Don't Leave Me This Way... Separation Anxiety
Many dog trainers and behaviorists are talking about the potential uptick in separation anxiety after this pandemic subsides. Of course, we are all overjoyed at the massive spike in adoptions in the last six weeks. Some shelters are totally empty for the first time, ever. This is fantastic; however, we need to make sure that when life does go back to whatever the new normal is, that our dogs are prepared, too.
The topic of separation anxiety is much larger than this blog post, but here are some basics to always keep in mind, regardless of the level of SA:
You must work within the parameters in which your particular dog lives. In other words, if you have a newly adopted dog who has never been away from you, or has never been left alone, you should not leave the house for three hours and hope for the best! Maybe you start by offering a food stuffed toy, walking out into the driveway, collecting your mail and returning.
One of the key pieces to any SA issue is managing your comings and goings. Remaining neutral and calm is critical! It is difficult to contain our joy upon seeing the faces of our sweet pups, but your energy will set the tone for how your dog feels about you leaving the house. Try to be as nonchalant as possible, say a quick goodbye and leave. I have always introduced a “be right back” in my home, and I think it just makes me feel better!
When you return, even if your beloved sandals have been destroyed, remain calm, say hello to your dog, and move on. Never, ever punish your dog for being destructive, regardless of SA. It will only make things worse next time. I liken it to your spouse railing on you for being afraid to fly! It is not as if your dog wants to feel this way. Have compassion for the situation.
Not every dog is designed to be managed with a crate, so also keep that in mind. I have worked with a fair number of clients in my career whose dogs will cause tremendous self-harm if left in a crate, so getting creative with a safe space is paramount. Sometimes a mud room, powder room or laundry room can be proofed enough so that any potential damage to your dog and your home will be minimal.
The key to any good training program is patience and setting up both dog and dog family for success. It is hard to articulate in a short blog how important it is for all dogs to understand that being alone is okay. Right now, in this moment, our dogs are loving our 24/7 attention, but honestly, think about that first day you will go back to your office, or out to dinner with friends. Your dog does not have a timetable that he can access in his brain to make any sense of why you were there constantly for six or seven or eight weeks, and then one day – gone!
Here are five things to do today to help prevent separation issues from cropping up:
LOTS of aerobic exercise! While you do have the extra time, get out there and burn it off. Anxiety is always decreased by a surge of endorphins, that goes for dogs AND humans.
Start slowly when you first start leaving your dog. As noted above, even if just for a quick trip outside to the mailbox, come back and see how it goes. Maybe next time add 3 minutes.
Make sure that you mix things up by acting like you are going out, but do not actually go anywhere. Grab your keys, your jacket, put on your shoes, but stay put. This keeps patterns a little more unpredictable, which will keep your dog from getting overly anxious every time you appear to be heading out.
Use food stuffed toys and puzzle toys to keep your dog’s mind focused on something positive instead of where you have gone. Reserve the extra special goodies for when you do have to go out.
Enlist the help of a certified trainer or behaviorist. There are some dogs that do need specialized interventions, sometimes including medication. That would never be my first and only suggestion but knowing there are professionals that specialize in this area gives me comfort.
Try to make the most of the time you do have during this craziness. Be fair and understanding with your dog and do make time each day to be apart. It is truly in everyone’s best interest!
Until next time!