Home alone: preventing separation anxiety.

Dogs are very social animals – they don’t like to be alone and need plenty of human companionship. Before you get a dog, think about how long your dog would be left alone each day. If you work long hours or a long way from home, a different pet might suit you better.

If you know you will regularly need to leave your dog alone there are some things you can do to help your dog and stop them from developing separation anxiety.

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What is separation anxiety?

Some dogs suffer from a condition called separation anxiety, where they become extremely anxious and distressed when they’re away from their owner. This is a severe behavioural problem and it’s best that you speak to your vet or a professional behaviourist if you think your dog could be suffering from separation anxiety.

Signs of separation anxiety include:

  • Barking
  • Destructive behaviours, like chewing 
  • Anxiety when you leave the house and leave them behind

Separation anxiety can occur when the dog isn’t used to being away from the owner or is scared by something in the house. There may be an underlying medical reason dogs develop a dependency on their owners so it is a good idea to get your dog checked over by a vet if they are struggling with separation anxiety. An accredited behaviourist will be best placed to help if your dog suffers from Separation Anxiety.

What can cause separation anxiety?

There are lots of reasons a dog can get separation anxiety. While it is typically a behavioural issue, it’s best to seek advice from your vet to rule out any medical problems first. Your vet can then give you helpful advice if your dog is only mildly affected, or refer you to an accredited animal behaviourist if things are severe.

As well as anxiety, separation-related behaviours can have other emotions behind them such as fear, over-attachment or boredom. These factors all need to be taken into account to successfully help your dog overcome their issues.

Some things that can cause or contribute to separation anxiety include:

  • Underlying medical problems
  • Poor socialisation as a puppy
  • Your dog isn’t used to being left alone
  • Something has scared your dog (inside or outside the house)
  • Boredom
  • A routine change, bereavement or other circumstances meaning a person or pet who they normally spend time with isn’t around.

How long can I leave my dog alone for?

Four hours is the longest that dogs should routinely be left alone for but every dog will be different. How long they can be left alone for depends on how old they are and what they are used to. For example, four hours would generally be too long for a very active, young puppy but might be fine for an older dog.

There might be the occasional time when you have to leave your dog alone for longer than usual, which is a change from their normal routine. Try to make sure they have interactive toys or feeders which will keep them entertained. Check these are safe for them to be left alone with.

If you need to leave your dog alone during the day while you're at work, think about things that could make this easier for your dog:

  • Could you pop home at lunchtime to spend time with your dog?
  • Could a neighbour or friend check in and visit your dog?
  • Are there any professional dog walkers in your local area?

Dog walkers and doggy day care

There are lots of professional dog walking or pet sitting services available where someone can come to your home to walk your dog and spend time with them whilst you are out.

You can find pet sitters and dog walkers through the National Association of Pet Sitters and Dog Walkers.

Doggy day care and other day boarding services might be available in your area where you can drop your dog off to be cared for. You’ll need to keep your dog’s vaccinations up to date as there will often be more than one dog present.

Making sure your dog is ready to be left alone

When you first get your dog, try to socialise them as much as possible. This means exposing them to everyday sights and sounds so they are not afraid. Being left alone is one of the things your new dog will need to learn is normal. You can train your dog by gradually increasing the amount of time they are left alone to get them used to it.

As with all training, you’ll need to take your time and be patient when teaching your puppy how to be calm and relaxed when left alone.

  • Start by walking a short distance away from your puppy. If they stay calm and settled, walk back to them and reward them, so they know you’re happy with this behaviour.
  • Move away from them again, but this time leave the room briefly. Walk back in and if your puppy is still calm and quiet, reward again.
  • Keep repeating this and gradually increase the amount of time you are away from your puppy.
  • When you’re successful at doing this inside, try leaving the house for a short time and gradually building up to spending more time away from your puppy.
  • Always reward your puppy when you get home.
  • Keep the atmosphere calm and quiet when you leave and when you come back home. This will teach your puppy that you coming and going is normal and nothing to get excited or stressed about.
  • Teach your puppy to use interactive toys, like treat dispensing toys or puzzles, so they’ll have something to keep them busy while you’re away. Make sure it’s puppy-safe and can’t be chewed up or swallowed.

Give your dog a safe, comfortable space of their own

Make sure you leave your dog in a safe area of the house so if they do try to chew or destroy anything they cannot be injured. Make sure it’s the right temperature and they have a safe comfortable bed to relax in.

Some dogs will happily use a dog flap to get out into a secure garden if they need the toilet. If a dog flap isn’t suitable for your home, someone will need to come and let them out regularly so they can have a toilet break.

How to make being alone easier for your dog

When your dog needs to be left alone for a few hours, there are things you can do to stop them getting bored or worried.

This can include leaving them activities to do to prevent boredom such as:

  • Destruction boxes
  • Enrichment feeders (such as Kong feeders or other puzzle toys)
  • Brain games
  • Chew toys (as long as you can leave them alone with your dog safely)

Daily exercise is also vital for their physical and mental wellbeing so ensure that they have had good exercise opportunities every day.

Other things you can do to help your dog feel less anxious include:

  • Making sure their bed area is nice and cosy and makes them feel secure
  • Use a plugin diffuser or a collar that releases natural calming pheromones
  • Leaving an old item of clothing out with your scent on
  • Make sure they have a chance to go to the toilet before you leave

When you do have to go out, try to prepare in advance so you don’t have to rush because this can make your dog stressed. Always leave your dog calmly and don’t get them excited before you go. It may feel strange not to say goodbye to your dog when you go, but leaving without a fuss will mean that your dog doesn’t have time to get themselves wound up and will settle more quickly. When you come home do this calmly and quietly too.

If you know your dog rapidly gets unsettled when you are out, it’s time to go back to basics. Follow the steps recommended for leaving a new puppy alone for the first time – though be aware it can take an adult dog much longer to learn that it’s okay once they have got the idea that it’s something to fear. Severe cases of separation anxiety will need professional help. Speak to your vet first, and they can recommend an accredited behaviourist once your dog has a clean bill of health.

After the holidays: getting your dog back into your normal routine

Holidays, like Christmas and Easter, usually mean you have more time to spend with loved ones – your dog included. But what happens once the holiday is over and life goes back to normal?

We’ve all experienced the ‘holiday blues’ and our dogs are no different. They’ve got used to spending more time with you, getting extra fuss and attention, and can be left feeling bored and lonely when then suddenly go back to their normal routine.

You can help your dog to avoid feeling this way by easing them back into their normal routine. Leave them alone in the house while you go out for a short trip or while you spend time in another room. Gradually build up the amount of time your dog is spending alone until they’re ready to go back to their normal routine. Remember to use interactive toys to keep them busy while you are out, and ensuring they are well exercised and ready to sleep will also help them to settle.

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