If you’ve never had the misfortune of owning or loving a dog with separation anxiety, consider yourself incredibly lucky. Dogs with this condition have been known to shred carpets, chew through drywall, eat siding, snack on electrical cords and jump through sliding glass doors. Luckily, not every case is this severe. It can present in many different forms and levels of intensity, from dogs that howl incessantly (calling for their missing pack members,) to dogs that are so stressed that they’d rather cause themselves grave injury than spend an afternoon alone. Here’s a few idea’s to help ease the frustration while you work compassionately to teach your dog that being alone can be a very good thing.
1. THIS IS IMPORTANT: Quit making “Hello’s and goodbye’s” a big deal… If you’re saying hello and goodbye to your dog at all, you are contributing to the problem. This is one of the hardest habits to break and it falls on the human side of things. This takes practice and consistency, but it’s very effective in training your dog that you are the pack leader and that you can come and go as you please. It’s not something to get freaked out about.
When you leave for a while, don’t say goodbye, just walk out the door. It may be important to alter your routine somewhat because your dog has associated your morning routine with you being gone all day. If you have more than one door, try leaving out the back door and listening for a while… You are actually going to have to practice leaving the house and coming back after just a short while… extending the length of your absence until your dog quits acting all “zoomy and freaky…”
It’s important to ignore an overstimulated dog until they relax and settle down. If your dog gets all wired upon your return, simply walk in the house and completely ignore the dog until they stop trying so hard to get your attention. Don’t engage them period. No eye contact, petting…. Simply do the things you’d normally do if you didn’t have a dog. Take your coat off, put your groceries away, read a book… Once they give up on getting your attention or lay down and quit trying so hard, you can then call them to you, have them sit and calmly reward compliance.
2. It’s so obvious it’s ridiculous, but #2 is Exercise your dog…. Exercise is critical for dogs that suffer from Separation Anxiety. A tired dog doesn’t have the energy to tear furniture to smithereens, chew up designer shoes or bark for 10 consecutive hours..
Consider implementing Long morning walks into your daily routine, (practice leadership on the walk and make the dog follow you. Eventually, you can add a backpack and slowly build up to just shy of 20% of the dogs weight (provided they’re in good health and don’t have joint issues.) This will help to add a little more physical challenge to the walk. Or make time for a game of fetch or another physical activity that your dog enjoys, before you leave for the day.
3. Provide something to do while you’re gone. One of the “Busy Dog” toys… like a Buster cube (a toy that rolls around and randomly spits out pieces of kibble,) can keep a dog busy for an hour or more, once he’s figured out how to operate it. A Kong toy stuffed with peanut butter and kibble and then frozen, can keep even an aggressive chewer, busy for a couple of hours. Chewing stimulates the release of all kinds of “feel good” hormones and it also helps to drain a little energy. Kong toys are pretty indestructible, but some dogs are better equipped for destruction than others. However, finding a chewed up Kong is much better than coming home & finding something that you didn’t want chewed up. Monitor Chewing activity for appropriateness (at first) and if a toy becomes damaged, replace it! It’s less expensive to replace a chewed up toy than to pay for emergency surgery for a bowel obstruction.. Remember to rotate toys daily, to keep your dog interested.
4. Try taking your dog to daycare… the extra exercise does wonders. Often with solid leadership and extra exercise, these problems diminish.. One or two days a week may be all that is necessary to keep these behaviors at bay. If dog daycare isn’t in your budget, consider hiring a dog walker or a neighbor kid to come play with your dog while you’re gone.
5. Try leaving the TV or Radio on while you’re gone… (especially if you often have one of these devices on when you are home.) It can camouflage “normal” neighborhood noises, hopefully quelling some of the noise-reactive barking, as well as providing a anxious dog with the comfort of human voices and/or music.
6. Practice Solid Leadership skills. If a dog isn’t getting adequate leadership, they will assume the pack leader role in the household. This is not a role that most dogs, (especially the anxious ones) are comfortable with. It puts the dog in the unfortunate position of evaluating everyone and everything and assessing their threat potential. Take the role away from the dog and he or she will be much more comfortable knowing that you’ve got it handled and that it’s your job to protect them, not the other way around.
7. Provide some sort of activity or toy, something to chew on that does not have the potential of being choked on when you are not there. I do not like rawhides because of the potential for choking.
8. Try Feeding your dog his main meal before you leave for work, This may help, but depends upon their bladder & bowel control. Food can make a dog (or a person) sleepy due to the body’s energy going to work to digest the food in a full stomach.
