Separation Anxiety

Helping your dog enjoy alone time

Separation anxiety or separation distress is an increasingly common problem that owners are having with their dogs. The specific, visible, problems range from noise complaints, damage around the house and even self harm in severe cases. This can be extremely frustrating as an owner (or neighbour) but even more so for the dog themselves and can lead to further behavioural problems down the road if not dealt with properly.
To successfully deal with separation anxiety it is important to understand more about what it is so that we can treat it properly and effectively.

First thing's first

As with any suspected behavioural problem we need to rule out any potential underlying medical complications. Book a check up with your vet and check basic senses: eyes, ears and nose. Also have them do a full head to toe check to look for any lumps, bumps or areas of discomfort. Check anal glands, toe nails, look for potential ear infections or discomfortin the eyes. In many cases some niggling physical discomfort can, not just trigger, but be the full root cause of apparent separation distress. Always check your dog's physical health before pushing into training or behavioural work.
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What is separation anxiety?

In slightly more formal terms, separation anxiety is a behavioural disorder in dogs due to the absence of a particular person (or persons) or generally being left alone. This distress can manifest in many ways from barking non stop to howling, chewing furniture to scratching doors and walls, soiling everywhere or even chewing themselves. It can be very distressing for owners and neighbours and it is certainly very distressing for those dogs suffering through it.
Not all separation anxiety cases result in noise, destruction or damage. There are some dogs who will, instead, completely shutdown and withdraw into themselves. These cases can be tough to spot and can lead to a loss of confidence and independence for a dog leading to other related issues later on.

 

All puppies suffer slightly from it initially while they are being weaned from their mother and while learning to be ok without us. Because of this and other standard puppy behaviours (problems) we don't diagnose until approximately 6 months of age.

Prevention is better than cure

As with any problem behaviours, we are better off preventing them from happening in the first place than having to deal with them as fully formed behavioural issues later on. This applies to both puppies and adult dogs not used to being left alone.

There are several approaches to this that revolve around building confidence and independence while teaching your dog that you will always come back.
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Confidence Building Exercise

Building confidence and independence will help your dog be happier spending time alone when you need them to later on.
- Take a portion of your dog's food for the day, roughly one third and put it in a bowl to use
- Go to the garden, or if not nice weather, a quiet room in the house
- Take a small handful (8-10 nuts of dry food) and scatter them on the ground (over the space of a normal doormat)
- Walk around nearby as your dog eats the food
- Repeat for the remainder of this portion of your dog's food

Do this sequence every day for three days. For the next three days, hand around the open door (to inside, or the next room) as your dog eats their food. For the third set of three days, go through the door briefly as your dog eats the scattered food. Continue gradually building up your absence until your dog is happy being left alone to eat all their scattered food.

Desensitise Leaving Exercise

We need to teach your dog to be alright with being left alone over longer and longer periods of time. We do not want to rush this work.

- Place a visual marker up high on the wall (near the door) so your dog sees you do it. A shiny bell or metal hanging ornament is good (always use the same marker)
- Give your dog a few tasty treats scattered in their bed in this room
- Calmly leave the room
- Come back into the room 30s later while your dog is still quiet, say hello but don't make a fuss
- Take down the visual marker and go on with your day
- Repeat 5-6 times throughout the day

Note that if your dog cries during this time, while not too distressed, wait for an instant of quiet and only go back in then. Next time, reduce the duration by 10 - 15s (or only go out for the amount of time they were ok with last time).

For every day with no crying, damage, destruction or stress, add 30s to the wait time. Any instance of distress, reduce by 15s for the rest of today and tomorrow.

Desensitising Triggers Exercise

Humans are very ritualistic creatures. So much so that dogs are able to predict our motions and intentions much better than we are. There are certain things that we all do in the lead up to leaving that our dogs notice. For example, packing a certain bag, putting on certain shoes, getting coats, picking up keys, making lunch, and so on. As they notice a number of these actions being undertaken, they star to get anxious at the prospect of you leaving. We need to remove the predictive power of these actions to reduce the stress before you even leave the house.

Throughout the day, 5-6 times per day:
- Pick up your car keys and go sit on the couch for 5 minutes
- Put on your coat and play with your phone in the kitchen
- Make lunch, put it in the fridge, and go for a shower
- Pack your bag and take it outside to play with your puppy

Have a think about your own daily routine around leaving the house and pair your actions with something else totally irrelevant.
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Dealing with Separation Anxiety

Before heading down the path of working through separation anxiety work and after a full vet check up, please consult an accredited trainer or behaviourist to make sure that this is actually the problem at hand.
Unfortunately dog training and animal behaviour is not a nationally regulated field in Ireland. Anyone can call themselves a trainer or behaviourist without any formal qualifications or accreditations. As well-meaning as these individuals may be, without being on top of current, modern dog training techniques and behavioural research they can do a lot of damage to your dog.

Once you have consulted with a recognised professional you will be given direct assistance or guidance on how to deal with the problems you are having. This is typically of the form of the steps below.

Dealing with Separation Anxiety Steps

- Do not leave your dog alone at all until we have dealt with the issues at hand. Utilise friends, family, good doggy daycare facilities, etc so that we do not put your dog through the stress in the first place. Every time they get stressed it adds to the anxiety and makes our lives harder later dealing with the issue
- Discuss between your trainer/behaviourist and your vet whether any medical interventions or assistance is required to reduce initial stress and give your dog the capacity to learn
- Start desensitising your dog to tiny intervals of being left alone. This may need to start with just approaching the door and not going through it, depending on the severity of the case
- Do not sneak out of the house to try to fool your dog. This will only increase their general distress and reduce their independence and confidence
- Do some confidence and independence building exercises as prescribed by your trainer/ behaviourist
- Never reprimand or chastise your dog for any barking, howling, destruction or damage done. No matter what social media tells you, that face is not the face of a dog that knows they have done wrong or a guilty dog, this is the face of a dog that is scared and is trying to calm the situation.
There is no quick fix for separation anxiety. Remember that any dog going through separation anxiety is not being bold or destructive because the want to or because it is fun and certainly not to assert 'dominance' or 'be the boss'. They are in distress. It is not a 'logical' or reasoned action/reaction but an emotional one that requires patience, consistency and empathy to overcome.

Any good trainer or behaviourist will look to work on the underlying distress rather than just changing the externally visible problems (noise, destruction, damage). Focusing only on the observable runs the risk of masking the issues and pushing the stress, anxiety and frustration to come out in other ways.
Depending on the level of severity, dealing with the issue can range from weeks to years. Years is predominantly for those dogs that have severe cases, most will be on the order of weeks to low months.
Separation anxiety is a very solvable issue once you understand your dog and work to help them through at their pace. It will require a change in routine in the short- to mid-term but it will result in a much more confident, happy and content dog.