Separation Anxiety is completely preventable and I so wish that this is something that each and every owner would do - the simple exercises on preventing this condition. Reason - its not that it is hard to change, it just take so much time from the owner and the worst factor for the owner is that the dog should never be left alone longer than it can cope with. Hard - yes - especially if you are a working dog owner! Remembering that each and every time the dog is left longer than it can cope with, the behaviour you do not want is reinforced and it becomes harder and takes longer to turn around.
Starting from when the pup comes home
It really is exciting and to me a momentous event when I bring a new puppy home - I, love it and there are many more people like me out there. What normally happens is we take time off work to settle the pup, or arrange to have the pup at a time we will be home. This is all well and good and excellent planning, however if we have been with the pup 24/7 how do you think it will cope when you return to work and its whole routine changes? It wont! We have to remember that dogs are incredibly social animals and your pup has just come from the comfort and security of it's mum and litter mates and suddenly it is left alone - not surprising they don't always cope, especially in the situation of being an 'only' pup.
Rather go the route of preparing the pup as much as possible for what the new routine is going to be and put in place as soon as the new arrivals comes home. Times you are not with your pup, place it in it's Puppy Play Pen / Crate, or safe area where it will stay when you are at work and if you have somebody at home keeping an eye on the little one, do make sure that they know the routine to follow.
What about nigh time or weekends?
What is a very common situation is that dogs get used to their owners comings and goings, however if you seldom go out in the evening or weekend or take your dog with you when you do go out, leaving it at home when not used to it can often start off separation anxiety. More common with 'only' dogs.
What about home leave?
You have no idea the amount of times I have been called in to help with Separation Anxiety which has come about due to the owner being on leave and spending a lot of time at home with their dog, especially an 'only' dog.
First, ensure that your dog has daily walks which stimulate it and give it something else to think about rather than you being at home. These do not have to be of a long duration, a short walk with lots of opportunities for scenting and smelling will suffice most days, and then long walks at weekends when you have more time. Make sure that the dog does not become bored or frustrated and has plenty of things to keep it busy. There is an article on our Friends of the Dog website Preventing Boredom and Frustration that will give you lots of ideas.
The most important part - Alone Time Training!
- Alone Time Training Stage 1 - if the dog or pup is already following you around the home or becomes nervous if you go out of the room. If this is not yet in place, then get into the habit of walking around such as this so that the dog is not used to you being in only one place and with it continually.
Here, as mentioned before, it is very important that our aim is for the dog to be able to spend time alone, away from you and anybody else in the family, and that it is a pleasant experience for the dog, so please do as much of this as possible and gradually build up the time period. However, it is equally important that you do not go too fast! You will only start to extend the time period when the dog is taking no notice of you being out of the room at all – so you may have to do the exercise 6 or 7 times in a row to make sure at a particular time period.
Another point to bear in mind here is to stagger and vary the exercise – build up to about 5 minutes, then the next time, reduce to 1 minute – perhaps then go up to 3 minutes and the next time could be 6 minutes. By varying the time and reducing the period it means that the dog will always be able to cope. Where people often fail in this exercise is that they extend the time period too fast and also do not ensure that the dog is coping happily before extending the time.
That the dog can cope when you walk out of the lounge for example for 5 minutes without stressing, does not mean that it will be able to cope if you walk out of another room for a 5 minute period, as strange as this may sound. So, where dogs are concerned if you change the exercise to going in an out another door in the home, please go all the way back to the beginning and start again. what you normally find in this situation is that because the pup has an understanding of the exercise, it will go much quicker than the first time you started.
- Work with only one door at a time in a room.
- Start by getting up from a chair and just walk out the room, close the door on the dog – turn around and then walk back in, still ignoring your dog and sit down. There is no talking or interacting with the dog at all.
- When the dog is no longer reacting, repeat the exercise and very slowly and gradually build up the time period.
- When the dog can handle you being out of the room about 10 minutes, start this exercise at another door remembering to go all the way back to a few seconds.
- You will now just build up to doing this at all the doors at the house in the same manner, working on one door at a time - you will find it will now go much faster.
2. Alone Time Training Stage 2
Chewing on a bone while you walk all over the home – here you will get hold of a large size raw femur bone and ask for it to be cut into 4 or 5 large bones. Use one and freeze the rest. You can get these at Fruit and Veggie City or butcher and are about R12 – R15 each on average. You may also use a stuffed Kong or Busy Buddy and although dogs prefer the bones, I feel happier being out of the house and leaving my dogs 2 or 3 Kongs to get stuck into rather than leaving it with a bone - this is a personal choice. Whatever you intend to use do make sure that you inspect the chew toy / bone for small bits breaking off and then replace. This chew toy /bone is ONLY used for Alone Time training and is taken away and put away at any other time. This will help the dog to associate you being away from it as a positive experience.
Only bring this exercise in when the dog is ok with exercise 1 above and the best time to start this is on a Friday evening knowing you are going to be home most of the weekend, so plenty of time to practice.
- Put the dog on its beds in the lounge and the bone/chew toy.
- Allow dog to chew until it really get stuck in – then take the bone/chew toy away and put them in the fridge
- About 15 minutes later do as above again.
- Keep on doing this about every 15 – 30 minutes during the course of the evening. By then the bone/chew toy will have become the most important thing in the world to the dog.
- The following morning, take out the bone/chew toy and give to the dog on its bed and ideally the bed is placed in a location where the dog can see you coming and going – at this stage do NOT put the dog away where it cannot see you moving around - this can be done at a later stage.
- You then start to walk in and out of different rooms leaving the doors wide open. Only do for about 10 minutes to start with and then take the bone/chew toy away. The message is – when mom/dad is away nice things like getting bones/chew toys happens.
- Keep on repeating this during the weekend and gradually build up the time period, remembering to stagger it as mentioned above. In a very short period of time you will have the dog happily chewing on their bones/chew toys as you walk around the home.
- Practice this during the week in the evening as well
3. Alone Time Training Stage 3
Only after the above has been achieved to you start with this exercise.
- You will use the bone/chew toy again and this time pop the dog outside in the garden or in another room with the bone/chew toy and leave it only a few minutes.
- Go and take the bone away from the dog and allow it back in the home about 15 minutes later repeat above.
- You will slowly and gradually build up the time period the dog is alone outside and practice this as much as you can during the period you are at home
Using exactly the same sequence as above, this time you leave the dog back in its bed with the bone/chew toy and you walk out the door you normally leave by. Here go all the way back to the beginning as in walking in and out of different rooms and just build up the time period as in exercise 1.