The fear of being alone
“Alright, time to get ready for work” you think to yourself as you scoff the last sip of coffee, get up from the chair where the morning paper has given you the latest updates on the Corona virus spread. You stretch and yawn, before trotting into the bathroom and beginning your ‘departure routine’.
What you don’t realise, however, is that your dog notices all your cues. It begins to pace. It is constantly on your heels, mouth half open, panting as the stress begins to build.
“He is leaving me again.”
You shower, brush your teeth, get dressed, grab your coat and reach for the car keys. It’s the same routine as every other morning. A routine that your dog is all too aware of, and a routine that builds an explosive amount of anxious energy. You say goodbye to your dog, step through the door and lock it, triggering a low whimper, as your dog begins its cycle of fear of being alone.
SEPARATION ANXIETY – AN ADDICTION TO ATTENTION
I cannot remember where I heard this phrase, but to me it summed up separation anxiety perfectly; “Separation anxiety is simply an addiction to attention” (when I find out who said it, I will credit them!).
Dogs do not understand the purpose of our world, but they are forced to live in it, so how can we make that easier for them?”
At its very core, that is as simple as it is. Dogs are pack animals, they’re dependent on their “crew” to find shelter, food and all other necessities. Over thousands of years, we humans have largely replaced other canines as the pack that they are dependent on. And so, the dog will look to us for survival and love.
But the problem is that our world is designed for us, not for our canine companions. We have to leave for extended periods of time, to “hunt” for money to feed and shelter our pack. Dogs do not understand the purpose of our world, but they are forced to live in it, so how can we make that easier for them?
The very first signs we see in dogs that are starting to suffer from separation anxiety, is the dog constantly following its owner. It can sleep soundly on its bed while the owner reads the paper, but as soon as the human moves, the dog jumps up and follows. The dog will also consistently attempt to keep their human in line of sight. This is an attempt to control their environment, and to keep their owners from leaving them. And it is a stressful behaviour, that builds and builds, until it comes out as anxiety.
It is important to talk about getting another dog to keep the anxious dog company. This is very much a roll of the dice, which I have seen fail more often, than succeed. In some cases, yes, all that the anxious dog wanted was someone to hang around with. But in most cases, the anxiety of you leaving, is now simply transferred to the new dog, and you now have two dogs which share the separation anxiety, and feeds off each other’s stress, making it even worse. I would recommend you work with your current dog, get it comfortable being by itself, and then look at getting a companion for him or her.
THE BEATLES WERE WRONG
“All you(r dog) need is love!”
This is a persistent idea within certain groups of dog training, that is simply wrong and is in fact more likely to create problems, rather than fixing them. If someone ever gives you this piece of “advice”, I recommend you lock the door on them, and throw away the key.
While this relates to all avenues of dog training, I find it to be particularly problematic around separation anxiety. Dogs are naturally pushy. They will always try to better their own situation, by controlling their environment through their behaviour. And the more we allow them to push us around, the harder they will stretch the limits.
I do not allow my dogs to be pushy. If they put their paws on me in order to get patted, I send them away. If they bark at me for attention, I remove them from the area. If they display bad manners when I’m putting food bowls down, the food is taken away from them. These boundaries teach them respect and self-control, and with respect and self-control, comes manners and calmness.
Say a dog comes up to you and pushes its head into your hand. What do you think the dog is doing? Showing you how much it loves you? Or is it in fact pushing you for attention and pats, which it feels it deserves at that point in time? I am going to agree it is the latter. A dog that’s lacking boundaries, tends to appear bratty, pushy and spoilt – all signs of a dog that is insecure and in desperate need of constant attention. A disaster waiting to happen.
I do not allow my dogs to be pushy. If they put their paws on me in order to get patted, I send them away. If they bark at me for attention, I remove them the area. If they display bad manners when I’m putting food bowls down, the food is taken away from them. These boundaries teach them respect and self-control, and with respect and self-control, comes manners and calmness. And do you know what? They don’t do those things! Because I have taught them to follow me, not to push me. They know what’s right and wrong, and they follow the rules, and they get what they desire from me. And more importantly, they couldn’t care less about me leaving, because they know I’ll come back, when I am ready.
THE THREE MOST IMPORTANT FACTORS – BOUNDARIES, BOUNDARIES, BOUNDARIES
Separation anxiety is a self-fuelling mindset, like a bonfire that has a tap of dripping petrol above it. Like all other stress, it is cumulative, meaning it builds and builds until the lid blows. Then that energy needs to be transferred into alternate behaviours – most commonly; destruction, vocalisation or even (in extreme cases) self-harm, as dogs have been found to break their teeth on crates and even chewing their legs bloody.
So, how do we break the cycle? By creating distance between our dogs and ourselves. By implementing strict boundaries and teaching the dog that being by itself can be rewarding. By increasing the dog’s obedience and showing it how to succeed in the world. By making the crate the safest and most pleasant ‘bedroom’ your dog could ever imagine. And by giving them time alone.
All these steps are creating clear and consistent boundaries for the dog. They are rules which are easy to understand, easy to follow and (with a bit of work) easy to enjoy.
