Understanding and preventing separation anxiety

With many of us spending much more time at home recently, we are expecting to see a spike in separation anxiety issues when we return to work. What is separation anxiety and what can we do to prevent it? Agria's Trainer and Behaviourist, Carolyn Menteith, advises.

It seems that the winners of the extra home time we have had since lockdown began are the nation’s dogs. Through the ages, dogs have made such great companions because they are so social - and they transfer their social needs to humans fantastically well.

Few of us are in any doubt that our dogs love us - and for most dogs, having us at home far more is a joy. They can still get their daily walks - maybe more walks than usual - and they have the company of their beloved owners 24/7. As long as they can get the exercise they need, for our dogs, lockdown has seemed a win-win situation.

For those with puppies, this seems like a perfect time to train them, get them used to their new life and begin the bonding process that will last for life. Owners can concentrate on toilet training, playing interactive games, starting to work on training exercises - and just have some relaxing home time building their relationship with their new best friend.

There is, however, one big potential problem. What happens when we return to our regular lives? What happens when dogs who are used to having us around all the time have to spend time home alone?

If we are not careful, we are creating issues that will last long after the lockdown is over. Separation-related behaviour problems (usually referred to as separation anxiety) are one of the hardest behaviour problems to cure or manage - and for a dog who doesn’t have the coping skills to deal with ‘home alone’ time, life can be anything from an occasional misery to a constant state of anxiety and stress that affects their entire life.

Thankfully, it is also one of the easier behaviour problems to prevent.  

Separation-related behaviour problems occur when the dog doesn’t have the coping skills to be on their own or without their owner. This isn’t them being disobedient or punishing their owner for leaving them - it is much more like a human panic attack. Involuntary and highly distressing. Every instinct in their body tells them that being alone is a source of anxiety or fear - because they’ve never been taught that it is “safe” and that it’s just part of the life of a companion dog.

Teaching a dog home-alone coping skills is as much a part of socialisation and habituation as getting them used to all the sights, sounds, scents and experiences that their life will inevitably bring, but it’s a part that owners often neglect in their desire to create a strong bond with their dog.

Whether you have a puppy or an older dog, it is important to spend as much time working on this as you do on your exercise, training and interactive enrichment to ensure that your dog is happy to be alone.

Teaching Home Alone skills

1. The aim of teaching your dog that being on their own is “safe” and even enjoyable, is to make sure that when you do leave them, they have something tasty or fun to do while you are not there. You don’t want them spending their time desperate for you to come back!

2. Start from the very beginning of your life together if you can - so it’s nothing novel or different. If you haven’t already been doing this, start now but start slowly.

3. Small steps… Give your dog their dinner and while they are eating, leave the room for a minute. If you feed them in the kitchen, use a stairgate so you can close that to prevent them following you. They will probably be far too interested in dinner to be worried where you’ve gone but they are slowly learning that good things can happen while you are not there. You can gradually build up the time you are away to take in their entire dinner time - but be aware that a puppy will need to go out to the toilet immediate after they’ve eaten!

4. If you have a secure garden, try scatter-feeding your dog on occasions. Take your dog’s kibble and drop it in the grass for them to hunt out. Once they understand this new feeding game, you can scatter it a bit wider - and leave them for a few minutes while they hunt it out. Again, they are learning that good things can and do happen when you are not there - and they are also using their scavenging, foraging and scenting instincts.

5. You can feed your dog in an interactive toy (like a Kong) - and again, leave them the other side of a stairgate while they work out how to get their food out of the toy - and they will also enjoy the natural chewing and gnawing which is a stress-reliever for most dogs. Start by making the Kong (or whatever safe toy you choose) easy to empty so they easily succeed, and then you can make it harder as they understand how to get dinner. While you are leaving your dog, keep checking in - even if from a distance - to make sure the toy is durable and safe.

6. Don’t let your dog follow you everywhere. While we often like that our dogs need to follow us wherever we go (even to the loo!), it isn’t good for our dogs to think they will always have constant access to us. Use equipment such as stairgates in doorways, which are cheap, easy to fit and they let your dog see where you are going and so not feel abandoned - and they also don’t give them such a fixed physical barrier - and give your dog a treat while you’re gone. The aim is that they look forward to your absences, not worry about them.

7. Once you know your dog is happy being left for a few minutes, you can very slowly build up the length of time you leave them. Don’t do too much too fast. You are teaching them that being alone is safe and nothing to worry about. If you go too quickly, you’ll only teach them that you keep vanishing for ages and it is scary!

8. If you are at all worried that your dog might not be happy when you leave, use a webcam to find out what they are doing when you are not there, and if they show any signs of separation-related behaviours (vocalisation, pacing, panting, salivating, scratching at doors, destruction or chewing, loss of toilet training, inability to eat when alone, aggression (on your return, on leaving, or generally), consult an accredited  behaviour professional with experience in separation anxieties for help. These problems do not go away on their own - and usually get worse!

9. Look on training home alone skills as being as important as toilet training or any other life skill. Your dog is learning from you every minute you are together. Make sure you are teaching them what you really want them to learn for all the years you have together in the future.

*If you are planning a new puppy at any time (especially from any of the breeds prone to separation-related issues - generally toy breeds and those breeds originally developed to work with a strong owner bond), it's important to ask the breeder if they have started teaching the puppies to be happy on their own.