Since the lifting of the Covid lock-down, we’ve had many customers asking us about separation anxiety in dogs. This is not surprising. Lots of people bought puppies during Covid to keep them company when working from home. However, restrictions lifted, and we went back to work. Owners are leaving their dogs for the first time. And for long periods.
In this article, we want to talk about separation anxiety; the misconceptions surrounding it and how to deal with it effectively.
What is Separation anxiety in dogs?
Separation anxiety is a term used to describe negative behaviours from a dog when the owner isn’t around.
Separation anxiety can take different forms:
Defecating or urinating
Whining and scratching at doors and windows
Lack of appetite
Whilst these behaviours are all distressing to the dog and the owners, experts agree not to punish the dog for their actions. These behaviours are symptomatic of the underlying distress and anxiety. The dog is telling you they are unhappy and fearful.
Dogs are pack animals and thrive in social environments. Unlike other pets, dogs form close bonds with their owners. They like company and struggle when left alone for long periods.
So, what can you do if your dog is showing signs of separation anxiety?
Training for puppies with separation anxiety
When you first bring home your puppy, keep their bed or crate near to you at bedtime.
Gradually move the bed or crate away from you until you reach the desired place where your puppy will sleep.
Start training your puppy to get used to periods of separation. Put your coats on and crate your pup; leave the house but come back in after 10-20 seconds.
Repeat this gradually, increasing the time from seconds to minutes. If your puppy whines whilst you’re outside, you have increased the time too quickly. Retry with the previous time frame. Then proceed with longer periods.
To help with boredom, leave a chew toy, Licki-mat or a tasty bone. This provides mental stimulation while you’re away. Chewing also releases endorphins which help a dog relax. Giving your dog a treat will create a positive association with your leaving.
Don’t ignore your dog, but don’t make a tremendous fuss when leaving or returning. It is tempting to go overboard with affection and hugs when you greet your dog, however, you should always act calmly.
Separation anxiety in older dogs
Changes in circumstances can affect older dogs as they are used to a routine. Our expert advises owners of older dogs to focus on three fundamentals first:
We are what we eat, just like dogs. Your dog will feel better, mentally and physically on higher quality food.
“Your dog may survive on cheap food, but they won’t thrive.” Dog trainer Tony Cruse
All dogs need physical exercise. If you leave your dog indoors all day, they have all this pent-up energy and nowhere to put it. This results in chewing, whining, and barking. Dogs should go out at least once a day and be able to run around. Try walking different routes so that your dog can sniff out new environments. Walk with other dog owners so the dogs can play together. Take a ball or throw toy with you to run off some of that energy.
As well as physical exercise, dogs need mental stimulation. Do you play with your dog at home? Dogs love to engage with their owners. Why not hide treats around the house or garden to get them to find them? Buy a Licki-mat and smear with doggy peanut butter to stimulate their senses. Give your dog a big ham bone or one of our longer lasting treats to keep them occupied.
If you have an older dog with separation issues, make sure you take care of the three basics before you try any behaviour modifications. Then, once you’re confident with the basics, start the training slowly and from scratch.
Training for older dogs with separation anxiety
Prepare your dog for times you are leaving by giving them a nice treat, saying “I won’t be long,” putting your coat and shoes on and leaving the house for a couple of minutes (shorten the time outside if your dog is still anxious). If your dog gets anxious when you put your coat and shoes on, put them on, but don’t go outside. Sit with your dog, not making a fuss over it, and take them off again. Repetition is the key.
Once your dog gets used to you being gone for a couple of minutes, enter the house, acknowledge the dog (but don’t go overboard with a fuss). Gently take the treat away once you are inside. Repeat this behaviour, increasing the time spent outside until you can leave for longer periods. If your dog gets upset at the sound of the car, start the engine then switch it off and come back inside. Again, repeat until the dog is used to you leaving.
The trick is to reassure your dog you are coming back, leaving them in a healthy state when you go, and with something to occupy them. Some owners like to leave a radio or the TV on, so the house isn’t silent when they go out.
Tony Cruse’s last piece of advice is not to leave your dog immediately after you’ve walked them. Some owners rush to walk their dogs, then disappear out the door while their dog is still panting and excited. Let your dog settle down before you go.