WHERE DO WE START?
While I would have loved to give you a step-by-step list of how to fix every dogs separation anxiety, it is unfortunately too complicated an issue to deal with through a cookie-cutter approach. However, I can give you a lot of information as to where you can start.
Here is an outline of what I would do to begin treating a low to medium severe case of separation anxiety.
NOTE: If you have a dog with extreme separation anxiety – dog cries all day, destroys walls and windows, intentionally hurts itself in the crate etc – you need to call a balanced trainer in to help you! While I’m sure many of the suggestions below will be part of the overall plan, a dog with severe separation anxiety needs to be much more closely monitored and will need to be exposed to separation in a much more controlled and slow manner.
#1 – Crate train the dog
This is the first and possibly most important piece of the puzzle. Buy a good-sized crate, place a super comfortable bed in there (even add a couple of toys), feed the dog every meal in the crate for at least a week, leave the crate open in your lounge room and drop treats in there at random intervals. You will quickly see the dog starting to take a keen interest in the crate and will likely even begin to sleep in there of its own accord. Once the dog starts being comfortable in the crate, start closing the door for short periods of time. Again, the timeframe will vary between each individual dog. Some dogs may only be able to cope with 5 seconds at a time, other dogs may be fine with 5 minutes. Work out your dog’s limit and work to your dog’s level. Close the door and reopen it before the dog starts whinging / crying. Mark and reward with treats. Rinse and repeat, slowly increasing the duration of the stay and the distance you move away. Do this multiple times a day for as long as you need to, in order to make the dog sleep comfortably in there while you move around the house (even out of the dog’s view).
Do NOT under any circumstance open the door and let the dog to exit while it is pining for attention. By this I mean vocalising (crying / barking), pawing at the door, circling and pacing I know it is hard, but if you allow the dog to exit while they are doing this, you are now rewarding it, and the dog will do more of it. This is also more fuel to the stress fire, so the separation anxiety is likely to get worse (as the dog will now fight harder to be released). The only thing you can do is to simply wait it out. The dog will give up and lie down eventually. Only then can you reward the dog by letting them out.
A fellow trainer friend noted that I should add here that there is a difference between attention seeking behaviours and full-blown terror. In general, you will see a big difference in intensity between the two. If a dog just doesn’t want to be there because it’s bored, it will likely not resist too much. Yes, it may yap once or twice, tap the door to see if it’s open, then sniff around for a bit. These are all signs that the dog would simply prefer to be outside of the crate. On the other hand, if the dog goes whale-eyed, pants intensely, bites hard at the crate (to the point where it may break its teeth), throws its body onto the crate, then this is a sign of a much more severe case. I would then allow the dog out and call a trainer. Loose the battle, to win the war (cheers Michael!).
#2 – Place train the dog
Place training is a great way to teach your dog impulse control and to help it make the decision not to follow you around. This is also referred to as boundary training. I personally use a raised-up trampoline bed. They’re comfortable to lie on, and they very clearly mark the boundary that the dog is not allowed to break. Place training is fairly simple and there are many tutorials on Youtube which can assist you with this. I keep the dog on lead, give the “place” command, use food to lure the dog up on the bed, mark and reward. Then I give a release command (I use ‘free’) and walk away so the dog can get off. Rinse and repeat until the dog clearly understand how to go to place. Now I begin to add distractions and distance. The dog will break and get off at some point, without me having given the free command. I then verbally punish the dog (“No”) and physically place the dog back on the bed. The dog will now learn that getting off is only allowed when I tell it to.
Do NOT expect your dog to stay on its place for hours at the time. Be fair and give it many short stints rather than few super long ones. The dog will break, and you will have to punish it, which can be distressing for the dog, adding more fuel to the anxiousness fire. Take it slow and work to your dog’s skill level. Remember: we are trying to teach the dog how to win!
#3 – Feed the dog alone and make the food last
I use a lot of Kong chew toys in my work and with my own dogs. This is a great way for dogs to be entertained by themselves. Stuffing Kong’s with your dog’s food, then freezing them, is a great way to add duration to the time it takes to finish the food. And most dog’s (when they’re hungry) will gladly focus on chewing the Kong, until every piece of food is out. This is an excellent way to teach your dog to be entertained and relaxed, being by itself. Stop feeding from a food bowl and start feeding them from a chew toy, alone (outside or locked in a room by themselves). You can find plenty of recipes for Kong stuffing on their website.
If you live in a multidog household, be aware that leaving high value resources such as these lying around, is often not ideal. It can, worst case scenario, lead to some conflict and resource guarding. A Kong should be given to the dog, then taken away once it is empty.
Do NOT allow your dog to ignore its food. If your dog is not “food motivated”, you are feeding it too much. All living dogs have food drive, they are simply overfed, and therefore do not desire food in stressful situations. Reduce the dog’s food intake by 30% and even let it go 48 hours without any food. Now you have a dog that will be very food motivated, even under a bit of pressure.
