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Separation Anxiety

As I’m writing this we are on lock-down/ circuit breaker/ quarantine or whatever else you may want to call it. Most of us have been working from home over the last few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because of this strange quarantine period, many of us with dogs might be wondering and worried, about separation anxiety when we go back to normal working life.

Anyone who has experienced coming home to a destroyed sofa, ripped up pee pads, scratches on the door or even complaints from neighbours about continual barking while you were away will know that simply ignoring separation anxiety is not an option. And it is certainly not fair on your dog.

Dogs are social animals and can become very attached to a pet parent or a dog buddy and hence, become habituated to continual contact. When left alone, these dogs can experience what is similar to a human panic attack.

Causes of separation anxiety in dogs can include changes in their owners, new socialisation patterns, changes in their surroundings, neglect, long vacations, extended periods with pet parents, lack of required rehabilitation if rescued, premature adoption, death of a pet friend, heredity behaviour, genetics or simply boredom.

You may be able to identify the signs of separation anxiety. This can include excessive salivating, continual barking, howling, dilated pupils, panting, trembling and pacing. Behavioural signs include ignoring food, coprophagia (eating poop), destroying items in the home, scratching at furniture, attempting to escape from their crate or room, and over excited greetings of their owner as if they haven’t seen them in years. Once or two of these indicators may not mean that they are suffering from separation anxiety, but multiple signs means that it is certainly worth investigating and working on a reduction of stress.

When dealing with this situation, it is important to know a few do's and don’ts as well as a few tips that can help your canine companion.

Most importantly, never punish your dog for what has happened while you were out. It doesn’t matter if the curtains are destroyed or if there is pee all over your bed. Separation anxiety in dogs is frantic, distressed and often destructive behaviour associated with separation from their pet parents. It can still qualify even if these actions only last for a few minutes. This behaviour is often mistaken for disobedience or spite, but dogs are actually distressed and upset because of their parent’s absence. So, with that in mind, punishment only increases the chance of it happening again. It definitely won’t help and it will make an already anxiety-stricken dog even more insecure.

Don’t get a second dog in an attempt to solve separation anxiety. Many people assume that getting another dog will help their existing dog from separation anxiety. Another dog as a companion usually doesn't help an already anxious dog. This is because their anxiety stems from human separation, not just the result of being alone.

Obedience training will not fix it. Although obedience training is important and should always be part of your dog’s training and exercise routine, it will not help with separation anxiety. The anxiety is not a result of disobedience. It is also important to remember that many training techniques can actually increase the anxiety of dogs. You can read more about training myths on this Noble Canine article.

Unless your dog is already crate trained, do not attempt to do so while you are attempting to reduce separation anxiety. All it will mean is that they will relate the crate with negative experiences, slow the reduction of process and make it very difficult to crate train them in the future.

So what can we do to help with our dog's separation anxiety?

1. Change the routine and environment. A well-structured change in routine and how you leave your dog may break the cycle of anxiety if practiced carefully and consistently. Exit using a different door, put your work clothes on but don’t leave for 15 minutes, leave your keys/wallet/shoes in a different location. The goal here is to break your dog’s association of these actions with your departure and not let them trigger separation anxiety.

2. More exercise. Exercise your dog well before you leave. A tired dog has less energy with which to be anxious and destructive. A good 30 minute walk 20 to 30 minutes before you leave, so they have time to settle down will certainly have a positive impact. If you are unable to do this, you can do simple home exercise games, such as fetch.

3. Sleep alone. If your dog suffers from separation anxiety and you currently sleep with your dog in your bed, stop. Feel free to have a cuddle up, but when it’s time to sleep, have your dog sleep in his own bed. This will help your dog feel more independent and over time, it will massively help him during times that he is left alone.

4. Home-coming fan fair. If you get home and your dog gets hugely excited and acts like you’ve been away for weeks, it’s time to make it boring. As heart breaking as some of us might find it, you must only deliver your greeting after your dog has calmed down. This teaches your dog that being left alone and you coming home is no big deal.

5. Stimulate your dog. When you leave, you might want to try a long lasting chew item such as a Kong with treats or peanut butter stuffed inside. This would be a “home-alone only" toy and placed within a “dog zone”. Provide a view. (If your dog doesn’t bark at passers-by). You can also leave the radio on, or play relaxing music for your dog while you are away. Your dog could be suffering from a condition that is often mistaken for separation anxiety...boredom!

6. Provide a comfort item. Leave your dog with a worn article of your clothing, such as a sweaty T-shirt. Sounds gross but your dog will love it.

7. Practice frequent separations. Start with short duration and build confidence slowly. Practice "sit/wait" and "down/wait" while you leave the room for just a moment. Keep your dog on the other side of a closed door inside the home for short periods each day. (This brings us to another point, basic obedience is a very useful tool in your arsenal with any behavioural modification.)

8. Desensitisation. Dogs learn through chaining. They are a lot more clever than many give them credit for. As such, triggers such as putting on your coat, picking up a purse or briefcase, and jiggling keys can send your dog into anxiety as they know you are about to leave them. Put these activities into neutral times of the day where you are not leaving. In time, the triggers will lose their power to generate the anxiety.

9. Shorten alone time. Explore alternative situations to minimise the occasions and durations that you leave your dog alone. Consider hiring a dog walker or doggie day-care. You may be able to find a neighbour or relative who is house-bound or working from home and might appreciate some canine company.

These tips will help the majority of situations. However, behavioural issues can run deep, so do not lose hope If you continue to have trouble or if your dog has more than one of the following symptoms: sweating or wet coat, drooling, pacing, self-mutilation, trembling, incessant barking or crying, pee and poo in the house even though otherwise housetrained, chewing or scratching at windows, doors or plaster boards, attempts at escape to find you, frantic greeting although you were gone for just a short while, or persistent following. If this is the case, you should seek professional help from a canine psychology and science based behavioural consultant.

I’ll leave you with this: none of this is your dog’s fault. It can be frustrating, but do not be angry, show temper or punish your dog. You have your family, friends and work to fill your life with love and enjoyment. Your dog only has you and loves you unconditionally.

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