In the UK, we are now on our way back to 'normality' post Covid-19 lockdown which means bushiness are now reopening, people can see each other again and work places are starting to welcome back staff.
This has been a confusing and difficult time for all of us and especially confusing for our dogs who don't quite understand what has been happening. One thing we are noticing is a big issue now people are going back to work is that dogs are now more than ever showing signs of separation anxiety. Even dogs who were previously fine being left have become accustomed to their owners being home all day every day and are getting anxious and stressed when they now leave again.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is when a dog becomes anxious or stressed when their human/s leave without them. Things like excessive panting, drooling, whining, barking, pacing and destroying items or furniture are common signs of anxiety and stress in dogs and are often associated with separation anxiety when partnered with the owner having just left.
This can be triggered by something as small as the owner leaving the room to the owner leaving the house and can be a very life controlling and stressful behaviour to deal with for both dog and owner.
Lets start off by talking about some common misconceptions on separation anxiety.
1.Dog's do it because they have a strong relationship with their owner
Sorry to be the one to ruin this, but the reality is a dog shows separation anxiety because of an unhealthy and addictive relationship with the owner, not a good one. Separation anxiety is a fear based behaviour caused by a dogs inability to cope alone. Dog's are naturally pack animals and have a desire to be with others whether that be human or dog however a dog who is confident and balanced in their emotions is able to cope being left alone as they realise that their world is not solely based on their human being there but is instead enhanced when their human is around. If your dog is showing separation anxiety, the first thing i'd recommend is to look at your relationship with your dog.
2. You can fix it by just ignoring it
As said before, separation anxiety is a fear based behaviour so there is a 50/50 chance that you ignoring it will either teach the dog to just cope on their own or simply force them to have a full on meltdown. How we teach dogs to deal with anxiety and how we help humans is very different and needs to be because there are different levels of understanding from both. For humans, we carry out Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which teaches things like breathing techniques to help the person control their anxiety levels and do simple activities to help the learner to understand their emotions and have positive experiences around the fear so that it is no longer perceived as something to be fearful of. For dogs, this isn't something you can do as the dog doesn't understand that you are trying to help them not be fearful and instead think they are being praised. So to help dogs get over their anxiety we first need to teach them that the thing they are anxious about isn't anything to be anxious about and then work on helping them to be more confident in the presence of something that is making them anxious or could cause anxiety.
3. You can fix it by telling the dog off
Again, it's an anxiety based behaviour and no matter what some people tell you, telling it off won't fix anything. Telling your dog off for being anxious will either make them worse as they don't understand why their being told off or will make them shut down and hide their anxiety so they don't get told off. In both scenario's the route of the problem is still there, to help a dog get over anxiety you need to teach them how to cope with it not how to hide it.
So here's the million dollar question; how do I help my dog to manage their separation anxiety?
Well here's a few simple steps to start you off:
1. Place train!
Place training is a simple activity anyone can teach their dog that has great benefits in helping dogs with separation anxiety! You will need your dog to be on a lead so you can direct them and you will need a dog bed. All you do is you lead your dog onto their bed and as the step on give them the command 'place' or 'bed' or something like that. You can ask them to sit but nothing else and then simply walk away. If your dog gets up when you walk away, don't tell them off, simply put them back on the bed, give them the command again and carry on. The aim of this exercise is to teach your dog that their bed is a place of calmness and relaxation. You start off with small steps like walking a few feet away and then coming back and praising your dog for staying on the bed and then move it up so that you can walk around the house with your dog just relaxing on their bed not worrying about what you're doing. Once your dog understands that their bed is a place to relax you'll see them start to self regulate on their own. When they get anxious or stressed, ask them to go to bed and then praise them with touch when they lie down, yawn and settle. These are common ways dogs de-stress and release anxiety and then you can release them off their bed with a command like 'relax' or 'break' or 'free' so they don't have to be on the bed anymore. Doing this activity more and more when you're around teaches your dog to self regulate their anxiety and cope whether you're there or not. So when you start leaving them, they'll know there is a place they can go to relax, calm them self down if they get anxious and settle until you come home again.
2. Utilise a crate or separate room
A lot of people don't like using crates but for an anxious dog, having somewhere compact, dark and comfortable can be a huge relief and actually encourage them to not be anxious. Make the crate comfortable with a nice comfy bed, a blanket over the top and teach your dog that the crate is a nice, relaxing place to be. To do this you can feed them in their crate, give them filled kongs or antlers to chew and put them in their crate starting with the door open and then the door closed using the same method as place training and rewarding for relaxation and staying in the crate. Try not to put loads of toys in there as you don't want to be encouraging your dog to be playing in there or being excited but instead use things that require a bit of brain power if they are restless and make sure they have access to fresh water. If you don't want to use a crate you can use a separate room or puppy pen and just have your dogs bed in there to follow the place training method in the same way. Again, make it part of your routine when you leave that your dog goes into their crate or in the room, is asked to settle and then you leave. Take the time to do this calmly yourself and encourage your dog to be calm too. If you are calm and not stressed about leaving, your dog is more likely not to be stressed.
3. Create appropriate boundaries of separation between you and your dog
If you have a dog with separation anxiety, there are certain boundaries that are going to massively help your dog to learn to cope better and inevitably stop being anxious that require you as the owner to advocate for them. Things like not letting them sleep in your bed or room at night, not allowing them to follow you everywhere and not allowing your dog to constantly be on your lap or leaning on you actually have huge benefits to a dog with anxiety. As I said before, dogs with separation anxiety express this behaviour as they don't feel as though they can cope without their owner there. Creating healthy boundaries will help your dog to start to manage their anxiety on their own and will ultimately teach them to cope without you being their safety all the time. This is where place training is especially helpful, if your dog shows any of the above behaviours again, don't tell them off, just ask them to go to their bed and calm them self down and then give them lots of praise when they do. Now this isn't to say that they can never sit with you, cuddle you or have time on the bed or furniture if you want them to, just that there needs to be boundaries around these things. If they're coming from a place of anxiety and clinging to you because they're anxious, ask them to go to bed. If you have invited them to spend time with you or they have come to you and are calm and relaxed, then it's fine!
It's important with dogs with anxiety to help them to learn to manage their anxiety without you there as there will ultimately be a day of a time when you won't be with them and they therefore need to know how to cope without you there.
These simple tips will start to help you and your dog towards a healthier relationship but as with a lot of behavioural problems it is always advised to seek out the help of a qualified behaviourist to make sure you and your dog are on the right path and can help your dog to learn not to be so anxious and afraid.
Please feel free to message a member of our team if your dog is struggling with anxiety issues, we would be more than happy to help teach you and our dog to be more relaxed and enjoy life together without worrying about leaving them for a while.