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Dealing with Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is one of the biggest causes of stress and as a consequence home/furniture destruction.  In the modern world it is often inevitable that you have to leave your dog alone some of the time. 

This is a big deal for your dog as it has been bred to be sociable and thrive in human company.  Because of this you need to build up ‘absence’ acceptance in very small and steady steps.  If you try to do too much too soon your dog will treat the separation anxiety program with mistrust which will make your job significantly more challenging.  To a dog both leaving the home and returning back are BIG events that signal cause for celebration or concern both of which need managed and controlled.  For best results, you need to nullify the ‘event’ of leaving and the ‘event’ of returning in equal measure.

Firstly, you need to ensure that your dog cannot predict when you are actually leaving.  Therefore, you need it to experience a series of false starts.  These ‘false starts’ are where you go through your normal leaving routing (i.e. putting your jacket on) but don’t actually leave but, instead, sit back down and resume what you had been doing previously.  In this exercise it is important the you offer no interaction with your dog as you are looking to reduce the leaving event to a non-event.

Continue the above to the point where you are opening the front door and closing it again then going to sit back down to resume your previous activity.  If this is going well and your dog is not increasing its stress or negative emotion then you can extend this further by opening the door and actually go out but then immediately come back in, sit down and watch TV etc. 

Repeat the leaving the house exercise but slowly extend and randomise the time out (i.e. 5 secs, 10 secs, 20 secs, 5 secs etc) until you can stay outside for 2+ minutes.  Again, at no time do you interact with your dog.  You are teaching your dog that the comings and goings that happen are perfectly natural and nothing to be concerned or excited about.  Your dog will also be reassured that you always return.  When you do return, there should be no drama therefore nothing to get excited about.  The returning (home) element is vital to the success of this program and, if this part is not adhered to, then the whole program is at high risk of failure.

Once you are able to leave the house and stay out, with no adverse reactions, for 2-3 minutes then it will just become a matter of practice with varying durations.

Once you get to the stage where you can leave for 5 to 10 minutes with no issues then you can look to introduce something for your dog to focus on.  It is often the first 10 to 20 minutes that are the most traumatic for a dog when you leave therefore, to reduce the impact of this vital period, you can give your dog something to focus on.  This will not only ensure that your dog is occupied when you leave but, hopefully, it will eventually associate you leaving to go out as the signal that something good is coming. To achieve this when you are ready to leave but before you put your coat on you can give your dog a Kong (with some paste/treats inside) or such like to chew on/play with when you leave.  However, it is important, again, that you do this with as little fuss as possible. 

In full view of your dog place the Kong/toy/chew in your dog’s crate (if you use a crate), dog bed or, if you don’t have a crate or dog bed, then at the far end of the room you last leave from and, with no interaction with your dog, leave as normal.  Assuming that you have managed to complete the above program for leaving the home then your dog will not be anxious when you now leave and should explore the ‘gift’ you have left.  It is not that important what the actual ‘gift’ is but only that it should interest and occupy your dog for the initial 5-10 minutes, or longer, after you leave.   This will not only mentally tire your dog, but it will also relax it.  In addition, if at all possible, it would also be beneficial to ensure that your dog has no access to see out into the street, yard etc. 

Further to the above, I would put on a radio to give some background sound and reduce any impact of other sounds emanating from outside.  Reggae or soft rock seems to hit the spot with dogs therefore if you can find a channel that plays this type of music predominantly then you have hit the jackpot.

Good luck.  Remember, a small step forward is better than a large step backwards…progress is progress no matter how small.  Celebrate the successes and not the failures.

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