With lots of us having been at home with our dogs much more than usual during lockdown, they may be finding it challenging now we’re starting to leave them alone again.
Any change in your dog’s behaviour when they’re left can be a sign of separation anxiety. We often think of dogs that have destroyed the sofa or scratched through doors as suffering from separation anxiety, but actually it can often be much more subtle and easy to miss.
How do you know if your dog is suffering with separation anxiety?
Research has shown that most dogs with separation anxiety will show a change in their behaviour within the first ten minutes of being left. A really easy way to see how your dog responds is to set your phone up to video and just pop outside for ten minutes and see what they get up to. If your dog is happy and relaxed you’d normally want to see them eating, drinking and sleeping.
How can you help ease separation anxiety?
Firstly, we need to look at what part of being away from you your dog finds difficult – some dogs will struggle with the distance away from you (like the ‘velcro’ dog that always follows you around), whereas some dogs might only begin to struggle when they can’t see you (for example if you’re at home but in a different room). While both factors play a part, they’ll normally find one more difficult than the other.
The first step in helping your dog with separation anxiety is to develop some independence. This might be giving your dog a Kong while you go in a different room, or scatter feeding in the garden while you’re inside. You can incorporate this into your daily routine, for example, you might scatter feed their breakfast in the morning while you go inside to get ready, or they have a Kong in a different room while you’re preparing dinner.
It’s important to keep switching between different distances, and places where the dog can and can’t see you to really help them become more independent. In severe cases where your dog struggles with any distance or visual barrier, it might just be that you throw a treat for them whenever they choose to move away from you. Once your dog is comfortable with the distance and visual barriers then you can start to increase the length of time they’re alone for. Making sure they’re happy in very short sessions first with different distances and visual barriers is essential before we start to add in any duration.
The second step in supporting your dog with separation anxiety is to help them to be calmer and more relaxed in everyday life. If you have a dog that barks at every noise, or is just always running around and super excited then they’re likely to already be quite stressed. Being left alone is the final straw and that additional stress starts to show in changes in their behaviour.
Having enough rest is such an important factor in your dog’s behaviour and one that is so often overlooked. Making sure your dog has some downtime can make a huge difference so it’s important to strike a balance – this might be having a Kong or long-lasting chew, or even a dedicated place such as a room or crate (if they’re happy in the crate) which is quiet with not much going on. It’s really easy to end up trying to tire your dog out before you leave to help with their separation anxiety, but as most dogs show signs of separation anxiety within the first ten minutes of being left, it’s much more likely the behaviour is due to stress rather than just boredom or having too much energy after such as a short time. If we can leave our dogs already in a calm and relaxed state instead of hyped up from an exciting walk, then we’re in a much better place to start improving their separation anxiety.
Lastly, we need to take a look at all the little clues we give our dog that we’re about to leave. Just like your dog knows picking up the lead means you’re going for a walk, your dog will be very aware of the little things you do when you’re about to go out such as picking up your keys or your bag. If our dogs are predicting we’re about to leave then they’re starting to become stressed before we’ve even gone through the door.
If your dog has severe separation anxiety they might even actively be looking out for any sign you’re about to leave. To help with this, we need to try and break those associations. You can do this by really mixing up your routine – perhaps you get your keys and your bag and head to the front door, then turn round come straight back in and play with your dog, or get up and head for the door and come straight back and sit down.
If you keep working on all 3 steps then over time you’ll start to see some big improvements with your dog’s separation anxiety, by creating a dog that’s generally more relaxed, happy to be on their own and not constantly looking for any sign that you might leave.