Ten Ways to Help Your Dog with Separation Anxiety
Valeri Farmer-Dougan, Ph.D.
Many dogs have trouble adapting when you move from being home most of the time to being gone for longer periods of time. In addition, you need to adapt to a new schedule, and this can be stressful on you. Remember, your dog watches you and follows your moods and anxiety- so it is certainly not surprising that he or she picks up on the anxiety you may have about the new schedule in addition to his or her own anxiety.
The best way to deal with separation anxiety is to try and prevent it. If you know you are returning to a different schedule months or weeks ahead, that is the time to begin the transition. But don’t worry, many of the same techniques can be used if you have already returned to the new schedule. So, let’s get started.
First step is developing a routine. Practice makes perfect (and prevents separation anxiety!). Try and mimic a normal day that represents the days when you will be gone from the home. Move your dog’s meals, playtimes, walks, naps and bedtimes so they mimic the new routine. Get up at the time you will be needing to get ready. Feed your dog at the new times. Mimic when you would play or walk with your dog….and importantly, mimic the down times when your dog must nap or play quietly on his or her own.
Second, if you are starting ahead of time, start leaving your dog gradually. Start with 5 minutes (go get the mail and read it outside or in the garage); increase the time to 10 min., 30 min., an hour, 2 hours, etc. Go shopping, visit a friend, but leave the house. Work up towards the amount of time that you will be leaving your dog.
Third, develop a departure routine. Think carefully about how you leave: Do you pick up your keys or purse first? Do you grab your coffee or water bottle? When do you put on your shoes or coat? How do you go out the door? Do you drive out and put the garage door down? These are all important signals about the upcoming day. Write this down…and start using it as a training guide.
If you are starting this routine after your dog has shown anxiety, we need to back up and do lots and lots of training on days when you are home. Yep, you will be leaving on your day off, but it is for a great cause- your dog!
Start with the FIRST step in your leaving routine, for example, putting on your shoes. Put your shoes on, walk around the house, take them off. Watch your dog: Does he or she become distressed? Reassure them in a gentle voice and keep repeating until your dog no longer reacts to the first step.
Move to the first + second step. Again, keep doing these 2 steps until your dog no longer reacts. Then add step 3, 4, etc. until you are out the door.
When you finally get to leave, pull around the block, go down your apartment stairs, etc. Wait and listen: Does your dog howl and bark for a few minutes and then stop? Great. Does your dog show distress for longer? Then go back and work on the second step of gradually increasing the length of time you are gone.
Don’t be surprised if your dog becomes anxious as they hear or see you come home. They have been waiting forever (at least in their minds!)! They are excited to see you and may bark, whine or howl. We will work on this on #9.
Fourth, cameras are a great help. There are many cheap web cams on the internet or at big box stores. Having one of those mounted where the dog will be can be very beneficial for you. You can check in and see how your dog is doing, both during this training and when you are back on your new schedule. Some cameras allow you to talk to your dog, and there are even cameras that will allow you to deliver a treat!
Fifth, are you using a dog walker or someone to come in your house during the middle of the day? Be sure and introduce your dog to this person and see if they are a good fit. Then, have that person come over as you get further into training. Perhaps have them come over after 1 or 2 hours of you being gone to “practice” the walking/potty routine BEFORE you must be on your new schedule. This helps your dog learn this part of the routine and look forward to these visits rather than having them be a stressor.
Sixth, what about crates? IF you usually would have your dog or pup in a pen, kennel, exercise area or particular room, BE SURE To practice with the dog or pup in that area. Practice with this area and make this area a fun time. Find a safe place that they feel comfortable and is large enough for your dog to play with a chew toy and sleep comfortably. Some dogs need a relatively small place, so they do not soil the area. You might have to try several different solutions before you find the perfect fit for your dog.
Seventh, what about letting the dog roam the home? This depends on the dog. Some dogs are calmed when they are placed in small places like their kennel or a small room. For other dogs, being confined means that can’t find your scent, and this may be a bigger stressor. This is why we practice with short periods of time. Try a kennel, try more freedom…. determine your dog’s needs.
Eighth, select several “special” toys that will be for leaving days only. Kongs®, safe puzzle toys or other fillable toys are great choices. Fill the toy with squeeze cheese, peanut butter or other fillers made for dogs and give the filled toy to your dog only when you leave. Importantly, pick up this toy and put it away when you return. The toy becomes a cue for leaving, but also a cue for great treats and fun. This way the dog will look forward to the upcoming treat toy and less on you leaving.
Ninth, be calm, cool, and collected with greetings. Yes, I know you are very, very excited to see your pup and want to tell him or her how much you missed them. But this can be transmitted as anxiety to your pup. Your dog may begin to sense that being gone is stressful for you (and it may be!), and that can contribute to his or her stress. Instead, don’t make a big deal of returning. Ignore your dog if he or she is jumping on you, barking excessively, or engaging in another inappropriate behavior. Reinforce them for appropriate behavior with a gentle pet (not too exuberant, please), sweet talk, maybe even a special treat. Greet them in a calm voice and start your return-to-home routine. Do you let them out? Take them for a walk? Keep this consistent as well, so they know what to expect.
Tenth, relax. Remember that your dog senses your feelings and emotions. Try not to bring your job, school, or other activities “home with you”. When you leave the house, send cool, calm signals to your dog. Tell them goodbye and that you will be back in a voice that you might use with your partner or children (don’t we all say goodbye to our dogs?). Don’t be anxious, or your dog will pick up that leaving is very, very bad. When you return if you have had a bad day, your dog will sense it. Try to stay cool, calm, and collected even though you might be short tempered as you return. If your dog has been naughty and chewed the shoe, pottied on the floor- just clean it up. Remember your dog was so stressed it chewed, peed-on, etc., something that smelled like you. If he or she scratched the doors, chewed the edge of the carpet by the door, or other door-related misbehavior, she or he is telling you that they were so scared they tried to break out and escape. Note this, adjust your training, kenneling, etc.
Finally, tenth, let your dog comfort you, and you comfort your dog. Once you have entered the house; debriefed yourself for a few minutes, and then tell your dog all about the very-bad-day or let him or her tell you about theirs. Then, settle down for a nice evening together.