How to help your dog deal with separation anxiety
The last year has seen us all face ups and downs due to Covid, but if there is one thing many people can be thankful for, it is the addition of a new family member, namely your new fluffball. In fact, dog ownership has increased by around 200% since the start of Covid. The term 'lockdown puppy' has become a hot topic within our lives, which now begs the question, as normality returns, how do we train our dog to be safe at home whilst we return to the office or enjoy evenings out with our friends going to the pub, restaurants, the cinema etc.? This blog aims to provide tips on how to help your dog deal with separation anxiety, based on practices I have personally utilised to help my Maltese be comfortable at home.
Tip 1. How to train your dog to be alone
Dogs are social animals by nature who crave affection, they also develop patterns based on their daily life, such as when they go for walks, what time they eat, what time they sleep etc. As such, it is only natural that our furry friends have become accustomed to our company with us staying at home so often. Although this pattern exists, it is not impossible to amend, and with a bit of effort, you can turn your dog's loneliness into a positive experience.
Begin to slowly teach your dog that it is okay to be alone; to start this, begin by placing your dog in a separate room for a short space of time; start small five minutes should be sufficient at the start. A key thing to remember here is that this is disrupting your dog's current pattern, so it is only normal for them to display some discontent, i.e., barking and whinging. It is essential that you do not respond to this; as tempting as it may be, if you directly interact with your dog due to barking, they will believe that as long as they bark, you will give them your attention and the more you do this, the harder it will become to reverse. Instead, if you ignore the barking, they will eventually get bored and realise that it doesn't work. Only at this point should you re-enter the room and reward them; this technique of positive reinforcement will help your dog see that not only is it okay to be alone, but your return will also see them rewarded.
Once your dog displays that they are comfortable being alone, begin to extend the intervals aiming to get to at least an hour. Once this is in hand, begin to leave the house for short periods, again remembering to give them treats on your return. It is important to note that upon your return, your dog may bark in excitement. It is so important not to tell them off at this point, instead give them loads of treats and attention; remember this needs to be a positive experience for your doggy.
Tip 2. Keep calm and don't panic
Dogs are extremely meticulous animals; they are perfect at reading feelings and know exactly when a person is calm or worried. This is especially true when they can tell you are about to leave; this is when attention-seeking begins. You may notice various behaviours anywhere from barking, following you around, whinging or obsessive play. If you see any of these behaviours, the first important step is not to display any nervousness; your pooch will feed off of this and do anything to make you notice them. Instead, continue about your business and though it may sound harsh, ignoring them during this phase is more productive as they will soon realise attention-seeking does not work. Once they have settled down, reassure them, and give them a treat, this again rewards them for positive behaviour and teaches them that they will be rewarded by being calm.
Tip 3. Treat loading
If you've been with your pooch for a while now, you should know what their favourite treats are! Have these treats at hand, and right before you leave, begin to treat load them; this process should take away feelings of separation anxiety as they will hopefully be focusing on the treats rather than you're leaving.
A great way to keep their nose busy whilst your gone is to hide treats around the house; this should keep them busy during the initial stages of being gone; just make sure not to hide treats underneath anything they can destroy (believe me, they will do it). Something that I do is when the door is open, I throw Bobo's favourite treat so that he chases it, and by the time he looks back, I am already gone.
The final step in this is technique is to absolutely spoil them as soon as you get home; this shifts the attention of "where's my hooman" to "when they get home, I am going to have an absolute feast" I cannot stress how important it is to make everything positive, so no telling off, no yelling, just more treats, please!
Tip 4. Toys
There is no denying dogs are extremely active animals, and one of the things that fuel separation anxiety is the boredom that arises throughout the day. A way to combat this is by ensuring you have the right toys to keep them entertained, but more importantly, knowing what toys your doggo likes best.
Things like interactive toys work best; why not try a squeaky toy? I mean, you probably get annoyed at the constant squeaking when you are at home, so why not let them go crazy whilst you are gone?
Kongs or anything you can hide treats in also works great; this allows your dog to work for their reward and offers mental stimulation so that once they finally get the treat out of the toy, they can rest. Try placing different toys around the house to keep them guessing and switch toys from time to time to offer your dog a sense of variety.
Tip 5. Get ready away from your dog
This may sound funny, but dogs know precisely when you are getting ready to go out, especially since Covid they know the exact difference between you wearing house clothes compared to what you go out in, particularly as your outdoor activity over the last year has revolved around walking your dog.
When getting ready, go to a separate room and don't let them see you until you are dressed and prepared to leave; this removes the shock of "oh my hooman is getting dressed, I'm so ready for my walk".
Once you are ready, don't make a big deal of it; instead, keep calm and carry on, literally! The more casual you are, the more relaxed your dog will be, and they will just see this as routine; dogs love routine; it's how they operate in a pack.
Tip 6. Walkies
As dog lovers, I'm going to assume you already do this but just in case, make sure they are adequately walked before you leave. Now adequate doesn't mean a 5 min walk around the block! No, you need to ensure they are both physically and mentally stimulated on this walk! Research suggests that to achieve this, your dog must spend 30 – 45 mins outside. Stimulation also requires play; try to take them somewhere you can let them off lead so that they can get all the zoomies out. Also, this stops you from coming home to a yellow puddle that your dog isn't going to clean.
Before the walk, have everything ready so that you can drop your dog, pick up your bag and go; by this point, your dog should be prepared for a well-deserved nap. Finally, be sure to leave clean water and fresh food out, so your dog has all the essentials they need to stay comfortably at home.
A final note to add, I am by no means an expert in Dog behaviour; the above are tips that I have personally used and have worked for me. That being said, every dog/breed is different, and some suffer more than others regarding separation anxiety. It is essential to understand your dog's personality and if you are ever in doubt, seek the help of a professional!
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