5 Things You Should Do if Your Dog has Separation Anxiety
Your dog follows you around the house. Whines at the door when you leave. Destroys things when left alone. You think your dog has separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is when your dog is unable to rest - their bodies and minds - when they are alone. They do not know what to do; and, that makes them so stressed out they do behavior they typically wouldn't do otherwise, such as eat rugs or claw at doors. They pant, whine, bark. This is not a little nervous, they are a lot nervous. Importantly, these are adult dogs. Puppy separation can look and sound like separation anxiety but for the most part, they are puppies who want attention and haven't been trained to leave things that aren't theirs.
So, what do you do? Easing the anxiety of a dog when you go away is a long term plan. It will take awhile for them to be ok while you are gone, but it can happen if you look at the plan as a whole and be consistent.
1. Put them in the crate when you leave
When you leave, you want your dog to sleep. The behavior expected in the crate is rest. The crate is not a bad thing or punishment at all. The more space they have when you leave, the more anxious they will be. They might go from window to window, wondering you are. They may eat things they never would eat in front of you.
Putting them in the crate is clear communication it is time to rest. It might not be perfect the first day, but if you put them in the crate every time you leave, they will understand what behavior is expected of them.
Make sure there is nothing in the crate to distract them or to play with. They should be sleeping!
2. Do confidence building exercises
Separation anxiety is in part due to a dog's reliance on you to tell them what to do throughout the day. Doing different types of confidence building activities can help a dog overcome challenges and gain independence.
What are some confidence building exercises? Think anything that allows a dog to be a dog. My favorite is a long leash walk where they can sniff. The long leash (15 or 30 feet) naturally allows them to go farther away from you (independence), explore new textures (ie wet leaves or branches), and sniff things you can't replicate in your own backyard or regular walk.
My second favorite confidence building exercise is to use every day objects at home to make an obstacle course. Use treats to lure them over items like broomsticks, under blankets, up a step stool, onto an exercise ball, etc. You'll see them go from "oh no, I am scared of that ball" to "I want that treat, what do you want me to go on?".
3. Leave for short amounts of time at first
You are going to find a sweet spot of how long your dog can be alone. Start at half an hour or an hour. I am not going to make you go out for anything less than that as practice because we don't want to stress them out with our practice and it's not totally practical. So, let's make them adjust to a reasonable time like 30-60 minutes and then build off of that.
Every time you leave you are going to do the same thing. Put them in the kennel and leave. You can do niceties like put on a noise machine or leave them an easily digestible treat (something that will be gone within 15 seconds), but the most effective things will be the consistent communication it is time to rest in the kennel.
4. Do not give them attention all day
If you have a dog that follows you around all day, they are most likely stressed. Yes, they want to be in on the action, but they would rather be sleeping so they are fighting their own body's needs to check in on you. A great way to practice separation is at home every day.
Here is an example:
You're working from home. Your dog is resting in their bed next to your desk. You need coffee... obviously. Get up without addressing them (or even looking at them!), do what you need to do without addressing them or giving them attention, and when you return, tell them to go to their bed.
You are communicating to them they are not needed while you leave, and that it is better for them to keep resting. The more you engage them, the more the think they are needed.
You'll find as you progress that they feel more confident and comfortable staying where they are instead of following you around. This is a good sign that they are becoming less anxious when alone.
5. Teach them how to rest on command
Believe me when I say a dog loves to sleep. When you leave the house, you are basically asking them to sleep when you need to go. They get no warning, but they don't really need it. However, you can practice.
Steps to practice:
1. Start with a consistent time, like after bed time.
2. Tell your dog to go to their bed
3. Whenever they leave their bed, redirect them back to their bed. If necessary, put a leash on and bring them back to bed without words (words are excitement).
4. After a minute, give them a treat and say "good bed".
5. Increase the amount of time between treats.
6. Remove treats once they rest. (So when they go to their bed the first time and stay there, you don't need treats)
If you follow these steps, you'll see that your dog is safe, building confidence, and understands the behavior expected of him when you leave. These are great building blocks for a dog to feel confident alone. Take you time and build off of progress.