Separation Anxiety

“Snoopy hadn’t realised that bouncing up to people’s shoulders, barking and bouncing about didn’t suit his retired owners. They had wanted a calm dog to go with them on sedate walks and Snoopy didn’t know the meaning of calm! He was taken to a foster home to wait for a new family. This made him nervous as he loved human company but he soon got used to following his new foster carer around. Luckily for him he soon found a great new home with a young couple and 2 children. This second change made him even more uncomfortable so he followed his new owners around even more closely. It was the beginning of the summer holidays and he soon settled and had a fantastic time surrounded by people he loved. He followed them everywhere, travelled in the car with them and slept at the foot of his new best friend’s bed every night.

The day came though when the school term began again. Mum and Dad were both teachers and so Snoopy was settled into his bed with a nice toy and a blanket, given a cuddle, told to be good and left alone.

The house became eerily quiet once they’d all disappeared. When would they be back? Would they ever be back? He was terrified that he was being abandoned and would again lose the family he cared for. He rushed around the house barking and howling, scrabbling to get out under the door. In his panic he peed on the floor and then lost himself in a frenzied attack on the sofa cushions. The feathers flying about the room distracted him and made him feel a little better. Finally, exhausted, he fell into a twitchy sleep until the key turned in the door. He was overjoyed to see his family home again and was mortified when they reacted to his greeting with horror and anger. The next time they all went away he was even more upset and then terrified when they all came back because they shouted at him.”

This scenario is sadly all too common. Particularly young dogs, and those whose lives have been disrupted, are very prone to suffering from separation fears, particularly when their circumstances change, and it manifests itself in many different ways. The question is, what can we do about it?

Some dogs will always be anxious when left alone and some breeds are more dependent on the company of their owners than others, but all of them can be helped to learn that they are safe and secure when on their own and that life doesn’t end when the door slams shut. As with all behaviour modification, it’s important to communicate with dogs in a language they understand.  Here are a few tips to help you to deal with this worrying problem.

-The first thing to do is to establish a calm relationship with the dog in which he only receives your attention when you decide to give it. It may seem unkind to ignore your dog when he hassles you for attention but designate specific times several times a day for play and cuddles and try not to give in to him at other times. He needs to understand that you are not available to attend to him all the time and that nothing bad happens if he’s not being fussed whenever he wants.

-Make sure your dog has a cosy den to settle in where he knows he will be safe and can enjoy good and satisfying chews and other treats.

-The next stage is to get him accustomed to being in a different room from you sometimes, if he tends to follow you around. When you go through a door, pull it to behind you with the dog on the other side. Open it again after a few seconds and walk back into the room saying nothing. Just a couple of minutes to start with and the dog will come to realise that his owner will return and nothing terrible happened when he was away.

There are various ways to help a dog to feel comfortable alone for increasing periods of time and once he can stay in another room calmly you can move on to leaving the house.

-Think about the rituals you go through when you leave the house and try to eliminate them if possible. For example don’t put on your coat or rattle the door keys. Equally, you can occasionally put on your coat, rattle keys or whatever, and not leave the house, to confuse the signals. Go calmly out of the door without acknowledging the dog and come in again, through another door if possible. It’s very important not to speak to, look at or otherwise interact with him during this exercise, to let him know that everything is perfectly normal. From this stage you can slowly extend the time that you leave him alone.

-Try to increase the length of time you leave him gradually and not in large steps, or you may undo all the training you’ve achieved so far.

-If you have to go away during this time of readjustment, ask a friend to be with your dog to help reduce his anxiety.

-Think carefully about what might be acting as a trigger for his anxiety. If his anxiety makes him react straight away when you prepare to leave, watch him as you go through the steps you take and try to eliminate what may be setting off his panic attacks.

-Leave him with a puzzle toy to occupy him whilst you are out.

-It may help him to leave a TV or radio playing whilst you are out but take care that the radio doesn’t become a signal of your departure.

Separation issues are one of the most common behavioural problems presented to behaviour counsellors. Separation Anxiety is the most severe form of separation problems and usually medication is needed in combination with behavioural modification to help. So, train your dog to accept that being alone sometimes is fine and that it’s no big deal when you leave, be a consistent and loving leader to your dog and separation anxiety will become a problem of the past!