Over the last 12 months, our world, our working lives and our social lives have changed dramatically. With most of the population spending extended time at home, there has also been a boom in pet ownership, with thousands of people buying or rescuing a pet to add to their families. At first these new routines were all very strange to us, but we have all gradually adapted to the ‘new’ norm’ and we are not the only ones!
Dogs, like humans, are social creatures. They have evolved alongside man as companion animals and belonging to a group or family is acknowledged as being both an emotional and a social requirement for them. In fact, we now recognise that keeping a dog in social isolation, removed from a family group (canine or human) is a form of cruelty.
Spending time alone does not come naturally to dogs, they are born into a family group; think of the cries of a very young puppy if they are separated from the warmth of the litter or the howls of some puppies on their first night in their new home
A year represents a significant portion of a dog’s life and whether it is a long-term family member or a newly acquired puppy, your dog’s ‘new norm’ is to have their people around for most, if not all of, the time. In general, they love it and let’s be honest, along with wearing pjs all day if we want to, it is one of the bonuses of the current situation – getting to spend more time with our canine companions. However, this extended time together has the potential to affect dog behaviour and create problems when we return to our pre-Covid routines, specifically, a dog who is over attached to their humans and cannot cope with spending short periods of time alone.
While many dogs dislike when their owners initially leave them, they will settle down and wait calmly until they return. However, some dogs simply cannot cope with being left alone and this causes distress that is both real and traumatic.
Separation Anxiety Disorder in dogs has been described as the equivalent to a panic attack in humans. It is a result of over dependence on the company of a human or canine companion i.e. the inability to cope when alone.
Dogs suffering from Separation Anxiety Disorder may exhibit the following behaviours:
• Inappropriate toileting when left alone despite being reliably toilet trained at all other times.
• Persistent barking and howling with no other trigger except having been left alone.
• Constant pacing in circles or back and forth in straight lines when left alone and at no other time.
• Chewing, digging or destruction of items, walls, doors, plasterboard, furniture etc.
• Self-mutilation – obsessive licking or chewing of body parts to the point of injury when left alone and at no other time.
• Escaping – attempting to escape the area, often linked to the destructive behaviours above, digging at doors, eating doorframes etc. These behaviours can lead to broken teeth, nails etc.
• Drooling or excessive sweating leading to a wet coat when left alone and at no other time.
While the symptoms and behaviours listed above are quite dramatic and extreme, it is worth noting that there are other less obvious signs that your dog may be experiencing some level of Separation Anxiety Disorder
• Persistently following you from room to room (fear of you leaving) these dogs never truly switch off and are constantly watching your every move.
• Hysterical, frantic greeting after a short period away from them e.g. going to the bathroom
‘Alone time’ like all other life skills, requires practice and gentle introduction and we owe it to our dogs to teach them how to be independent and secure in our absence. Many people are aware that their dog may struggle when life returns to normal, and we would recommend actively searching for dog behaviour advice to make the transition as smooth as possible.
There are plenty of things that you can do immediately – start now and have these behaviours established as healthy habits when they are eventually required.
1. Make it a Non-Event
Whether you have an older dog that has been used to alone time previously or a new addition to the family, a good place to start is to make leaving and returning to them a non-event. For five to ten minutes before you leave your dog do not interact with them, no matter how tempting it is to snuggle and reassure them prior to your departure. The same upon your return, do not be tempted to join in the frenzied “welcome home, I thought you were gone forever” greeting.
2. Deal with Triggers
If your dog jumps up when you pick up your keys/put on your coat etc, change their response to these triggers by regularly picking up your keys and sitting down to watch TV and then putting your keys back where they are kept. Similarly, put on your coat, make a cup of tea and then hang your coat back up. Over time, your dog will not be triggered by the jingling of the keys as it will no longer predict your departure. When you arrive back home, distract yourself by putting away the shopping, changing your shoes, putting on the kettle etc and only greet your dog or puppy, as enthusiastically as you like, when they have calmed down and have all four paws on the floor.
3. Separation Training
Throughout the day, make a conscious effort to leave your dog alone at least three times, this can be for periods of up to an hour or for as little as 10 mins. The ideal time for this is after a play session or walk and toileting opportunity, ensuring that your dog is well exercised and comfortable. You do not have to leave the house, simply stand up, do not speak to the dog and leave the room closing the door behind you. You can make these times really rewarding for your dog by leaving a food puzzle or favourite toy that is only available when you are absent. Return quietly and calmly and resume your activity.
4. Puppy Separation Training
It is advisable to contain puppies, for periods during the day, in a puppy play pen or similar with their bed/crate, water bowl, some appropriate toys and puppy pads if you are using them. Practice walking past your puppy without acknowledging them; no looking, no talking, no touching (no matter how cute they are). This will help your puppy to understand that movement from you does not predict interaction with them and they will learn to ignore it. This will also prevent your puppy following you from room to room. Some adult dogs may also benefit from no looking, no talking, no touching as you walk past them, particularly if they are hyper aware of your movements.
If you are unsure of how your dog is behaving while you are gone it is a good idea to set up a video link so that you can watch them. This can be as simple as a video call from an appliance in the room to your phone but mute yourself so that you cannot be heard!
This can help you in two ways; it can reassure you that your dog is quite happy and settles quickly when you leave, or it can show you that your dog is exhibiting signs of distress and anxiety and needs additional help to feel safe and secure when alone.
If you feel your dog needs a little extra support, there are a few things you can do to help to reassure them.
• Reduce the duration of the ‘alone times’ but remember to leave and return without a fuss.
• Leave a favourite treat or activity toy.
• Play classical music in the background which has been shown to be beneficial.
Top Tip: Insert a previously worn sweatshirt into a zipped cushion cover and place it on your dog’s bed or favourite place to sleep. This will provide your dog with your scent and a comfortable item to lie on.
Unfortunately, dogs do not ‘grow out of’ or ‘get over’ Separation Anxiety. If you your dog exhibits more than one of the symptoms listed above it is vital that you seek the help from a force free / non aversive behavioural consultant who will liaise with your veterinarian to rule out any medical causes before putting a specific behavioural programme in place which may include the use of prescribed medication. These behaviour modification programmes take time and commitment and are not a quick fix.
• Prevention is better than cure!
• Start practising today, start small and build duration as required.
• Seek help from a force free professional if symptoms are severe and set yourself and your dog up for a successful return to normality.
• ‘Normality’ not only includes family members returning to work, school or college but holidays that may require kennelling or other care for your dog as well as visits to the groomer or vet.
• Never, ever punish your dog upon your return, their behaviour is a symptom of their panic and distress. They are not doing it to be naughty or spiteful or to punish you for leaving them. They are terrified and out of control because they have not been taught to feel safe and secure without you.
• Practice training some basic or new behaviours using force free methods, gentle training builds confidence.
• Enjoy this precious time with your canine companion and make it count.
Top Tip: If you would like to play classical music to your dog while you are away, there are YouTube channels with music specifically designed to reduce anxiety in dogs. These are also available on other channels such as Spotify.