#4 – Break your routine
Dogs are masters at finding and developing patterns. Which can be a great thing, but can also be a curse, especially when dealing with separation anxiety. Most of us have a set routine when we leave for work. Get up, have coffee / breakfast, shower, get dressed, brush my teeth, put on shoes, grab house keys, say goodbye, leave and lock the door. That is pretty much my routine. The problem here is my dogs know that I am about to leave, when I start putting my clothes on!
Now, it doesn’t matter to them, because they’re happy to be alone. But if your dog suffers from separation related issues, this becomes an event of increasing distress. Every additional step into the routine builds anxiousness in your dog as they predict that you will leave, and they are following you in a desperate attempt to keep you home with them. You have to alter that routine. Pick up and carry your keys around at random times of the day. Put your shoes on and walk around the house for a bit, before putting them back in the cupboard. Brush your teeth five times a day. Shower before you have breakfast. You get the idea. Desensitise your dog to all the triggers that indicate you are about to leave, so the dog doesn’t begin to load whenever you move.
#5 – Ignore your dog
Okay, this one gets a lot of people upset. But stay with me. We talk way too much to our dogs. We baby talk to them, we ask them questions they have no idea what means, we pat them, cuddle them, invite them to us and so on, and so forth. Dogs do NOT need attention all the time! This is likely part of what created the problem to begin with! We are overindulging our dogs in every avenue of their lives and it is not good for them (or, I would argue, us). A dog that is constantly being asked to interact with you, will never learn to be by itself.
So, stop talking and start ignoring. Not in a mean way, just the same way you don’t pay constant attention to your chair. There’s a time to interact with it, but most of the time, you don’t even notice it’s there. And remember; you wouldn’t let your chair come and try to sit on your lap, so why are you letting your dog do it?
#6 – Leave and arrive quietly, and make it a non-event
One of the first things I ask people to show me when I’m helping them with separation related issues, is how they leave the house (and their dog). And it goes a little something like this;
Backing towards the door, while patting their dog, tears in their eyes, constantly talking about how sorry they are for having to leave them, oh and I love you so much, I wish you could come with me my little baby, goodbye *slamming door*. Then, when they come home, they squeal, pick up the dog, kiss it and love it, until there is no more love left to give.
What mindset do you think a dog is put into, seeing you in such distress and excitability? I can tell you this much: it is not calm and relaxed, that’s for sure. By leaving your dog in this fashion, you are working it up into a state of arousal, and the dog has no idea what’s wrong, but it is worried because you appear to be. Then you leave for many, many hours, and the dog’s mind is racing the whole time, stressing about what is wrong with mum or dad.
Okay, here is how you should leave and return to your house:
Walk up to the door. Turn and look at the dog. Give a single command (I use ‘be back’), then leave, calm and quietly. When you return, go through the door, pay the dog no attention at all for a few minutes until it calms down. Then say hello and give it a quick pat. Controlled and pleasant, no need for the dog to stress at either end of the event. Make sure you always reward a calm state of mind, over an excited one, as building excitement can lead to anxiousness. If your dog is outside when you are away, wait for them to calm down, before opening the door and letting them inside upon your return.
You can practice this every day while you are at home. Simply walk up to the door, say your departure cue, and go outside. Wait for a short period of time, walk back inside and ignore the dog. The more positive repetitions you can get in, the easier it becomes for the dog to deal with it. Don’t push it too hard! Don’t immediately go outside and expect the dog to be fine for a quarter of an hour. Start with ten seconds, up it to fifteen on the next round, then twenty and so on. Always build slowly, so we don’t send the dog over threshold.
WHAT ABOUT USING MEDICATION?
I am not opposed to using medication, but I usually only recommend medication if it is a pretty bad case. But, for many people, it helps them do the work, knowing that the dog is a little more relaxed thanks to a little white pill that goes in its dinner bowl every day. Again, this is up to the individual owner, dog and severity of the problem. But don’t be afraid to ask for medicinal relievers if you think it will help in your case.
Just remember; medication just slaps a temporary band aid on the problem, it doesn’t fix it. Training is what will fix it. Unfortunately, many vets will put the dog on a long-term medicinal plan, arguing that the dog may have to be on the medication for life. In most cases I would say that this is probably not the case. Tell your vet you are working on the anxiety with a qualified trainer, you just want to ease the stress on the dog temporarily, while the program is in play.
SEPARATING YOUR DOG FROM ITS ISSUES
The above examples should in most cases get you well on your way to helping your pooch with its fear of being left alone. Again, every dog and every case is different, so understand that this is all general advice. If you don’t see any improvements, or if it in fact appears to get worse, get in touch with a balanced trainer that can come to your house and assess your situation personally.
Separation anxiety is not something that can be fixed overnight. It requires time and effort, like most things in dog training. But once you start, you have to stick with it! It is so much easier for dogs to revert back into old habits, than it is for them to progress with new ideas. You may not even be able to remove the separation related behaviours entirely, but every bit helps, as your dog grows in confidence and slowly learns to relax without you.
If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. And treating separation anxiety is definitely one of those things.
Dog trainer & behaviourist