Why do dogs suffer with separation anxiety?
Dogs are naturally pack animals and really don’t like it if any member of their pack leaves. Many people when leaving their dog, will do their best to ‘help’ the dog through this in a very human way, showering him with comfort and assurance ‘It’s ok’ I won’t be long’ etc and sadly this adds to, or can even be the cause of their dogs anxiety. Very often leaving the house will consist of the owner having to back out of a door, leaving no room for the dog to push through, no matter how hard they try, and some dogs will really try. This then forces the owner into pushing the dog back as he tries his best to squeeze himself through the gap. The owner then pushes the dog and slams the door behind them, breathing a sigh of relief, having got out, but with feelings of annoyance, or sadness. Often made worse when they hear their dog on the other side of the door barking, whimpering or howling, and often even bouncing off the door. This leaves both human and dog in a high state of anxiety. Dogs are natural followers so they will automatically assume that where you go they should follow and this is something we owners need to address. If, when at home your dog follows you from room to room or literally gets up to follow whenever you move, this is not a sign of how much ‘love’ your dog has for you. It is that your dog either lacks the confidence to be alone or he thinks that you need him to watch over and take care of you. As sweet as this may sound it only leads to your dog feeling anxious when you are out of sight, so imagine how he feels when you actually leave the den (home) on your own, unguarded and he has no idea where you’ve gone or how long for. If this behaviour isn’t addressed in the home, the dog will be almost guaranteed to suffer from some form of separation anxiety.
How to combat this behaviour
Firstly start to take notice of how your dog is behaving in the home, is he following you everywhere, is he stressed when you leave the room for a period of time, does he demand attention on your return. All of these things give us a clue as to what is going on for him and none of it is good for him. Unfortunately there is no quick solution for separation anxiety but it can be easily avoided. Firstly it is important to evaluate the relationship you have with your dog, and also his default excitement level, as both have a bearing on implementing the solution to this very common problem. A dog that doesn’t show you respect (doesn’t listen, won’t come when called, pushes your buttons etc.) is going to find it harder, but not impossible to work through this. If your dog is highly excited then these exercises will help him immeasurably, as it all starts with teaching your dog impulse control. We would strongly advise that before beginning this (or any) new regime or training that you start it when the dog has been drained of excess energy, like after his walk.
Very often a dog will start to show signs of anxiety, noticed or otherwise, as soon as he sees signs that you are about to leave the house, such as you putting on your coat, picking up keys, phone etc. It is important to notice what your dogs triggers are. Once you do, you can begin to break the association with these things by doing them at random times during the day but not actually going anywhere. Pick up your keys, put on your coat and then put them down, take your coat off and sit back down etc. Do this repeatedly and those things will lose their meaning to your dog.
Step one is to teach your dog to go to a place, such as his bed or a mat or wherever you are happy for him to lie down. To do this take, or send him to the chosen place and ask him to stay, if he gets up just repeat until he is staying when told to do so.
Step two is to gradually move away from him, aiming eventually to leave the room. If at the beginning he keeps getting up whenever you move, just take him back calmly and go through it again. Move away from him gradually until it is possible to leave the room, just for a few seconds at first. On returning do not interact with the dog, and after a couple of seconds go to him and tell him he’s a good dog calmly, and let him come off his spot. Repeat this until you can leave your dog in the place you have decided (his spot) while you go into another room, upstairs or wherever. It is important to not make a fuss of the dog on your return or he will be unable to fully relax, waiting anxiously for your return and the attention he will expect to receive. We are not saying that your dog has to stay on his spot every time you leave the room but he should stay when you tell him to. This exercise helps the dog to understand that you decide where he goes and when, it also helps him to understand that you don’t need his protection, and there is nothing to worry about when you go out of sight.
Step three is to take it outside. Put the dog on his spot and tell him to stay, go to the door to the outside, again if he gets up just lead him back calmly and repeat, do this as many times as you need to, but always calmly with no anxiety or anger. Once he has stayed on his spot, go through the door and return within 3 minutes or so, do this often and gradually increase the time you are outside. This lets your dog know that even though you are out of sight, he doesn’t need to worry about you and that you will return. On returning again keep it calm and when you’re ready, release him from his spot if he’s still there. Otherwise just greet him calmly with just a pat on the head and a ‘good dog’.