Dogs naturally do not have separation anxiety. Those who have not had homes before (i.e. have not lived with people) do not have separation anxiety i.e. many of our street dogs from abroad, but it doesn’t mean they cannot develop it, and fast. With the correct training it can also go away again. The key is to watch for the signs and do something about it before it escalates. This is the same with any unwanted behaviour.
It is common for dogs that we take in from UK pounds (who have had homes in the past) to have separation anxiety but it is also possible to train dogs out of this, it is not something they are “stuck with”. Dogs are incredible at getting over things, as they prove continually, they just need the right help from us. Most importantly we need to be aware when we are making things worse.
Separation anxiety is a serious problem of unhappy dogs, often resulting in the dog being rehomed, or if a rescue, returned.
What are the signs?
Destructive behaviour, messing in the house, barking or howling when they are left alone and other signs of distress such as drooling, pacing, circling or even becoming withdrawn when you are preparing to go out. Sometimes dogs can seriously hurt themselves trying to escape while owners are out. We all know the shared social media images of the dogs who have chewed a dog shaped hole through a door which is laughed at but the sad reality is that dog was so distressed and in such a panic their behaviour became so extreme.
Of course, young dogs chew, dogs also chew out of boredom, some dogs are unable to hold their bladders for as long as you may want etc so please consult a professional if you are concerned about your dog’s behaviour because the signs independently could be attributed to other things and need considering on balance and in context.
What are the causes of separation anxiety?
There are lots of theories but it is usually to do with change of some sort. Dogs are very sensitive to change so it may not even be a huge one but we are not going to concentrate on causes here. It is more important to look at resolving the issue as dogs will experience changes, it is inevitable living with us humans.
What is certain is that we can make this anxiety worse by our behaviour, without realising it, and so prevention is best and we suggest that you watch for the signs and tackle it if it starts.
Remember dogs don’t have separation anxiety naturally but are all capable of developing it (and quickly) if you don’t know what to look for. Many of our dogs have been returned over the years because people have not realised that what they are innocently doing is inadvertently causing the problem.
This subject is huge but for this blog put as simply as possible, in short….
How to tackle separation anxiety
Encourage your dog to have their own confidence and feel safe on their own.
Do not let them follow your every move and be unable to be without you. This is lovely for us to feel so loved but actually is just a sign of an anxious dog lacking their own self confidence. If you do think this is happening seek ways to ensure you retrain them out of it. Dogs, like children, need to have their own confidence, it is good for them to be comfortable without you around, much as they prefer to be with their pack members, it is when dogs suffer anxiety at the separation from you that the issue needs to be addressed.
Be aware when you leave and return not to cause the anxiety or raise excitement levels. Ignoring your dogs over excitement when you return is not rude, as many see it, but will ensure you do not encourage the behaviour and escalate the situation. When you leave do not cause heightened anxiety by lengthy goodbyes, worrying looks and feelings of worry yourself (dogs read us like no one can and will pick up on everything) , if you stay calm and confident, your dog will learn there is nothing to fear. They look to you for direction, even in what to do in their absence. Be aware how you are treating them and know that you to be strong and help them through this in a way they will understand.
Should you get another dog to help?
Dogs are pack animals and it is alien to them to be alone so often having another dog as company helps BUT not always. We encourage those whose dogs are suffering with separation anxiety to foster a dog to see if this may help and many occasions it has cured the anxiety of being alone, but not always and also. You would want to ensure the stress didn’t transfer to the new dog and closely monitor things so you didn’t end up with two dogs with separation anxiety. This would need to be in conjunction with the desensitisation and counter conditioning below.
If this is something you would like to try to help your dog (and you are in the Manchester area) please get in touch and we can discuss this further. Of course, there are a lot of considerations around this so while it is an option please DONOT go out and just get a second dog in the hope that will cure the problem, please note the emphasis on foster and assessment, along with other retraining tips that would be given. It is, however, a firm belief that dogs should live with other dogs and that they benefit in many ways from the canine companionship which brings much we cannot give as humans. But that is for another blog…
Please be aware this is a very brief explanation of a topic which should be fully explored and implemented with a plan referencing times and monitoring.
You will need to start slowly building up the time you leave your dog alone during the retraining this cannot be rushed. You need guidance from a professional to be able to read and interpret your dogs’ signs to ensure this works properly.
When does the anxiety start for your dog?
If the anxiety starts before you leave, you need to start the work there, if only upon leaving you can start the retraining around that.
If your dog starts the anxiety when they notice you pick up your keys etc or such, this is where the work needs to start. Whatever triggers the panic in your dog you need to desensitise them to. So, pick up your keys at different times of the day, not to leave but just to retrain them that this is not a signal to trigger anxiety. This will need repeating ongoing and it is important when you do this and they become anxious you ignore the behaviour. Do not speak to, comfort or add any “excitement” just ignore and continue as normal.
Do not make a big deal about leaving. This is where is becomes alien to us but say nothing, no long goodbyes, kisses, apologies and explanations of why you have to go (as we all do), there should be no fuss, drama, excitement associated to minimise any signalling to your dog that this is a separating and something to be concerned about.
Same with returning, your dog will greet you like you’ve been away forever but responding to it is encouraging the behaviour and so, as hard as it is, it is important to realise how important this really is to helping your dog.
Start (out of sight) stays, make it a calm training exercise. Ask them to stay, go into the other room and lengthen the time your dog is asked to stay before returning. Reward with a treat but remember no excitement, energy. Extend the length of time, extend the area you go to while the dog stays working up to the front door or wherever you usually leave. This takes patience and consistency but will be the most important thing you do for them. You may have to start with seconds, the key is to ensure your dog doesn’t become distressed during your time of absence.
Start to introduce the usual signals that you are going to leave eg. Picking up the keys for these training sessions. As you build up to leaving them for longer build into it the cue that this is their alone time using the association that it brings good things. Use of things like Kong toys – stuffed with their favourite treats (frozen helps make it last longer) so their mind is occupied for the first 20 minutes after you have left. Keep these special treats for only when you are leaving them.
Some simple changes can make a huge difference, don’t underestimate the importance of these as it may seem alien to you to do but to your dog it does communicate something massive. The psychology is opposite to that of how we would be with other people. We treat dogs like children and they are our fur kids but we need to communicate things to them in a different way and for their benefit, which sometimes is hard for us to do. Do everything calmly and quietly.
Ensuring your dog has enough mental and physical stimulation so they can relax when they are alone is most important. There is no set rule for what this will be as it will depend on your dogs age, energy levels and physical condition but mental stimulation is often overlooked yet important. Fetch, sit and stay games etc are basic but look up some ways to encourage your dog to have to work for their food, they will love this, we often forget it.
Don’t give up. It will take a number of days and weeks as you increase their comfort level. This is often not practical with work and life pressures so enlist the help of family and friends or a dog daycare (If in Manchester www.daycare4dogs.co.uk) or pet sitter while going through the retraining process. You do not want to undo all the work by having to leave them and them getting into a distressed state again at this stage.
We advise enlisting the help of a professional throughout as this is a complex subject and one which is only touched on here. We highly recommend James Carroll (Manchester area and surrounding) www.jamescarrolldogs.com