Courteous Canine: Preventing and Treating Separation Anxiety
by Jane Finneran, Certified Dog Trainer
My experience in 20 years of dog training has been that the “rescued” dogs are most prone to developing separation anxiety. This makes sense in that these dogs are most likely to have been neglected and mistreated, so of course they are going to attach themselves to the first nice person they meet. What’s more, that “nice” person is more likely to give the dog extra attention, extra treats, and extra time. Careful, as this may backfire on you. Suddenly the new dog does not want to let you out of his sight. I also see the anxiety develop with owners who allow their dog to constantly be on them or next to them, often leaning on them.
When treating separation anxiety, using a two-pronged approach is best. The first is that the dog has to learn that it is okay to be alone; in other words, the dog has to learn to comfort itself. The second is that the dog has to learn that you are coming back.
Where do you want the dog to be when you are not home? A crate? Outdoor kennel? Basement or laundry room? (Think about where the dog will do the least damage to itself and your home.) If the dog has severe separation anxiety, the experts do not recommend a crate. Choose a place, and then follow this routine:
- Teach the dog that going into this area is a good thing by tossing treats. Play this game a few times a day for a few days.
- When the dog is consistently going into the enclosed area, start to swing the door closed for a few seconds.
- When the dog is okay with the door closed, toss in a Kong stuffed with something wonderful or a similar toy. Let the dog eat the treat with the door closed. When the dog is really into the treat start to walk away for a few seconds and work up to a few minutes. The dog only gets the treat in the confined area.
The dog has to learn that he is okay with you gone, even if you are only in the other room. I have worked with dogs that needed to start by being separated by only a few feet and that had to work up being across the room from its owner before that person ever left the room.
A good sit or “down stay” is important, and you need work on this first. Start walking across the room and have a solid stay before you walk out of the room. Important: start with very short departures–shorter than the time it takes for your dog to become upset. Gradually increase the length of time you wait on the other side of the door. And I mean gradually! By the time you start leaving the house or apartment, your dog should have a good track record of playing the “stay” game. Keep comings and goings low key. Don’t croon over the dog before leaving, and keep the excitement on your return to a minimum. If you are practicing comings and goings, leave enough space in between for the dog to calm down.
The second part of working with separation anxiety is making the comings and goings low key and mixing up the signals. I coach clients with such dogs to mix up the signals that they are leaving. Don’t do the same routine every time you leave; for example, pick up your keys and then put them down, put on your coat and sit on the couch, or open the door and look out then come back in. (You get the idea.) Do not do the same routine very morning. Try leaving for a few seconds or a few minutes, and sometimes for a little longer; work up to 30 minutes. When you can pass that interval without incident, start increasing the time. Add a stuffed food toy into the game when you leave. You can also practice the stays with some of the departure cues; for example, have the dog stay while you put on your coat. Do not attempt to leave if the dog is getting upset with the departure cues.
Most people progress too quickly. Go slowly so the program does not backfire on you. Watch for signs of stress during the early sessions when you are working across the room. Some signs are whining, panting, yawning, lip licking, and salivating. Slowly build up the endurance only a few seconds at a time and then only a few minutes. The worst anxiety is the first 20-30 min you are gone–so go slowly at this point. After 30-40 minutes, you can start increasing your time away in larger amounts. (Note: When you start leaving your dog for more than 10-20 minutes, do not tell your dog to stay while you walk out the door. You really don’t expect him to stay for eight hours without moving!)