Do you come home to a dribbling, overexcited dog? Or to ripped up sofas and doormats, or to puddles and poo on the carpet? Does your dog even start panting and following you around the moment you pick up your keys? Maybe your dog seems OK when you get home, and the house is in one piece, but your neighbours report hearing your dog barking and howling. You may wonder why on earth your dog is unable to cope without you – surely he realises you always come back – but a dog’s family is very important to him, and separation anxiety is one of the most common behaviour problems in dogs.
Separation anxiety or separation fun?
If you come home to ripped up books and relocated slippers, it may be that your dog isn’t distressed, but has been finding ways of entertaining himself in your absence. This is something relatively easy to solve: make sure he is tired and ready to sleep when you leave, put your books and slippers out of reach, and leave him with alternative entertainment – for example stuffed Kongs (maybe frozen so they last longer), cardboard ‘destruction’ boxes and boxes of treats wrapped up in twists of paper. If your dog is left for several hours, consider finding a dog walker to visit during the day.
If you aren’t sure if your dog has separation anxiety or not, try video- or audio-recording him – you should be able to see from your dog’s behaviour how distressed he is. But take it from me, listening to a recording of your dog howling is extremely stressful in itself!
OK, so my dog has SA…
It is possible to overcome SA, but it can be a lot of work. It is particularly difficult if you have no choice but to leave your dog at times, as the key to success is never to leave him for longer than he is comfortable with. If at all possible, investigate dog daycare, or find a dogsitter. Do you have a friend or relation who would be happy to look after your dog when you have to leave him? This doesn’t have to be for ever, but it isn’t possible to predict how long it will take to cure your dog’s SA.
Start at the beginning
If your dog trails around the house after you, and doesn’t ever want to be parted from you, it isn’t surprising that he will find it harder to cope when you aren’t even in the same house. So start by getting him used to settling in a different room from you. Teach him a ‘settle’ or ‘on your bed’ command, step outside the door for a second or two, and return, then gradually increase the time you leave him for. You can also make the most of when the sun is on the sofa and your dog is tired – if you go into a cooler room with no comfy beds he may be disinclined to follow you! Some people recommend moving from room to room until your dog is so fed up he can’t be bothered to follow you any more – I tried this once and after two hours my pup and I were both utterly exhausted and fed up, but he would still drag himself up and after me before collapsing in the next room, time and time again. It wasn’t a pleasant experience for either of us so try it by all means, but don’t persevere if your dog is clearly unhappy.
Some people recommend not allowing your dog in your bedroom at night so he learns to be more independent. But if your dog isn’t happy being apart from you, you could end up with a dog who feels even more insecure and unhappy about your absences. It is also possible to have a dog who clings to you the whole time you are in the house, night and day, but is fine about being left, and also to have a dog who will happily sleep all night on his own and who doesn’t care where you are in the house, but still goes into meltdown when you get ready to leave, so teaching independence in one area often doesn’t necessarily lead to success in other areas!
Leaving the house
Dogs are very cued in to our body language and some dogs with SA seem to know we are planning to go out and leave them almost before we’ve decided ourselves. At one time, I only had to put my pen down for my dog, Jasper, to start to get het up, and that’s just because he thought I was going to go to the bathroom without him!
The key to curing SA is to work within your dog’s comfort levels. So if he gets stressed the moment you put your shoes and coat on and pick your keys up, put them on, pick them up… and sit back down again. Repeat, repeat, repeat, until your dog no longer thinks it’s a big deal. Then, put on shoes and coat, pick up your keys, walk to the front door and put your hand on the doorhandle… and sit back down. Once he’s OK with that, open the front door, and shut it. Then open the front door, step outside, and come back in again… You get the idea. Step outside the door and shut it and stay out for one second… then two… then three… then maybe jump to five or ten seconds. Repeat several times a day, building up the time according to what your dog is comfortable with. You may be able to go from five to ten to fifteen minutes in a matter of days, or it might take weeks. As I said, this is hard work, but remain fixed on the target – even if it takes you a year to be able to leave your dog for a couple of hours, that is far better than spending the next twelve or so years with a dog who gets terribly upset whenever you step outside the front door. Rome wasn’t built in a day. I work from home, but for months, the café over the road became my ‘second office’ where I would work while Jasper had his ‘home alone’ practice.
It’s important to be aware that dogs don’t generalise at all well. Jasper was eventually happy with me leaving him during the working week, but it took a lot longer for him to be OK with both my husband and me leaving the house at weekends, even if we left one at a time. Evenings are still a work in progress, though that is simply because we have been lazy about working on them and rely on our sons or a dogsitter to keep Jasper company.
When you do leave your dog, you improve your chances of success if he is ready for a sleep, or has something to occupy himself. I wouldn’t leave Jasper without him having had a good walk first, and I always leave him with a stuffed Kong, which as well as giving him something to occupy himself, signals to him that I am going to leave. What works best for you depends on your dog. Jasper isn’t one for entertaining himself so it wouldn’t occur to him to play while I am gone, and being a hound, he will naturally settle down for a nap when nothing interesting is happening. Therefore there would be no point in leaving out toys and activities for him. For other dogs, it will be vital!
When you come home
It is often recommended that you ignore your dog for ten minutes or so when you return, so that he doesn’t see your return as a big deal and doesn’t spend all day anticipating it. I don’t recommend this – if you have a good, positive bond with your dog, he will see this as strange behaviour which will be quite unsettling for him, just as it would be for you if your partner returned home and didn’t say anything at all to you for ten minutes. On the other hand, you don’t want to act as if you have been away for months and your return is the most important thing ever. So come in, casually say ‘Hi’ to your dog and give him a stroke or pat, then take your coat off, sort out your bags, and then give him a bit more calm, low-key attention.
A few more ideas to try
Some dogs settle better with certain ‘tweaks’ to their environment, so you could try the following:
• leaving a loud ticking clock near the dog’s bed
• playing the radio – talk shows or classical music may work best
• leaving the TV on
• playing a calming CD specifically designed for dogs
• using Adaptil diffusers, which release a calming pheromone
• giving Rescue Remedy Pet (a flower extract) shortly before you leave
• confining your dog to his crate (if he has one that he regards as his safe place) or a single room
• alternatively, giving your dog the run of the house; if you don’t normally allow him in your bedroom or on your bed, you might want to relax this for when he is left alone
• leaving your dog with some of your unwashed clothing
• ThunderShirts: these are tightly fitting jackets that seem to calm some dogs, similar to swaddling an infant; however, there are some concerns that the dog may be quieter because it is slightly shut down, rather than calmer.
NOTE: Evidence of the above ideas being effective is anecdotal, and scientific evidence, including for the commercial products (calming CDs, Adaptil, Rescue Remedy, ThunderShirts), is lacking.
Please don’t consider getting a second dog purely to keep your dog company. It is your presence your dog craves, not that of another dog. Although this has worked well for some people, often the new dog will sense your dog’s anxiety and so you could end up with two dogs with SA, quite possibly with a whole host of additional problems such as fights over any Kongs you leave with them.
And finally, if you work full time, please don’t expect ever to be able to leave your dog at home for the whole day. Some dogs are fine with this, but most would be far happier if they could have a lunchtime walk or game with you or a dog sitter. Dog day care is an alternative, but do check it out thoroughly – not all dogs are suited to being in a group with other dogs they don’t know, and not all day care establishments will notice if dogs are scared or unhappy, bullied, or bullying other dogs.