Tips for the prevention of separation anxiety in dogs.
By Laure-Anne Viselé, July 2012
This article is part of a three-post series on separation anxiety. It focuses on tips and habits to prevent dog from developing separation anxiety, or to prevent a relapse if he is just rehabilitated.
Two more articles were written in this series:
- The nerdy stuff behind separation anxiety: The theory behind the protocols, possible medications, the different types of separation distress, etc.
- Treatment of separation anxiety: A step by step guide to the treatment of separation anxiety. This is suitable for owners whose dog is developing separation anxiety. For full-blown cases, please contact your local behaviour therapist.
Separation anxiety prevention tips
All you need to do is to apply some lifelong habits that are going to proof the dog against a relapse (or against developing it in the first place). Don’t worry, they’re common sense, really. Here goes.
Keep those keys a’jigglin’
Remember those pesky pre-departure cues (getting your keys, putting your jacket on, etc.)? You know, the things that upset your dog before you even set foot out the door? Well, we want to keep telling the dog they don’t necessarily predict your departure. .
So what you do is you regularly walk around for a few minutes with your jacket on, then put it back on the coat rack and not actually leave the house. Or you keep fiddling with your keys, and then actually not leave. Try to do that a lot, actually, more often than when you really are putting your jacket out or grabbing your keys to leave.
Watch out for the subtle twist here: anxiety is often a component of separation anxiety, predictably enough. And what anxious individuals need above all else is certainty and predictability. The idea of removing predictability from the departure cues (i.e. My owner putting on her jacket could mean she’s staying, or she’s going) only works if you precede ALL your real departures with obvious signs. That way, the dog learns not to sweat the small stuff and is not cumulatively distressed by each step of your departure routine.
Give the dog a warning
If you’re going to leave your dog alone for real, give him a warning so that he does not spend his day on the alert in case you leave. Say something like ‘bye bye‘ and then, like you did in the safe sessions, give him his Kong and leave. The idea here is that ‘Bye bye’ predicts the Kong, and, accessorily, your departure.
It’s all Kong and games
If you’re going to leave your dog alone, make sure that he has plenty to keep him entertained and focus for the first 1/2 hour. Generally, a Kong or a Squirrel Dude is ideal. But for longer absences, you could also leave a trail of treats around the house, or hide some treats in a stuffed cardboard box. If you need games suggestion, check out my book reviews and search for ‘games’.
When you come back home and when you leave, please oh please do not make a fuss. What we want is to decrease the contrast between how things are when you’re there and when you’re not there. The last thing you want is long and tearful goodbyes every time you’re off to get a pint of milk.
The 10 minutes rule
Some people advise that you ignore the dog for 10 minutes upon your return home. I think that might be unsettling for the dog (you’d kind of be rude not returning his greetings), so what I do is I walk past him to drop my bags, etc. with a whispered little ‘hello’, and I’ll keep doing my stuff until his exuberance has died down a little, then I immediately reward him with a little bit of calm attention.
Dog, don’t be no stalker now
Get the dog to be less exclusive in his affection to one person in your household by getting another person to give the dog whatever it considers enjoyable (e.g. treats, walks, games, etc.) more often than you.
Also, don’t let him follow you in every room. Get him used to spending some time away from you.
Bed is for people, basket is for dogs
I don’t really give a monkey’s tail whether your dog sleeps on your bed in terms of that old dominance obsession, but it may matter for separation anxiety. The longer the dog spends uninterrupted time with its owner, the more of a shock the owner’s absence will be. So, if you’re home, it’s best not to spend every living moment with your dog. Getting him to spend 12 hours in another room on his own at night is a step in the right direction.
If you have always been sleeping with your dog, make sure that you introduce the new regime in gradual steps, hey.
Plan and supervise
If you need to be gone for a never-rehearsed-before long time, make sure that you can supervise the dog remotely and that you have someone who is ready to relieve him if he is getting uncomfortable. It would be such a shame if he had a full-blown, long-term, relapse because of one little lapse in organisation.
Don’t expect of your dog that he spends all day, every day, alone at home. If you stop to think about it, it’s not fair and you know it.
Try to find creative solutions to decrease the long periods of solitude. You could ask dog sitters, or family members, or you could have a day swapping arrangement with a friend whose dog yours gets on with, etc.
Spend about 1/3 of your time away from your dog
If you are at home most days, try to spend at least 1/3 of your DAY time in a different room. Again, it’s all about the contrast between you being home and you gone.
Teach your dog to like novelty and get over little scary things.
Encourage him (playfully, don’t force him!) to go sniff that leaf that just startled him. Just seek every little startle moment that he has as a game opportunity for him to build a sense of courage.
Part of the problem with separation anxiety can be that the dog lacks the ability to reassure itself when it is a little scared. The more you empower your dog to react positively to little fears, the more independent he will feel.
Teach him delays of gratification
Frustration can form a part of the problem with separation anxiety, and, aside from that, it is always good to teach a dog to deal with delays of gratification graciously, and to show some impulse control. No begging games are excellent for that, but what you want, is a dog who knows that he’s not systematically getting what he wants the instant he wants it, to build some coping skill against frustration.
Don’t always give attention on demand
See what you want is for the dog to realise that, just because you’re home, doesn’t mean he gets instant, on-demand access to affection and attention. “Not right now” is a response he needs to learn to cope with without pestering you.
This will eventually teach him that there is a world beyond you, even when you’re home, and that he can comfort himself once in a while.
I am not talking nothing-in-life-is-for-free type deal. I am just saying let’s decrease the contrast between you being home and you being absent, in terms of systematic access to quality time.
Don’t be stern and don’t punish him, but just don’t pet him every single time he asks for it. If he were to escalate his demands, then go as far as leaving the room but do not reward that behaviour of course.
So, separation anxiety is a tricky one. It can be devastating if full-blown, but it’s really easily preventable. Start these good habits now and give yourself and your dog peace of mind.
Are you coping with a dog with some form of separation anxiety? Are you a therapist dealing with sep-anx cases? Have you tried a successful approach to separation anxiety? Whatever your comment or question, I highly value your input to the discussion. Don’t be shy, and write a quick comment.
Check out the Modern Dog Trainer’s 5 prevention tips against separation anxiety.