By guest author, Kika Dorsey, Animal Trainer
All puppies experience some anxiety. Dogs are pack animals and feel most secure
when in the company of members of their pack—their guardians or other dogs.
Puppies need to learn how to be alone gradually, as their guardians leave them
for increasing amounts of time. They learn that when left alone, nothing bad
happens and their guardians return. They learn how to entertain themselves and
thereby gain confidence.
However, some dogs do not gain this confidence. They may have been left alone
too long as puppies and were traumatized by it, or they were neglected or abused
and are insecure. These dogs often wreak havoc on a house—chewing on doorways,
destroying furniture, barking and scratching incessantly on the door. They end
up in shelters. Well-meaning people adopt them, but still they carry low
self-esteem and exhibit their learned behavior of separation anxiety.
The process of teaching dogs with separation anxiety to be alone requires a
lot of time, patience, and positive reinforcement.
To start, change your routine before you leave. Try to make it less drawn
out. Put your keys in your purse ahead of time, for example, and have your shoes
ready to put on at the door. Dogs know the routine of leaving, and if it’s drawn
out they become increasingly anxious.
Leave the house promptly and don’t make a big deal out of leaving. Emotional
comings and goings cause more anxiety. If you make leaving a big deal, by
petting your dog excessively and cooing to it, this reinforces the dog’s sense
that it is a big deal when you leave. Instead, ignore the dog ten minutes before
you leave, and when you leave, just say “take care of the house,” a phrase that
means “I am leaving and I’ll be back.” Then turn around and come back after
thirty seconds to a minute and go about your day, ignoring the dog again for ten
Leave and come back about a dozen times the first day, and increase your time
each time you leave. If you come home and your dog is exhibiting anxious
behavior, cut the time in half, then increase it again once the anxious behavior
It’s best to work on these exercises when you have a vacation or during the
weekend, because it takes a lot of time and commitment. As you begin to see
success, start varying the time you are gone. Leave for thirty minutes, then two
minutes, then an hour.
In addition to this program, there are other things you can do to build your
dog’s confidence. A basic obedience class can be beneficial even if your dog is
already trained, because he leans he can handle new situations, and he gains
confidence in you as “leader.” Also, spending quality time with your dog in the
course of a day is also essential, consisting not of babying or cuddling but
activities that build a strong leader/dog relationship, such as agility, playing
fetch, hide and seek, all beneficial for the psychological well-being of your
Doggy daycares are great resources for people who work full time. If your dog
spends two to three days of the week in the company of other dogs, chances are
she’ll be more tolerant of being left alone the other days. For some dogs, it’s
asking too much to expect them to stay alone all day, five days a week. In
general, even if your dog doesn’t have separation anxiety, I advise you to find
a way to give your dog company during long days. Another great option is finding
playmates to spend the day at your house, other dogs who would also be left
alone. The last option would be acquiring another dog, but this option requires
a commitment you might not be ready for.
Another suggestion is to keep your dog occupied working for his food while
Planet Dog Mazee, contraptions that your dog rolls around in order to
dispense kibble, are great for keeping your dog busy. You can choose to feed
your dog exclusively from it when you leave, so that she’ll actually look
forward to your departure!
Kongs or shank bones filled with frozen wet food or
other treats will also occupy the time while you’re gone. Avoid leaving your dog
with rawhide, or other chew objects that disintegrate, however, because they can
cause blockages. If your dog is busy nosing and chewing safe objects, she will
be less likely to chew on the sofa or a doorway.
Separation anxiety has various degrees of severity. I have had cases where
all it took was providing chew toys and following the ten-minute ignoring rule
and the problem was solved. Other cases required extensive desensitization to
the rituals of leaving the house. More severe cases required doggy daycare five
days a week. A veterinarian can provide medication, or flower remedies such as
Bach Flower's Heather or Chicory can help - as well as other
remedies and supplements available to ease anxiety, but they must be
accompanied by behavior modification. Every solution will be different. For some dogs distractions like
toys will work. My own dog does well in situations where he is working. I tell
him to “guard the house” when I leave, so when I’m gone he has a job. The key is
to take the time to find what works best for you and your dog. Remember that
dogs are different animals than we primates—they’re pack animals, and being left
alone is hard for them.
Recommended Training Books
Don't Shoot the Dog
Discusses reinforcement &
clicker training, ending undesirable habits, shaping behavior without pain and
tips for training the dog, kids & yourself!
Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs
Did you know a dog can feel threatened by a hug? This book describes how our actions effect our dogs and how we can improve communication.
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