I wish I could take Ben everywhere with me. I often joke that I would love to leave a mobile phone with him so he and I could text each other, just to make sure he is OK. Crazy. The fact is that there will be times where you have to leave your dog home alone. How do we get them to cope without us? How do we cope without them?
Our dogs do miss us when we are gone, some crying or edginess before you leave is perfectly normal for any dog. However, separations become problems when your dog is harming themselves, destroying the house and yard, or the neighbours are complaining.
Some dogs harm themselves through the process of trying to escape the yard or to get ‘closer’ to you. Often their paws will be bloody or they will engage in repetitious behaviour such as licking until they have licked themselves raw.
When I mention destruction of the house, I am not talking about the odd plant that has been chewed or a few holes dug. Concerning behaviour includes destruction of the structure of your home or yard in an attempt to ease suffering. Often side gates or back doors tend to be the targets, as these are often the final barrier between you and your dog.
Dogs bark, but vocalisation as a result of separation is often howling combined with crying noises. It is often accompanied by the above behaviours too. This vocalisation may start as soon as you leave and continue for some time after you have gone. It tends to decrease as the day goes on, but makes a resurgence before you come home. Dogs are very good at predicting events, and will often know when you are due home.
Quite often the above behaviours can present themselves whenever your dog is stressed. However, you will know that it is a separation issue if these behaviours are occurring when you leave the home.
These behaviours serve as a reinforcer for your dog, they help distract your dog and may make them feel better. We all have a little repertoire we go through to help us through a stressful situation. For some people it can include behaviours like nail biting or toe tapping. It’s when these behaviours are destructive, and are impacting on every one’s quality of life that they become a problem.
If your dog suffers from separation anxiety there are few things you can do to ease the suffering. Perhaps the quickest way to solving this problem is to install a dog door so that your dog can come and go as they please. In my experience dogs are far happier when they are inside surrounded by familiar smells. If your dog is not trained to be in the house you should create a safe indoor space for them to live while you are gone that can be accessed via the dog door.
When you are at home crate train your dog, or restrict access to parts of the house. This will help your dog to get used to being alone every now and again while you are just in another room or coming and going from the room.
Do not make a big deal about leaving or coming home. Keep things really low key and relaxed. If you are stressed your dog will pick up on it and react.
A tired dog is a happy dog, if you can exercise your dog before you leave for the day they will feel better. The exercise you give them should be enjoyable and relaxing. Some dogs become even more ‘hyper’ after an off lead run or chasing the ball, and these dogs may be better off having a slow, relaxing, on lead walk, around the block to scratch and sniff.
You can employ a dog walker to come in an walk your dog during the day to break up the long hours alone. Doggie day care is another option, but be warned, some dogs will find the constant busyness of these places very stressful.
Another wonderful thing you can do for your dog is enrich their environment with lots of edible chews and stuffable chew toys to distract them from your departure and keep them relaxed. If your dog is so stressed that they will not eat, and a dog door is not helping, your other option is the slow journey of counter conditioning- teaching your dog a new way to behave by changing their feelings towards being alone.
Counter conditioning for separation anxiety will be the focus of my next post.