Learning to be alone for more than 5 minutes!
Adaptil collars and diffusers which help calm anxious dogs via pheromones, can help with the management of behavioural problems such as separation anxiety in dogs, but you also need to change some keys things in how you interact with your dog if you are going to help teach your dog to cope when you have to leave it to go to the shops, work, bed etc.
As with many behavioural problems there is no quick fix solution but with a dedicated and patient owner separation anxiety can be totally resolved.
The single most important fact to remember is never to punish the dog on returning to the house, no matter what has happened.
Some people mistakenly believe that getting another dog as a companion will alleviate their first dog’s loneliness when they are out. This may work in a dog which has suddenly lost a companion but rarely works in other cases.
The behaviour sometimes occurs when the owners are in the house, but have shut the dog away from them overnight. It can also occur in cars, although dogs which are destructive in cars do not necessarily show the behaviour in the house & vice versa. The dog may not be destructive every time it is left alone. A common pattern is that it behaves normally during separations which occur routinely (such as when the owner goes to work) but may be destructive during unexpected separations.
Two separate lines of action are undertaken in treating separation anxiety problems.
Stage 1 – Decrease dependency:
The relationship between the owner & the pet has to be altered to decrease dependency of the pet on its owner. This can be started straight away.
Often pets with separation anxiety will follow their owners around the house – even to the extent of lying outside the bathroom when the owner is inside. They will lay at their owner’s feet or climb on their laps to enable close contact at all times.
- At first the dog must be taught to be away from its owner. Ideally a special mat or place should be allocated in different rooms in the house. The dog must be taught to lie quietly in this place when asked to. Titbits can be used as rewards. If necessary, the dogs daily food ration can be reduced & replaced with titbits to hasten its compliance. Obviously you need to teach the dog to sit or lay if you haven’t already done so. (ask for advice if you are struggling with basic training).
- If the dog prefers to lie in doorways or passageways or at the foot of stairs it should be made to sleep elsewhere. These places are preferred by dominant dogs, by which I do not man aggressive ones, but those who do what they want when they like.
- Some dogs with separation anxiety are always dictating to their owners what to do, e.g. instigating games, asking for walks, asking for affection. These are the more dominant-natured dogs. It is the owner who must instigate activities and they must learn to ignore the dog’s commands.
- A babies’ stair gate in the doorway will prevent a dog following the owner around the house, yet allow visual & auditory contact.
- Dogs with separation anxiety often sleep on the owner’s bed or are allowed to sit on furniture beside their owners. This must not be allowed & again can be prevented by using a stair gate.
- Ideally once the dog has learnt to rest away from its owner the dividing door should be gradually closed, but only if no signs of anxiety are seen.
- A general, simple, daily obedience session is useful. This helps the dog to learn a calmer way to behave which then becomes a new, learnt behaviour.
- Asking the dog to sit or lie down before putting the lead on or before feeding makes the dog more obedient to its owner & lessens the extent to which it lives the way it wants to. A dog that has learnt to sit-stay & down-stay is being treated like a dog & even the simple act of teaching these commands will separate it from its owners to some degree and help to reduce anxiety.
In the early stages the dog may seem withdrawn or sulky. This is only temporary as the dog adjusts to a new way of life.
- Tip bits should be given only as rewards for good behaviour and NOT to satisfy the owner’s need to give comfort and pleasure to their pet (this can be done in other ways such as owner instigated play etc.
- Some dogs with separation anxiety feel calmer & happier if secured in a den. This usually means having an indoor kennel. The den or indoor kennel must be a fun place for the day & NEVER ASSOCIATED WITH PUNISHMENT. To begin with the kennel or cage must be part of the dog’s daily life. The dog should be encouraged to sleep in it & meals should be given in there. Affection & attention should be given when the dog is in the kennel. Instigation of games or walks should begin from the kennel. Only when the dog is happy to go into its kennel& stay there should the door be shut, and in the beginning this should be for short periods only.
- Some dogs will not accept close confinement. It simply exacerbates their problems or causes others. Dogs that do not tolerate confinement to a kennel or even to one room may be well behaved if they have full run of the house. It does however take a brave owner to try this approach.
It is possible that these steps to decrease owner dependency will suffice to calm a dog to the point that it will not suffer from separation anxiety anymore. If not, the next step is for the owner to de-emphasise the importance of their departure & return.
Stage 2 – Systematic desensitization:
De-emphasize the importance of departure and arrival and train the dog to be alone. This is best left to when you have some time to spare and the effects of stage 1 are becoming apparent.
To desensitise dogs to being left, the owner must break down their actions in detail. Many an owner compounds the anxiety of a dog when leaving by prolonging the goodbye, cuddling, sweet talking & giving extreme love. All this just heightens the anxiety in a dog.
Dogs have no concept of time they feel the same whether they are left for 20 minutes or 2 hours.
- Behave calmly before leaving a dog…
- Teach the dog to lie quietly in a certain place (eg. It’s basket)
- Ignore the dog totally for up to an hour if possible before the owner leaves so that it is not a major crisis when he or she departs. Only acknowledge the dog to correct it if it strays from lying quietly in its basket.
- During treatment sessions the dog is told to lie in its basket while the owner performs actions connected with leaving the house. Start at the point in the departure sequence at which the dog becomes agitated, (e.g. putting on his coat). When the dog can remain calmly in its basket while he does that, the owner should go on to the next activity (e.g. taking out his car keys) and so on.
- Eventually treatment should reach the point where the owner is actually able to leave the house with the dog lying calmly in its bed. His departure should first of all be extremely brief; in fact, he should begin by opening the door immediately after he has closed it. If the dog is still in its basket when he opens the door, he should praise & reward it in its basket, not allowing it to run & greet him excitedly at the door.
- The length of departures should be gradually built up, but should be slightly irregular, so that the dog cannot absolutely predict when the owner will return. A typical sequence of departure times within a training session, might be one minute, 3 minutes, 2 minutes and so on. If, during a training session the dog becomes progressively more excited every time the owner returns, he should leave a longer interval between each departure to allow it to calm down.
- The owner must return in a quiet, calm manner & matter of factly greet the dog, ignoring its over-excited manner. If it helps the owner should walk in backwards & only turn to face the dog once it has calmed down, thus rewarding its calm behaviour with the visual & sensual contact it craves.
- The dog will be less excited if it is well exercised & fed prior to the owner’s departure.
- A radio left playing may not greatly assist the problem but will do no harm & may help some dog feel they are not alone.
- Treatment will have a much better chance of success if the dog is not left alone over the period of treatment. Many owners find this difficult to arrange, but if they are convinced of its importance, they can often make arrangements to leave the dog with someone or carry out the treatment during holiday time.
Tape recorders can be used to find out how long it takes for the problem to begin & to identify if there are any instigating factors such as postmen, telephone, doorbells or noises outside. If relevant instigating factors can be treated as one would for most phobias.
A dog which whines or barks when left is only trying to maintain contact with its owner, to call him back. It is just like a pup calling for its mother. The only answer is to desensitize the dog to the departure of its owner, which must be undertaken calmly & in the knowledge that it is time consuming business. It is repetitive, boring work – but ultimately very rewarding.
Intervention with drugs can be dramatically successful in initially assisting with some cases. Particularly when the problem is so severe that the owner is distressed beyond the point where long term but inevitably slow improvements have much appeal. (ACP, Diazepam, Selgian, Clomipramine.)