food from this new fun toy.
He will work at getting all of the food out, it will take him anything up to thirty minutes to do so, by which time he won't be so concerned about your absence. Now being tired and having a full stomach he should go on to his bed and sleep with no stress.
Consistency is key with any form of dog training. Keep at it and you will succeed – good luck!