Separation Anxiety: How to Teach Your Dog to be Alone

Written by: Aaron I

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 minutes.

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 disappears.

"The process of teaching dogs with separation anxiety to be alone requires a lot of time, patience, and positive reinforcement."

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 dog.

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 you’re away. 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 DogDiscusses 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 DogsDid 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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