A few years ago, I rescued my dog, Honey, who had such acute separation anxiety that I had to take her everywhere with me. Every time I left her at home, she would go into full-blown panic mode, charging from one room to the next barking and howling. She would work herself into such a state that I didn’t dare leave her on her own.
I wanted so badly to help her, but training a dog when I wasn’t there is a problem in itself! I had help from a couple of dog trainers and they told me that separation anxiety is actually more difficult to overcome than aggression, simply because you can immediately take control of an aggressive dog by understanding the markers and acting in that moment. The very nature of being away from the dog at that moment poses its own challenges.
I tried many different methods to get her to the calm therapy dog she is today. The methodology I decided was right for my dog was to leave her a little longer each time (I’m talking starting at 10 seconds and gradually increasing from there), whilst making sure she never reached a level of anxiety that she would bark.
If she got to the stage of barking, I knew I had to dial it back as I’d gone too quickly. If I could get her to maintain relative calm for longer and longer, I could eventually get to the magic number of 45 mins, which is the milestone many trainers refer to as the point at which you can start to increase the time period in greater chunks.
It was a rocky road and there were many setbacks, but today she is the calmest, most serene dog you could ever meet.
I used these techniques:
1. Practice gradual departures
Collect your things and go through your usual leaving the house routine, (put on shoes, pick up your keys etc.), then go to the door, but don’t actually go anywhere. Repeat this over and over. This starts to desensitize and reduce the stress to you leaving.
Gradually add more steps. Open and close the door but don’t go anywhere several times. Do the process again, but go outside and come immediately back in again. Slowly increase the time you’re outside by a few seconds. Your dog must remain calm before you progress to the next step.
If your dog gets stressed, you’ve gone too quickly. Dial it back and leave for less time and increase slowly again.
When you get to 10 mins, you can increase each time you leave by 5 mins.
2. Install a camera
I used a camera to watch what she was doing on the phone app while I was gone. It helped as I could watch her from the connected phone app, see when she was starting to get stressed and go in immediately. There are many on the market, though I especially liked the Nest as it is linked to other home devices and I could speak to her through the microphone which helped to prolong the time I left her.
3. Natural calming remedies
I found that CBD oil greatly helped maintaining her calm. While I didn’t want to drug my dog with pharmaceuticals, I did want to give her some help that was herbal, gentle and without side effects.
I have heard from many people that it has completely cured their dog with separation anxiety. My dog was quite a severe case so whilst it didn’t cure her, it definitely had a marked impact on her. She was able to be left for longer, had less drooling and seemed less stressed. I would say that regardless of the severity of your dog’s anxiety, it should be considered as an important tool in your toolbox for helping your dog to conquer this.
I sprayed calming pheromones and essential oils such as lavender on her bed and rubbed a little on my hands to rub through her fur focusing on her ears. I also found that a Thunder shirt helped make her feel a little more secure.
4. No-fuss arrivals and departures
Don’t make a fuss of your dog when you leave or arrive back home. In fact, completely ignore them until they are calm. Walk around the house if need be, but don’t make eye contact and turn away if they are jumping up. Do the same when you arrive.
It is difficult, but you don’t want to leave your dog when they are in a heightened state as that can quickly turn to them being stressed as soon as you leave. Neither do you want to have your dog associate your arrival as being a time of excitement. Ignore them until they have calmed down; don’t speak to them at all.
Only call them over to you when they are calm so that your dog understands that they are being rewarded for good behavior. They will quickly learn that they only get attention when they are calm.
5. Exercise your dog before you leave
Make sure they have had a good long walk or run before you go. A tired dog is less likely to be reactive and is more likely to sleep.
6. Crate training
Crate training your dog can help your dog to cope with his separation anxiety and prevent mishaps around the house while you are out. I prefer my dog to be able to roam freely around the house, but whilst I was training it was another tool in the arsenal.
Dogs evolved as den animals and typically enjoy safe, confined spaces. However, if your dog is not already crate trained and doesn’t already associate the crate with safety, don’t start putting it in a crate to deal with separation anxiety otherwise they may try to escape and harm themselves.
7. Leave music or the TV on
Leaving your dog with sound on throughout your absence helps lessen the sudden change in atmosphere of your departure. Imagine how quiet it becomes when everyone leaves the house and you are left in silence! The aim is to make the transition of you leaving as little of a jarring experience as possible.
8. Give a high value treat or toy when you leave
Stuff a Kong with frozen treats like tripe or unsalted peanut butter or give them a chew that your dog really likes. I have had success with puzzle toys with homemade dog treats. Some ideas for making some easy inexpensive dog puzzle toys can be found here. The aim is to keep them occupied for 20 mins or so and help to recondition your dog to associate your departure with a positive experience.
This will work with some dogs and not others, as a lot of dogs will not eat when left alone.
Daycare, leaving with a friend or taking them to work (if your situation allows) can be a great temporary solution whilst you are training.
It is important not to let your dog have setbacks or to have repeated experiences of stress when you leave.
The more often they have that experience, the more they associate you leaving with stress and anxiety.
10. Patience & understanding
Just remember your dog is not doing anything to misbehave or reacting out of spite; they are stressed and upset that you are gone. A dog that causes destruction is acting out of fear.
NEVER punish a dog. They don’t need additional stress and something else to be frightened of. Instead, reward them for calm behavior. Have patience and understanding - it WILL get better eventually.
When you crack separation anxiety, the reward of a healthy balanced dog is immeasurable. It can take a lot of time with some dogs. If I can do it with my dog Honey, you can do it with your dog!
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