Separation Anxiety: What It Really Means for You and Your Dog
Separation Anxiety, in it’s true form, can be the hardest behavior to cure in dogs, especially without prescription medications. If your dog has true separation anxiety it means that he cannot be left alone for up to fifteen minutes, without losing control of his bladder and/or bowels. If this is what you are experiencing with your dog, then please consult a trainer or veterinarian. If your dog cries sometimes, or shows slight signs of separation anxiety then perhaps some of these tips will help. If your dog does not have or show signs of separation anxiety then by following these simple steps you can help make sure it does not develop.
First of all it is important to leave your dog alone for at least 20 minutes every day. Start this from the moment you bring him home, regardless of his age. It is important for your dog to accept being alone, so even if you work from home, go out for a walk, or grab a coffee, and leave your dog at home.
While it can be difficult for us, as people to accept and understand, it may help your pup to limit his space while alone. This does not mean you have to use a crate, but I will say that in all the dogs I have worked with, those that were crate trained, never exhibited separation anxiety, maybe it is a coincidence, but I tend to doubt it. Even if you do not want use a crate, limiting your dog’s space, including keeping him away from your front door, can really help him to settle while you are away. If your dog has no choice but to rest, because that is all there is space for, then he will do so, but if he can pace, or patrol your windows, this can heighten his anxieties while you are away.
Do not make a big deal out of leaving your dog, or coming home to him. When you come home if your dog is barking, jumping or excitable, then just ignore this behavior, and don’t say hello to him until he settles down. We don’t want this anxious excitable energy to be rewarded with attention, because then we are reinforcing this, and we will see more of this. If your dog is in the crate and he is barking, do not let him out until he settles down and is quiet, or he will learn that barking gets him out of his crate. I always tell owners to think of barking like a game of red-light, green-light. When your dog is barking: red-light, when he stops: green-light!
Practice your “leaving routine” without actually leaving. We all tend to do things in a specific order when we are leaving our home, make a list of these things and do them, out of context, when you are not leaving. Put on your shoes, pick up your keys, and go sit down on your couch. Also on days you are actually leaving, do these things in a different order to throw off your dog. Practice going in and out of your front door. Go in and out, over and over, without any lag time, until your dog is so bored with it, he walks away and ignores you.
Feed your pup on a schedule! This is important for so many reasons, but as it relates to separation anxiety, it allows us to predict when our dog is hungry. If we know when our dog gets fed, and eats his food, we can use this to help prevent separation anxiety. The way we can use this is to plan our trips out when our pup is most hungry. If your dog eats breakfast around 9 a.m. then consider planning a trip out around 10, and skip his breakfast that day. Then at 10 before you leave, stuff his food into a food stuff-able toy, and give it to him when you leave. If you happen to come home before he has finished, then take this food toy away. This will teach your pup that he only gets to play with such a fun toy, while he is alone.
Finally if your dog does suffer from separation anxiety and he barks or cries a lot while you are gone, please contact a trainer, do not turn to a temptation like a citronella collar or even worse a shock collar. This will make your dog’s anxieties much worse, and will likely take a dog who was only barking while alone, to a dog who defecates in your home when left alone-believe me I have seen this exact scenario many times. The fact is that if your dog has to wear one of these collars when you are gone, this will only give him a reason to be afraid of being alone; he only get shocked when alone. Also this is a true anxiety, I relate it most closely to a fear of flying, which most people can understand. If you told someone who you cared about that you were afraid of flying, and they just told you to suck it up and be quiet, it wouldn’t help you feel better, your dog feels this way about being left alone, and the collar is saying to him: “just suck it up and be quiet.” You haven’t addressed the anxiety so while the symptom of barking might get better, the problem is still there, and I assure it is getting worse!
The best thing to do to prevent separation anxiety is by following these steps and considering crate training. If your dog has separation anxiety, I would consult a trainer as soon as possible, the more time wasted, the more time your dog has had to rehearse his anxious behaviors, and form bad habits. It is never too late to help overcome these habits, so start today!