The Trainers Corner: Dealing With Dog Separation Anxiety
One of the most common issues that dog owners describe to us is a dog that starts to portray signs of stress or gets very clingy when the owner leaves home—or just leaves the room. What we define as separation anxiety in dogs.
If you’re dealing with a distressful dog at the moment too, we recently interviewed one of our highly skilled dog trainers Ariza Nel for some trainer insider tips to help you rehabilitate your dog from their separation anxiety symptoms like excessive salivation, barking, whining, destroying household items, accidents inside the house, aggression towards other people and dogs and struggling to be confined to their crate.
Common Dog Separation Anxiety Issues and Solutions
Dog Trainer Interview: Ariza Nel
For the sake of my answers, I am not going to refer to this as “dog feels lonely” but rather what we call it in the dog training industry – dog separation anxiety. I’m also going to outline the most common behavioural issues associated with separation anxiety and solutions that dog owners can implement at home
Issue #1: If a dog is lonely, what behaviour might he exhibit before you leave/in anticipation of you leaving?
Explanation: Whatever ritual or routine you follow before leaving, the dog will pick up on these e.g. I brush my teeth, water the plants, pick up my car keys and put on my work boots EVERY TIME BEFORE I LEAVE. After multiple repetitions, the dog will start to link that when you start brushing your teeth, you are probably going to leave, when you leave this causes stress to the animal, thus brushing teeth = stress signals and behaviours.
Solution: Do the exact same routine, but don’t actually leave – over an extended period of time, the dog should start to relax a bit more. Along with this, give the dog an alternative routine that makes the dog feel like it has the power to make you leave or stay e.g. go to your bed outside, you get a nice treat and I’ll leave you for 10min (dog doesn’t know how long you’ll leave him) and then come back and get the dog. Also, teach the dog to be by itself even when you are home, don’t let it be a shadow – this will teach the dog to become confidant to be by itself.
Explanation: There is no one size fits all of behaviours that dog’s will do to prevent the owner from leaving (e.g. the dog starts to howl when I pick up my car keys), each dog is an individual and will express their emotional stress differently. Having said that, there are certain common behaviours that dog’s might exhibit when they are stressed e.g. licking of lips, becoming vocal or seeking physical contact with the owner – when the owner exhibits the cue that tell the dog they are leaving like picking up your car keys to leave.
Solution: Get to know your dog. Spend time watching it while you are having a cup of tea in multiple situations, so you can see what it does to communicate when it’s happy and when it’s stressed e.g. watching how it reacts to different things that kids do.
Issue #2: In addition to barking/howling, being destructive and having accidents, are there any other signs a dog may be lonely?
Explanation: Yes. Again, every dog is an individual – but it will be a behaviour that the dog will ONLY exhibit before you leave, what the behaviour is will depend on the dog.
Solution: Get to know your dog. Spend time watching it while you try different triggers and soon you’ll discover exactly what triggers your dog to feel stressed.
Issue #3: Can dogs become more needy over time, perhaps because of certain changes to their routine or just because they’re getting older? What are some examples of changes that might trigger loneliness in a dog?
Explanation: There are 2 main factors, amongst others, that must be taken into consideration.
- The temperament of the dog, how well they cope with stress and overcome change. Some dogs never have a routine with feeding and they don’t care, others might.
- The conditioned routines the owner puts in place. If you a feed a dog every day for 6 years at 06:00 in the morning and 17:00 at night, you have then created an expectation. If you suddenly change this routine, this might stress the animal and it will start to exhibit signals and behaviours to try and cope with this sudden change. If the dog becomes more stressed, the behaviours might become worse and that might come across as the dog “becomes anxious” – the changes will be relative to the dog’s expectations.
Solution: Get to know your dog. Learn what their limitations are, what you can train or improve and what you will have to manage for the rest of your dog’s life.
Issue #4: If a dog is not lonely, what will he typically do while you’re at work during the day? Is it normal for them to sleep for long duration’s?
Explanation: No idea. You can set up a camera and see what your dog is currently doing, it will be different for every dog. Take into consideration what type of breed you have; their genetics will dictate what they will be naturally inclined to do when they are left to their own devices e.g. Terriers will generally explore and dig, so you might come back to a garden full of holes. Or, a German Shepherd will be barking all the time chasing birds, so your neighbour might complain about the barking. This does not mean the dog is being malicious, he is just doing what nature is telling him to do.
Solution: Get to know your dog. Give the dog alternative means of entertaining themselves that will work for them e.g. give the Terrier access to a sand pit where it can dig but restrict access to your favourite garden with a solid fence.
Issue #5: Is there anything you can do to make your dog’s environment more comforting while you’re gone? Or to keep them entertained?
Explanation: If you just give your dog unsupervised freedom – then that’s exactly what it is and they can do what they want!
Solution: We are a big fan of a crate or kennel, you can even use a delegated area in- or outside the home environment. This is a room where anything inside is fair game, if you put your favourite shoes in there, they will get eaten. Most dogs will protest at first, but they do learn to accept it, some take longer than others. Most of the time they will chew the treats you leave with them, play with a toy and then just go to sleep until you get back. As the dog matures and shows that it knows what is expected, it will earn more freedom.
You can give them interactive toys, but realistically, that won’t last for 8 hours a day, every day. The dog has to learn to relax by itself.
Issue #6: Are there ways to train a dog to overcome their loneliness? Maybe by leaving them for progressively longer period of time?
Solution: From the moment you get your dog, it must have:
- Time by itself, when you are home (like him outside and you inside)
- Time in your presence but not your shadow (like inside a crate or ex-pen, while you do normal every day stuff)
- Time with you and interacting with you (playing or cuddling)
- Time by itself when you are not home at all (bear in mind if your dog can’t be without in in points 1 – 2, how will it cope when you are not actually at home?)
Any time your dog exhibits stress signals you can either ignore it until the dog calms down e.g. you are not coming into the house until you stop barking, OR give the dog an alternative, I will let you in when you are calm on your bed.
If you’ve come up with similar issues, obedience and lifestyle training and setting boundaries and rules at home are all necessary for a well-behaved dog and building a foundation for a great relationship with your furry friend.
Separation anxiety in dogs can be overcome, and for some dogs can be turned around fairly quickly whilst others may require a little more patience and consistency.
We understand it can be difficult to find the time to give your dog specialised at home training which is why we’re here to help! Ariza and our team of qualified in-house dog trainers are specialists in developing tailored programs for dogs that suffer from anxiety driven behavioural issues.
So, if your dog is struggling to snap out of their funk and making life difficult for you, then this might be the perfect time to discover how our training programs can help you.
We look forward to seeing you soon!