Updated: Mar 13, 2021
We are all too aware of the lasting impacts Covid-19 will have on every aspect of our lives. But have you considered the impact it could have on your dog?
For many dogs this will be the time of their lives, their families are at home all day, they have all the human contact they could ever want and they really are ‘living their best lives’.
However, some dogs may be finding the constant human interaction quite tiring and the disrupted routine can be stressful for our dogs. Some dogs may be receiving far more exercise than they’re used to, which could be harmful physically or mentally. It’s important to try and maintain some sense of ‘normality’ for our dogs, this will help avoid increased stress levels and minimise the impact of ever-changing routines.
Many dogs will have spent years in a stable routine where they are left for several hours in the day while their humans go to work or run errands. They are comfortable with time on their own and it’s a normal part of their daily lives. Suddenly, their family is at home all day every day and they never have to spend any time alone. Some may still choose to take themselves away and settle on their own, but others will relish the human contact. What happens when you start to leave them again?
For other dogs, being separated from their humans is already a daily struggle and a cause of anxiety. It must feel great to not have the stress of separation, but you may face an even tougher challenge next time you have to leave. And for new additions during this pandemic, perhaps a new puppy or rescue dog, they will know no different to having humans around all the time. Being left alone is an unknown concept to them.
It’s easy to want to enjoy this time by showering our pets with attention and revolving our days around them. While we should absolutely make the most of this, we also need to remember that at some point, our lives will settle back into some sort of routine. Most of us will have to return to work and probably all of us will need to leave our pets on a regular basis again. It’s short-sighted to think that we should simply enjoy this time and not plan for when we have to leave them. In a few month’s time we face the possibility of a pandemic of dogs with separation anxiety. Now is the time to make a plan and it is also the perfect situation to work carefully on existing separation issues.
One of the biggest challenges in overcoming separation-related issues is that we can spend days slowly working on our dogs feeling calm and relaxed while we disappear for a few seconds, but then we suddenly have to leave them for several hours and we undo all our previous work because the dog is left stressed and anxious. During ‘lockdown’, we are likely to have the luxury of not having to leave our dogs frequently or for long durations. This is the ideal environment for successfully working on separation issues!
Whether your dog is a pro at being left alone, an anxious wreck or a total newbie, there are some really simple ways to start making alone-time stress-free for your dog. You can adjust the time lengths based on your dog’s tolerance and previous experience with separation.
Top 3 exercises to PREVENT Separation Anxiety in a puppy
Credit to Jo Rosie
Micro absences. Make a list of small household chores that start with a small amount of time and gradually take longer. i,e. Going for a wee, having a quick shower, bringing shopping in from the car, hanging washing out, having a bath, cooking a meal, making a phone call. Start with the short absences and build up. In week 1, everytime you go to do a short absence, you should scatter some of their food on the floor. As times goes on, the puppy will find these micro absences easier . This is a gentle way for the puppy to learn to cope with being on his own and allowing him to recover, and will lay some strong foundations for more impressive absences later on
Tie out toys. Tie a stuffed kong in the crate, pen, or by the bed. Go and sit on the sofa and watch a film/read a book. The puppy will take the risk to leave you and go and do something in the room away from you and it pays off. It reinforces confidence and curiosity, and rewards the dog for taking that risk.
Eat away dinners. Set up a playpen next to where you eat dinner. Whilst you eat, the puppy can also eat something like a kong. Everytime you have a meal, move the puppy slightly further away. If they struggle, move them closer again and add distance again the following day.
When not playing these games, you need to be there for your puppy. Using Play, Train and Cuddles. You can’t over love a dog into separation anxiety. In fact, the more you ignore their need for attention, the more they will worry when you do leave.
Closing doors behind you while you walk from room to room will mean your dog can’t constantly follow. Return after a few seconds, gradually increasing the time. Keep your exit and entry neutral… no big excited greetings, this will only add to the anticipation of your return!
