You are getting ready to go to work like you do every morning, you have gone through the normal routine with your dog. He’s been let out, maybe had a walk and ate his breakfast. Everything is calm. Just before you leave you always give your dog plenty of cuddles and attention, you don’t want him to feel forgoten. And than you leave as he follows you to the door. By the time you get to your car you can hear the howling and barking begin, you sigh and wonder why he does this every time you leave….
You get a new dog, you do everything right, your taking them to puppy class, you socialize the dog, spend lots of time getting used to your routine and the neighbours kids. You have done everything right. When your home our pup is perfect, no accidents in the house, he never gets into anything, and the pup is more than happy to lay on the floor next to the family when it’s movie time. To your surprise, every time you leave your house for the day and the pup is left home alone, you come home to a massive mess. The dog gets into the garbage, throws the couch pillows all over the floor, pooped on the front carpet and ate your favourite pair of running shoes. You ask yourself… why is he so bad!?
Separation anxiety is a condition that affects dogs of all sizes and many breeds. Most pet owners know of separation anxiety and many have faced the challenges it can create. What some dog owners may not realize is that this behaviour can be something you taught your dog without even realizing you did it.
The examples of separation anxiety I gave are just a sample of the types of behaviours you may see with separation anxiety. Some of the behaviour may be more severe in some dogs while others are a little more discrete. Either way, they are indications of the stress level your dog is facing when you leave them at home every day.
How does separation anxiety start?
Well one of the big one’s is a behaviour you create by the way you leave you your dog and how you act when you come home to them. When you first get a new puppy it is very important to condition them not to fret when you leave. You can do this by practicing leaving the pup for short periods of time randomly through the day, the time of day and the length of time you would leave the dog will need to vary. What you are than starting to teach the pup is that you will leave, but you will always come back.
A behaviour you want to refrain from doing yourself is getting your pup all excited and happy with cuddles right before you leave. When you do that you are leaving your dog in an elevated drive state, and they carry that level of drive while you are gone, eventually turning into destructive anxiety. And than when you come home, your so excited to see your pup you go to them right away and build up that drive all over again. It’s not good for your dog to do that to them.
Try something different, just as most things in their lives, there should be a routine and lots of obedience. When you are leaving for work for the day, if you must give cuddles and so forth do it about 30-40 min before you leave, this way your dog has time to calm down before you leave for work. And than as you are leaving don’t say anything at all, if your dog is laying down quietly on the floor, don’t disturb that, that’s a good thing, you are leaving your dog in a calm mental state, this will help minimize the anxiety. When you return home, do the same thing, don’t rush to your dog and get them all excited with cuddles and attention right away. Come in, take your shoes off call the dog to go out for this pee, and after about 30-4o min, than if you want to get them excited and happy and give them cuddles, go for it. By doing this you are using your dogs mental and emotional stability in a more positive way to avoid imprinting anxiety like reactions.
What if it’s passed this stage?
If you are dealing with a teenage or adult dog with this behaviour it can and will be much more challenging. The first step is going back to the basics with strict obedience. Dogs love obedience, well most dogs, small toy breeds are a whole other set of rules. Back to the basics of obedience is the beginning of rebuilding a strong foundation. A foundation that is about conditioning your dogs proper behaviours and asserting yourself as the alpha in the house.
At first you may feel there is a point of regression where the behaviours are almost getting worse, that can happen as your dog is adjusting to the new rules and obligations in the home. After that you will notice a pattern of two steps forward and one step back until finally your reach a point where your dog starts to fall into his new pattern of obedience, and obedience becomes part of their new routine and structure.
Be prepared, not all the behaviours may be corrected. Depending on how long these behaviours have been going on for, your dog may be imprinted with it’s behaviours. Not to say you won’t see some success, you just may not get all the success you were hoping for.
Don’t give up
Consistency is key. Asserting yourself as the alpha in the house through positive reinforcement will support your dogs needs of being part of a pack and their natural desire to serve. Dogs like to have a job, it is not mean to incorporate high level obedience in their every day lives.
As I have mentioned many times on this site, I have a Cane Corso, he is in high level obedience all the time. It wasn’t always like this, there was a time when Bourbon was confused about who the alpha was, I wasn’t inserting myself in the right way with him so he started to think that he ran the house. This confused him and frustrated him, he started to have bad separation anxiety, he was getting into things in the house, tearing up the couch, he ate the blinds one day, he used to go into our laundry and take all the socks. It was getting out of control.
I started high level obedience, and just as I said earlier, I noticed the behavior increasing a bit before it started to decrease to a more manageable way. I thought that letting him do what ever he wanted to do, and offer more love and support meant I was giving him a good life. I was wrong, my actions had the opposite effect, my dog was stressed out and unhappy.
Now in the home, obedience is a part of every aspect of his day. From a down stay in his bed while we are watching TV, to waiting to eat his food until I tell him it’s ok, to only entering the home when he is told to. High level obedience at all times. You may be thinking its a lot of work, and it is at first, it’s hard work for you and your dog. But than it becomes part of your routine, I use lots of positive reinforcement and food as part of my training. Bourbon loves training, he loves obedience, he loves the attention he gets from doing things right, he thrives off of it so much, he constantly wants to do the things I tell him to because he knows food or cuddles comes with it. He’s at the point now in his training that he looks for the next command, he wants to work all the time.
Since this new structure, he doesn’t eat the blinds or the laundry, his separation anxiety still exists but not even close to the extent that it was. He is so much calmer in the house, I could have him in a down stay in his bed and put my super on the table in front of him, I could leave the room and come back and he would still be in the bed and my food untouched. The obedience has been a major bonding exercise for Bourbon and I. I highly recommend it for your dog.
If you truly want to give your pet a forever home do it right. To many dogs end up in shelters because of errors we made when we first brought them home. Don’t get a dog unless you are prepared to put in the work. Its hard work at first but it’s well worth it in the end.