Our best friends are the domesticated descendants of a powerful predator who lives and hunts in packs: the wolf.
From the Irish Wolfhound who was intended to run down his ancestors to the Jack Russell terrier who was bred to hunt fox—dogs are born in litters of multiple siblings. They are happiest when their pack leader gives them purpose and when they have the pack for company.
Nowadays most people keep just one or two dogs for companionship so you might not think of your dog as a pack animal. And, of course, dogs thrive in the home of even a single person devoted to the relationship with her dog. But because most owners are not keeping an actual pack of dogs, we dog trainers often hear from our clients that their dogs become loud, nervous, or even destructive when left alone.
Before we go any further, let’s talk about how to classify Separation Anxiety. It falls into three major groups which are, in order from most common to least, dogs who:
Protest when left alone. These are the dogs you don’t want as a neighbor in your apartment building. When the owner leaves, the dog barks, whines and howls for hours at a time. Other than noisy protest, upon the owner’s return the dog quickly recovers, no worse for wear. We’re not talking about dogs who whine or bark for three to five minutes as you leave. Rather, the seriously protesting dog who can keep it up for hours. If you are unsure how drastic the problem is, or if your neighbors are complaining, use a phone or computer to record your dog while you are away. A few minutes of barking can seem like an eternity to a neighbor who was trying to sleep but in the scheme of things isn’t a big problem. This is the most common category.
Acts destructively in the home or crate. In our new book, The Art of Training Your Dog, we tell the story of a Beagle who was commonly closed in a laundry room while his owner went to work. Rarely walked or exercised, this dog was well loved, but under stimulated. He solved the problem by eating a hole in the wall, letting himself into the main house and turning the sofa into confetti. Although the Beagle did so quite happily, other dogs destroy objects in the home neurotically. This is less common than simple barking, but it happens all too often.
Pants, vomits and/or trembles. A minority of otherwise normal dogs suffer greatly when left alone. They may or may not exhibit symptoms of the other two groups, but when the owner comes home, she notes the dog is shaking, glassy eyed and nearly dehydrated from panting, even though water was nearby. Dog food or treats will still be in place, uneaten. Fortunately, this is a rare condition which most dogs and their owners will never experience.
Prevention. Now that we know what Separation Anxiety looks like, let’s have a quick look at the single best way to prevent it in the first place. Don’t make a fuss about leaving your dog. It’s natural to feel a little guilty about leaving, especially if you have been working from home but now you must go back to the office. Still, you set the tone for your dog. If you get emotional right before you leave, you are creating excitement in your dog at the exact moment you want him to be calm.
If you’ve brought home a puppy, she may have very little experience being alone so you should teach her how to cope with it, a little at a time, right from the start. Mealtime is a great point to begin. Put your puppy in her crate and pop her food bowl in there with her. Now she’ll be happily occupied for a few moments, and maybe even a nap after eating, while you go about your business for a short time. If you have rescued an older dog, it’s natural to worry that your dog may feel abandoned again. But the reality is that although you’ll leave, you’ll always return. You can help your dog feel more optimistic about that by not fawning over her as you leave. We know that sounds simple but trust us—we’re monks and dog trainers—it works.
How to fix it. Here are tips to help your dog feel better when you leave. Some combination of these will likely reduce or eliminate any existing Separation Anxiety currently troubling your dog.
Jack up your dog’s exercise program. What you’re calling Separation Anxiety might well be boredom and frustration caused by unreleased energy. Dogs are energetic animals who need to do more than lay around the house. Even toy dogs will benefit from going out for frequent walks. We recommend you take your dog out into the neighborhood for a minimum of two twenty-minute walks every day, rain, or shine. Pent up energy with no productive outlet causes many dogs to act in anxious or even destructive ways. Make time to get out there and walk your dog. You’ll both feel better.
Keep your departures and arrivals unemotional. It’s a normal human reaction to feel guilty about leaving your dog. But if you perform an emotional goodbye ritual right before you leave, you’ll cause your dog to heavily engage with you seconds before you walk out the door. When you return, you’re happy to see your dog so you instantly greet him in an emotional and excited fashion. If your dog tends to worry about being alone, make your exits and entrances low key. Stop speaking to or engaging with your dog ten minutes before you leave and for ten minutes after you come home. That will deemphasize your comings and goings enough to calm most dogs. We know. We know. It sounds tough. But if you look at it from your dog’s point of view, you’ll see it’s actually a kindness.
Make departure time fun. Although we advise not making an emotional farewell, you can help your dog look forward to the times when you leave home. Stop giving treats for potty or for any other reason. But keep the treat jar near your exit door. When it’s time to go, casually ignore your dog as mentioned above. Grab a handful of treats and toss them well away from the door so your dog can run away from your exit as you simultaneously slip out the door.
As you’re leaving, he’ll be happily scavenging for his treats. Use small ones so it will take him a few minutes to find them all. Alternatively, stuff a smart toy full of dog food and feed him his breakfast by dropping that toy on the floor as you leave. He’ll have something productive to do for a while. Finally, you can buy an automatic treat dispenser that randomly beeps and pops out a treat now and again. If you crate your dog, you can put it on top of the crate so it will randomly drop treats into the crate.
When we classified Separation Anxiety, we noted that a small percentage of dogs show deep levels of distress along with notable physical symptoms. Fortunately, this is rare, but in these cases, we recommend speaking with your veterinarian. In some such cases with which we are familiar, fluoxetine (Prozac) has helped stabilize the dog so that the owner could implement behavior modification solutions like the ones above.
Finally, we want to make the case for training your dog. Spending quality time teaching manners to your dog helps you both understand one another. Training will improve your relationship…and add quality of life for both you and your dog. Our book, The Art of Training Your Dog: How to Gently Teach Good Behavior Using an E-Collar, walks you through an easy six week program to fully train your dog and solve a host of common dog behavior problems. Learn more at theartoftrainingyourdog.com.