If a closed door is too much, try a baby gate so your dog can see you but not follow
When you do leave a room, scatter some treats on the floor as you leave. This helps to build a positive association with leaving
Some dogs benefit hugely from having a safe space where they can relax on their own. An enclosed room or pen can work equally well
If your dog learns to be settled in this safe space then it can really transform separation issues
Read this blog post for more crate training tips https://www.adolescentdogs.com/post/to-crate-or-not-to-crate
Enrichment and Activity
Using enrichment toys, long-lasting chews or fun activities can help your dog enjoy being alone
Start by teaching your dog to enjoy these activities while you’re there. A Kong stuffed with yummy food or a long-lasting natural chew (e.g. calves hoof, pizzle stick) are ideal for this, he can be busy with this while you’re working or doing household chores
Once your dog is enjoying these in your company, then begin to briefly leave the room before returning. Understand your dog’s tolerance before you leave, for example, 1 second might be enough for one dog, while for another you could leave for 2minutes or 45minutes!
Aim to return while he’s still engaged with his activity so you can exit and enter with minimal impact
If your dog remains relaxed, keep walking in and out, desensitising him to you leaving and entering the room
Break the Associations
Dogs with separation anxiety will often notice all the little signs that you’re going out … certain clothes, shoes, car keys, you talking or behaving in specific ways
Each sign will add more stress to the leaving process, so by the time you close the door your dog is already over-threshold and unable to cope
Breaking these associations can calm the whole situation and avoid the escalating stress, so pick up your keys, put them down, sit on the sofa, put your coat/shoes on, walk around, sit down, take them off, say ‘goodbye, bye, bye!’ as you walk around the house…and so on
Make a list of all those ‘signals’ you give off when you’re getting ready to leave and then find ways to perform them without actually going anywhere!
Naturally we like routines, we go to work at a certain time, walk the dog at a certain time and generally keep fairly consistent time schedules
Having rigidly set routines can create stress for our dogs because they anticipate events and build associations
Mixing up routines will help reduce this stress and avoid a predictable daily life which teaches a dog to rely on routines
Make small changes to break the expected routines, for example, vary the time of your dog’s walks, training sessions, meal times and alone time. Vary how these are done too, for example, dinner time as a training session or breakfast scattered in the garden. Alone time in a crate with a chew or in the kitchen with an activity toy
Being able to cope with change is an important skill and this is an ideal time to teach your dog to enjoy varying routines!
You can progressively combine all these aspects, for example, give your dog a chew and then perform some of your typical leaving signals while staying in the same room. Or put your dog in his crate/safe space with a chew and then put your shoes on and step out the front door for a few seconds or minutes.
Repetition is essential in this training. Separation often becomes more of a problem when it’s not practiced regularly, so make sure you work on this training throughout the day. Making it part of the daily routine will ensure it’s not a scary, one-off event for your dog. Remember to keep your entry and exit neutral and calm, if you engage excitedly with your dog when you return to him then he’s more likely to anticipate this exciting event, making it harder for him to relax while you’re gone. Equally, if you talk to him lots before you leave and make a big fuss then you’re already increasing his stress level before you’ve even gone. It can be hard not to fuss over our dogs before we leave, and even harder to ignore their welcome greeting when we return, but keeping this to a minimum will help prevent big spikes in stress around the separation process.
This training is a gradual progression, especially for dogs with long-term separation issues, and it requires a lot of thought and planning to ensure the dog remains as calm and relaxed as possible throughout the training. If you have a dog with more extreme issues or you are unsure about how best to approach the training then seek help from an experienced professional. Separation issues can be tricky and damage can be done quickly if not approached in the most suitable way, so it’s always a good idea to get some professional advice.
At Adolescent Dogs we can help advise on separation training and we have a range of online courses running during ‘lockdown’ to help with any behaviour or training challenges. These are accessible worldwide and allow you to ask questions about your own dog's training struggles, and watch video tutorials which will help to combat separation anxiety:
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Written by Naomi White