If it takes you some time to get ready in the morning, you can feed the dog early in the AM and let them out to go potty before you leave for work. Keep in mind that playing on a full stomach can cause gastric problems like Bloat… so never let your dog engage in heavy exercise on a full tummy. Wait at least an hour, preferably 90 minutes so that your dog has adequate time to digest.
9. If you aren’t already doing this, start doing some obedience work with the dog. Teaching the basics: Sit, Stay, Lay, Off, Leave it, Loose leash walking. Working in this fashion will help your dog to realize that you are the leader and that you have the authority to come and go as you see fit. Obedience helps to cement the leadership role and believe it or not, a simple command like SIT, has been known to save lives.
10. Make sure your dog is comfortable while you’re gone. Clean bedding (provided they’re not chewers,) and adequate fresh, clean water are important. Try leaving a ratty old T-shirt that has your scent on it, in your dogs bedding. Make certain that it’s not one that you care about, as it very well may get totally destroyed. Having your scent there, can often calm and anxious dog.
I have a theory about Separation anxiety. Put yourself in the pack leader, family matriarch/patriarch role. Now transfer that same thought process to your dog. If you’re not your dogs’ leader, then you are their charge. You’re leaving the house for 8-10 hours everyday, your dog doesn’t know where you’re going, what you’re doing, he doesn’t understand that you have to make a living to keep him in milk bones… He just knows that you aren’t there and he’s picturing all the potential threats that might get you… The garbage truck, the evil UPS man and whatever other boogey men dogs imagine. If you’re not the dogs’ leader, he’s yours. He’s in charge of taking care of you. Picture how you would feel if your child disappeared for 8 to 10 hours a day and came home without an explanation? Not so nice now that the shoe is on the other foot. Leadership is important. Practice leadership and obedience and it will help.
11. Train the “Velcro Dog” to be more independent. Don’t allow leaning, body blocking and don’t reward attention seeking behavior. (This will take some work and a lot of consistency on your part.)
12. Desensitize your dog to his behavioral triggers. (The clues that you’re leaving the house.) This also takes work. Some dogs get very agitated by the clues that you’re about to leave the house. Something as simple as the act of putting on your shoes, can drive a Velcro dog into a total, “don’t leave me” meltdown. So you’ll have to do things like put on your coat, pick up your keys and go about your morning routine without leaving… You’ll also have to work on the act of walking outside without the dog, and training him that you always return… you’ll start short and build up as his or her tolerance grows. Practicing things such as long, down-stays and the like can help keep the Velcro dog off of your leg while you do routine things like watch TV or unload groceries. A good dog trainer or behavior specialist can give you more idea’s and help you to formulate a detailed plan that will work. Shaking up your normal morning routine may also desensitize your dog to some triggers.
Reality Check: Look in the mirror. Remember a few weeks ago I wrote an article called, your dog is your mirror? Well it’s true!
if there are stressors related to you leaving the house… i.e.. problems at work, your dog is going to reflect your own mental state. If you’re anxious or upset, your dog is going to show some unusual behaviors. I see it in my own dogs. When I was stressed out about losing my last job.. (Which in retrospect was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,,) My dogs were under stress. We had a new house, (with a mortgage payment double the last one,) Steve had a new business and all of a sudden, I had no job to pay for it all… I was off my rocker with stress. But the clients came and now Adventure Dog Ranch is a successful business. Why? Because we’re passionate about what we do and it shows… Has it been an easy transition? No. It’s hard to go from two steady (and adequate) paychecks, to not being sure that you can pay the power bill and the mortgage, but we’ve done it and for the most part, it’s been wonderful.
If the roles were reversed and your dog came home from work everyday frustrated and angry because he didn’t like his job, you would probably not want your dog to go to work either. See it from your dogs’ point of view: If you’re always in a rush to get somewhere, (maybe you subconsciously wait until the last possible moment to leave because you don’t really want to?) Or if you find yourself in a bad mood when you get home, could it be because your boss is an ass and takes it out on you? This is a bad thing. Your dog wants you to live in the moment and enjoy life.
As a last resort, there are medications that can help… I’m not a big fan of doping the dog, but if the dog is at risk of causing himself serious harm, then we need to do something immediately.
If your dog is so stressed about the thought of being left alone, that he will jump through a closed window or scratch through the drywall and siding to get out, you really need professional help..
Kerri — The Alpha Dogs’ Wife
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