Over the last year, many of us have enjoyed the extra time we have had with our beloved pets. Some of us may have even added a new family member and are experiencing pet parenthood for the very first time. Dogs especially are very social and really enjoy all of the fuss and attention that lockdown has brought with it.
More walks, unlimited cuddles, endless games, quality bonding time.... YEAH!
But...due to this 24/7 attention, many dogs are developing separation anxiety and the owners may not fully know what that means until they need to leave their precious pooch at home.
What happens when you need to go back to work? What are you going to do when you just want to take a much needed short break?
How do I know if my dog has separation anxiety?
Dogs will display anxiety in a few different ways. Older dogs that have been rescued will probably have their anxiety identified before their adoption so that their perspective owners can be aware. Puppy owners however may not be aware of this issue until they leave the house for the first time without their pet. Some of the signs include:
Toileting in the house
Destruction of barriers such as gates and crates
What causes separation anxiety?
There are many theories on what exactly causes this anxiety and studies have been dedicated to it. We do know that there are a few reasons a dog may develop these behaviours.
Genetics- Just like humans, it is believed that some dogs may have genes to blame for their anxiety. This has been seen in working dog breeds as they tend to have higher energy levels.
Old age- Dogs that are experiencing some level of discomfort (i.e. arthritis) or mobility issues may be drawn to their owners more for a bit of comfort and support.
Tenderhearted owners- Owners that ''spoil'' their dogs (most commonly seen in puppies) may find that they later cannot be left home alone without issues. These owners mean well, however the over excitement of welcome homes and overly emotional farewells are possibly sending your pup into an unintended state of anxiety.
What can I do if my dog has separation anxiety?
There are quite a few options when it comes to addressing separation anxiety. Each dog will have its own ways of learning to cope and it is always best to seek advice from a vet if your dog is experiencing frequent signs of stress.
Toys and Enrichment- You want to create a sense of calm when you leave the house and teach your dog that your absence is not scary. One way this can be achieved is through giving your dog things to do while you are away. Long lasting treats such as frozen kongs or a chew can keep their mind busy. These should be given to your dog 10-15 minutes before you leave so that they can make that connection that you leaving can bring tasty rewards! Another alternative to this is to hide some treats around the house as a delicious game of hide and seek. This keeps your dog both physically and mentally engaged.
Exercise- A good long run or walk can do wonders. A tired dog is a less anxious and destructive dog. Giving your dog a walk before you leave is a great way to release some of that extra energy! Just make sure you give them time, around 15 minutes, to settle before you leave. If your dog is a high energy breed or you will be gone for a long time, a dog walker is an excellent choice. This gives your dog an opportunity to burn off more of that energy and engage with someone midday. This is also recommended if you are in the early stages of working with your dog on their anxieties. It breaks the day up into smaller to manage times for them.
Obedience Training- Just like physical exercise, obedience training can act as a brain exercise. You should make these sessions short and sweet. Just 10 minutes can boost their confidence and help them on their way to independence. Simple commands followed by a delectable treat in the area they will be left (such as a bed or crate) helps them make that connection that being alone is not scary. Sit, stay/wait, and lie down are some examples you can try.
Growing Independence- Part of helping your dog increase their confidence is decreasing the bond they have with you. Most people get a dog for the purpose of having a strong bond and a best friend. But that extremely attached bond may be the root cause of their stress and anxiety. This may seem harsh and uncaring, but it's more of a sense of 'tough love'. Try putting your dog in another room for 10 minutes and then work on extending that time. Do not respond to any demanding or attention seeking behaviours such as whining or barking. This will only reinforce their bad behaviours. Praise and give them attention only when they have calmed down. Using a baby gate is a great way to keep your dog from following you and to create space. They will soon learn that distance is not bad. For example, I have a baby gate for the bedroom so that if I want to read a book, meditate, or watch some tv alone I can do so without my 2 pugs coming in and disrupting me. They will come to the gate, look at me, and then go back to the living room to their bed with no fuss. This is because they know access is not allowed to them at that time and so some alone time is needed (they usually have a nap!)
Crate Training- This is an excellent tool for independence building. Crates should be all about the safe and comfortable vibes. Crates should also NEVER be used as a punishment. If you are leaving the house for a short time, a crate can be a great option to keep your pet safe. Especially if they are a teething puppy in the middle of toilet training! Crates can additionally be used as a sleeping space to keep those boundaries in place. You may be tempted to let your dog sleep in your bed, but this could undo all of your hard work of setting boundaries. If your pet shows signs of extreme stress while in a crate, you may need to seek out help on this from a vet or behaviour specialist.
Vary your departure routine- Dogs are experts in body language and cues. They will then be able to see what is coming next and ultimately trigger anxiety. Loud, exciting welcomes and goodbyes are the most frequent cause of anxiety. I know it's hard, but you must not give your dog attention right before you leave. This way you are not giving your dog something to worry about. Most owners find this difficult, but it's for the best! Cues your dog may become anxious about could be putting on your coat, the jingle of your keys, or saying goodbye to family. Making note of which ones make your dog react is a great way of knowing what to work on. Try to make these actions random so that your dog does not react in a stressed manner. For example, put your coat on and pick up your keys randomly throughout the day. You could also leave through a different door than usual. Your dog may look to see what you are doing, but be sure to praise and treat them when they settle down.
Daycare/Pet Sitting- If you have tried some of the above or are easing your way into the training, daycare or home visits can be a good option. Daycare is great for doggy social skills, but does not teach the dog how to be alone. Alternatively, a pet sitter is able to visit the home in a more quiet fashion to help with the independence process. A pet sitter can let the dog out for a toilet break and a little company to break up the day for them. I offer 30 minute or 1 hour sitting times which is great for those needing a check up on their pooch during the day, but also keeping them on track to gaining their independence.
Calming Jackets- These jackets are essentially like a weighted blanket but for our furry friends! Compression has been proven to work on many species of animals as a form of comfort. Popular brands such as Thundershirt come in a range of sizes. These should be introduced slowly so that you can see if they work for your pet and that you are happy to leave them alone with it.
Pet Tech- High tech gadgets are getting more popular these days to see what your pet is up to while you are away or in the office. It gives owners a sense of comfort as well knowing you can check in at all times. Some pet tech even allows you to talk and give treats to your dog! Others can alert you to motions or barking. Cameras are useful when monitoring a dog that is working on their anxieties. You can then see what is or is not working and manage those processes.
Medications- This should be considered a last option and always discussed with a vet. Most vets will discuss this with you when all other options have been exhausted and your dog is still showing welfare compromising stressed behaviours. It can be helpful for some dogs, but is only for severe cases.
Always remember that training is a process. There is no such thing as a one size fits all. Not all dogs are the same so they should each be assessed as an individual when deciding on a course of action. Punishing your dog for unwanted behaviours such as toileting in the house or destroying a piece of furniture will only make matters worse and undo any progress you may have made. Your dog won't even know why you are punishing them in the first place. Remain calm and look at the positives. If you are still struggling, there are many options out there for you. Seek help from a vet, pet care, or behaviour specialist if you are feeling overwhelmed. We are here to help!
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