Vet Q&A: How can I stop my dog getting separation anxiety?

by PDSA Vets | 14 May #VetQ&As

While many of our four-legged friends will be enjoying lots of extra attention and time at home with their owners, it could be a struggle for them once we get back to ‘normal’.

Many dogs will have enjoyed having their owner home all the time during lockdown, so when we do return to work, this may cause them to become anxious and worried, and show behaviours known as ‘separation anxiety’.

Separation-related problems are extremely common, and if dogs are very attached to their owners, this long period of time spent together can make the problem worse when they do have to be left alone again.

It’s very difficult to know how dogs will behave when their owners return to their normal routine and every dog may react differently.

 

How do I know if my dog has separation problems?

Your dog might feel different emotions such as fear, frustration, and panic when left alone. Common signs that they are feeling anxious when left alone include:

  • Destruction of bedding, furniture carpets or belongings
  • Inappropriate toileting indoors
  • Barking, whining or being vocal
  • Pacing or being restless
  • Attempting to escape.

Some dogs may not show any of these signs and become depressed and do nothing at all when their owner leaves. Investing in a pet camera can give you a good idea of how they are feeling when you are away from home.

Many things can affect separation anxiety in dogs – their genetics, personality and previous negative experiences which may have added to their fears and anxieties. In some cases, when our dogs were puppies they might have missed out on some of the really important training they needed to help them feel happy when being left alone. Puppies need to be taught when they’re young that it’s OK to be on their own and have a little bit of independence from their owners.

 

What can I do to help my dog settle when left alone?

To prevent any separation problems, start to prepare your dog now, before you need to leave your dog for any length of time.

  • Try leaving them alone for periods of time whilst you are in the house. You could spend some time in the garden when they are at home, take a short walk, or go into a different room. Start by leaving them for short periods of time, then build up the time gradually to ease the transition. You could do this during a short food trip. If they stay calm and relaxed when you are gone, calmly reward them with a healthy treat.
  • Create a place for your dog to go to that makes them feel safe. You can do this using a crate or enclosed area of the house that is quiet and just for them. Get them used to it by having comfortable bedding inside, feeding them their favourite treats, and using synthetic pheromones such as Adaptil. Make sure no one can enter their safe space so they learn that no one will disturb them in there.
  • Using feeding puzzles when dogs are left alone can keep them entertained and teach them that good things happen when you leave.
  • Some dogs are comforted by a radio being left playing quietly in the background, so you could try this to see if it helps your dog.
  • Your first few mornings heading back work may be busy for all involved, however, it’s important to help your dog by trying to ease them into back into their old routine. If you need to be out all day, ensure you have someone who can walk your dog while you are gone, and check this is in place before you return to work.
  • Try to plan your morning routine so things aren’t a rush or a panic, which can affect pets too! Could you prepare feeding toys the night before? Walk your dog before work? They may be likely to relax during the day if they’ve followed their comforting routine, feel settled after some exercise and their breakfast, and are left with something to do while you leave quietly, until a trusted person they know comes in to walk them during the day.

 

Teach them to ‘settle’ on command

Teaching your dog a command to be relaxed and settled will help them calm themselves in situations when they are stressed.

  • Decide on the word you want to use (‘calm’, ‘settle’ etc.) to ask them to be calm. You’ll also need a large amount of small tasty treats. Sit beside your dog and ask your dog to lie down on their bed or place you want them to be relaxed. When they do this, reward them with a treat. After several repetitions, only reward them when they are calmer for longer. You need to ensure that you are calm too, as if you are excited, this will excite your dog.
  • Once your dog is able to repeat that behaviour and stay in one position in a relaxed posture, you can add in the word “settle” or “calm” (whatever word you have chosen) as your verbal cue. The key to success is to keep practicing this!
  • The next step is to try to get up and walk away. If your dog instantly gets up with you, then simply ask them to go back to their bed and get them settled again. If they are consistently getting up and following you, ignore them and only reward them quietly when another calm behaviour occurs.
  • When your dog remains relaxed and calm, keep the rewards coming in a quiet manner; you want to teach your dog that staying in this position is a very rewarding thing to do. As they start to get the idea, you can start to gradually increase gaps between rewards. Its best to give rewards on the floor; you want ‘being on the floor’ to be the rewarding place to be.
  • Start the training in a quiet area and only move onto more distracting environments (such as increasing the noise in the room and having people walk by) once the calm behaviour has been learned.
  • When this has been mastered, you can get your dog excited then use your command to train them to become relaxed and calm when excited.

 

What might hinder this training?

  • If your dog does react to being alone, it is incredibly important that they aren’t punished for anything they may do while stressed or anxious, such as damaging things or toileting in your home. They are already going to be feeling panicked, upset or fearful and punishing them is only going to make them feel worse or reinforce the feeling that being left alone is even worse than they initially thought.
  • Advice commonly given is to perform ‘fake departure cues’ such as picking up keys and pretending to leave so the dog doesn’t expect you to go when these things happen. The theory suggests dogs will be less anxious when keys are picked up, shoes are put on etc, but dogs like being able to predict when things are going to happen. If they can’t guess, then they might feel more worried as they can’t control their environment.

Predictability is shown to control the stress response. By increasing what your dog can predict, and having a clear signal where your dog understands you are going to leave, the dog will not be constantly worrying about when you are going to leave, and can relax.

 

Where can I get professional help?

If your dog does go on to display ongoing signs of separation anxiety, it is important not to ignore these and to contact your vet who can refer you to an accredited behaviourist. They’ll be able to fully assess your dog to find out why they don’t cope with being left alone and come up with a treatment plan to help. How separation problems are treated will be individual to each dog, so it is important to seek professional advice to help guide you through the problem.

You can see a list of accredited behaviourists online.

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