As our lives start to normalize out of quarantine, our dogs’ lives are going to destabilize. All our COVID rescues and puppies are used to you being home, 24/7. Many may be under-socialized due to the pandemic. That can cause separation anxiety and fear aggression, making leaving your house or having guests over very difficult. There are simple training drills that you can start to help make the transition easier on them as we get back to our day-to-day lives.
Canine separation anxiety is a neurological distress response to separation from the person to whom the dog is attached, a high degree of uncertainty of an outcome, probability of punishment, a lack of proper exercise and/or training, an unclear hierarchy, or a genetic predisposition. Brain chemistry also plays a significant role in the development and progression of separation anxiety.
These dogs are suffering and require effective behavioral management and medical intervention. Symptoms may include (but are not limited to):
■ Pre-departure anxiety levels (panting, pacing, circling, trembling, etc.)
■ Excessive salivation
■ Whining, barking, howling, etc.
■ Urinating and/or defecating indoors (when left alone)
■ Destruction of household property (often harming themselves)
■ Escape behaviors (may destroy doors, windows, dig under fences, etc.)
■ Exaggerated greeting behaviors
■ Continuously seek to maintain contact with owners (following from room to room, leaning on them, lying in laps, etc.)
■ Will rarely, if ever, spend time alone inside or outside
■ Loss of interest in food or water (anorexia, depression, or inactivity) if owner is not present
■ Psychosomatic/medical consequences (self-mutilation, excessive licking, etc.)
The key to the diagnosis of separation anxiety is that the behavior only occurs during the absence of the owner(s).
Canine separation anxiety is a neurological distress response to separation from the person to whom the dog is attached
There are several steps that can help most dogs maintain a more relaxed, confident attitude to life, with or without you. But it’s important to remember that separation anxiety varies from dog to dog, and therefore, the effectiveness of treatment remedies can also vary based on age, duration of behaviors exhibited, owner’s willingness to adapt to modification treatments, etc. There are no “quick fixes” in behavior modification and separation anxiety cases.
Dogs learn to associate specific activities with the impending departure of the owner (cues, such as picking up keys, purse, or briefcase; putting on shoes; etc.), which in turn triggers the onset of undesirable behaviors.
Ideally, you can implement the following treatments over a period of a week or so, gradually adding to the amount of time you leave your dog based on their response.
1. Recondition your cues when you are at home. Pick up your keys, purse etc. and go to bed. Put on your shoes and go to the living room to read a book. Grab your jacket and sit down to eat a meal, etc.
2. Lots of exercise. A dog lacking in exercise is more likely to have stress and tension. Backyard exercise is not enough. Ideally, take your dog for a long, brisk walk or jog every morning (before departing for work) and evening (before bed). A well-exercised, tired dog is a happy dog.
3. Plan your exit. When it’s time to leave, just leave. Don’t say “good-bye” to your dog in any way. In fact, ignore your dog for 20 to 30 minutes before you leave. Paying too much attention will make your dog feel more insecure when the attention is withdrawn.
4. Only give attention when you are eliciting and/or requesting a response and make him/her do something for you first (sit, down, etc.).
5. Departures and arrivals need to be made as quiet and uneventful as possible to avoid overstimulating the dog.
6. Leave a distraction. Prepare a “special, bye-bye” bone (Kong stuffed with peanut butter) or something else your dog really likes. This is to be used “only” for departures. Keep it hidden and only offer it when you leave each day. When you arrive home, do not pay any attention to the dog (pretend he does not exist for at least 15 minutes and has calmed himself down from your arrival), pick the distraction up, and put it away. Hopefully, he will appreciate the treat so much that he will look forward to it coming out in place of getting upset when you’re leaving.
7. Confine your dog. Confining your dog has two positive results. First, a dog who is confined to a crate, when properly introduced, cannot do damage to your home. Secondly, a crate, when properly introduced, will act as a safe, comfortable den where the dog can relax. Limiting their movement also acts as an anxiety reducer for most dogs. Leave a few of his “special chew items” inside the crate with him.
8. Leave the radio on. Tune a radio to a talk station—put it on in a room you are often in. The bedroom is usually a good choice, and close the door. The dog will hear the human voices emanating from your bedroom and may not feel so alone.
9. Practice a training routine. With most dogs, the hardest time for them is immediately after you leave. Their anxious and sometimes destructive behavior occurs within the first hour after they’re left alone. It will be your job to reshape your dog’s behavior through reinforcement training.
Leave your dog out of his crate, put your coat on, and walk to the door and leave. Come back in immediately after shutting the door. If he is very excited, ignore him until he settles himself. Then, greet him calmly. Tell him to sit. When he does, reinforce this behavior with a food treat he enjoys. Wait a few minutes and then repeat the exercise, this time remaining outside a few seconds longer. Continue practicing leaving and returning, gradually increasing the amount of time you are absent. Remember, when you return, greet your dog calmly and command him to sit before offering a reward. A reward to your dog can be a treat, pat, calming praise, positive eye contact, etc.
10. Establish your leadership. When a dog has a strong leader, it has a calming effect on him. He feels safe and taken care of. In the absence of a strong leader, your dog feels obligated to assume that position in the social hierarchy of the family pack. Since a leader must control all that goes on, his inability to control you’re leaving causes him stress and anxiety. Obedience training is the best-organized method of establishing yourself as a strong leader.
11. Reward whole-heartedly. Don’t reward barking, whining, jumping, pawing, or hysterical behavior, such as circling, pacing, salivation, etc., with any attention, affection or interaction (not even eye contact). Only reward calm, quiet, and non-dependent behaviors with low-key praise and attention.
12. Temporarily reduce affection. Be careful not to give your affection away for free. Save your attention/affection for when your dog complies with a command that you ordered, not the other way around.
If you spend all your time petting your dog while watching the news (consciously or unconsciously), pampering him with strokes as he nudges you for attention, etc., will not build the confidence in himself that is required to overcome his anxiety.
In severe, ongoing cases of separation anxiety, in conjunction with behavior modification, psychotropic medication (such as Clomicalm) may be recommended by your vet or behaviorist.
Lori Wainio-Carman, VSPDT, professional dog trainer and owner of Dream Dogs, has been successfully training for more than 20 years. Positively.com, dreamdogs.com, 760-899-7272.