Welcome to the first in a new series of blogs where we take a spotlight and shine it on a hot topic within the world of dogs. Today we look at Separation Anxiety, busting myths, learning what signs to look for, and effective training strategies you can use to address it.
First and foremost, I am an owner to a dog with Separation Anxiety. I became a separation anxiety specialist trainer through the need to address and improve my own dog's condition. Alfred has always struggled being home alone for longer periods despite having a constant doggy-companion in his beagle brother Ted. When we moved house in the summer of 2020, the culmination of changes in his routine and space were just too much for him and we found ourselves right back at square one; I couldn't even put the bins out without him losing his mind!
Fortunately I was already a qualified and practicing dog trainer, and was even undertaking a canine behaviour diploma to further my knowledge, however I knew that learning more about and specialising in separation anxiety was not only going to immediately improve our lives but also greatly improve the lives of those I work with in future. So now as the face of Cwtches Dog and Alf's mum, I am a separation anxiety specialist trainer based out of south-east London and it's time to shine the spotlight on separation anxiety.
What is Separation Anxiety
Dog separation anxiety is much more than a moody dog with FOMO!
Separation Anxiety, which is also referred to as Isolation Distress, is a very real anxiety disorder, and dogs that suffer with it have a genuine fear of isolation or solitude. They will often panic when left unattended for periods longer than they can handle. This problem will not fix itself on its own and often requires specialist professional support.
Recognising Signs of Separation Anxiety
It is essential for dog owners to recognise the symptoms of separation anxiety and work on behaviour modification techniques to help dogs cope with being alone. This anxiety can manifest in various behaviours, such as:
excessive barking, howling, or whining when left alone
destructive behaviours such as chewing or digging,
frantic attempts to escape,
toileting indoors despite being housetrained
showing signs of anxiety before you even leave the house
Dogs however do not need to display all of the signs above for it to be recognised as separation anxiety. It's quite common for dogs to display just one or two behaviours, some don't display any, and some escalate their panic to show signs of fear in other ways:
excessive salivation, or drooling
excessive licking or panting
freezing or hiding
Let's Bust Some Myths
There's a lot of conflicting evidence out there and none of it can conclusively say what causes separation anxiety however I can definitively say, it's not your fault! You haven't hugged your dog too much, they are not spoiled, and sleeping in bed with you or cwtching on the sofa isn't the reason behind it all. Some dogs, just like humans, get stressed!
I could write for days about all the silly things I've heard as a dog owner and trainer over the years about the 'WHY' behind certain dog behaviours, and of course being a separation specialist I hear a lot of dumb stuff! There are of course some myths that carry more weighting than others so here's my top five of separation myths I really want to blow into smithereens.
Myth #1 'Just Let Them Bark It Out, They'll Eventually Stop'
They won't! Ask my neighbours! Plain and simple, this isn't a time for teachable moments.
Don't beat yourself up if you've previously left Fido to bark it out, it's hard to know the difference between a dog trying it on and a genuine communication of need. Take the next steps in learning more about your dog by setting up a camera to watch them. You'll learn a lot from seeing your dog on camera, especially during departures.
Myth #2 'It's Revenge'
I know it helps in anger and frustration to think your dog is acting out in retaliation for leaving them home alone but don’t make this about you! Dogs don't think like humans, their motives for everything in life are pretty simple. The idea that they are plotting to get back at you is wild!
When you leave a dog that’s not comfortable being home alone - a dog with separation anxiety - that dog becomes anxious, frightened and feels unsafe. Chewing, defecating and/or urinating helps anxious dogs relieve that stress in the same way that nail-biting works for some humans. Your dog behaves that way because they need to soothe their stress – it was never targeted at you.
Myth #3 'Maybe They Need A Friend?'
Nope, nope, and nope again! This one stresses me out, a lot! Getting a second, third, or even fourth dog to keep them company absolutely will not fix your dog's separation anxiety! And as a personal caveat, this is not why I have four dogs, that is just because I am mad!
Dog's who suffer with separation anxiety do not think critically and are not reassured by their canine companions when distressed about their owners departure. It is far more likely that getting another dog will impact negatively on the situation. Imagine if the newcomer also had separation anxiety or another behavioural concern, oooph what a terrible time that would be!
Getting a new dog is an enormous decision, and becoming a multi-dog household is a completely different ball game. This is something we can explore together in a later blog.
Myth #4 'Just Give Them A Kong® And They'll Be Fine'
Typical signs of stress in dogs, like all animals, often include a decrease in appetite. This is due to the evolutionary response of the digestive system which (sensibly) takes a back seat during moments of fight or flight; nobody wants to be outrunning a lion with a belly full of snacks amirite 😀.
For a large number of dogs experiencing separation anxiety they will often ignore the bowl of food, the deliciously stinky bully stick, or specially curated Kong, for the entire duration you’re away and then snaffle it all up the instant you get home. Of course, not all dogs lose their appetite during times of stress, just like humans, some of them eat their feelings! My dog Alfred is no exception to that rule and becomes insatiable when I’m out of the house eating anything he can get his paws on. I once got home to find he’d broken into the kitchen and got into the fridge; he had eaten EVERYTHING! And of course as soon as he’d finished eating me out of house and home he started his repertoire of home-alone behaviours which involved a lot of barking and howling. All the food does in that instance is delay the inevitable!
What I’m getting at with this one is that food has a time and a place in training dogs with separation anxiety. Personally I don’t use food during training because I want the dog to learn to be comfortable on their own instead of using food prompts as comfort. Food will only last a certain amount of time so unless you can always guarantee to be back before they finish, you’re setting both you and your dog up for failure.
Myth #5 'They're Too Young To Have Separation Anxiety'
Whilst it is common for puppies to bark for attention and test boundaries, this doesn’t mean that they’re not experiencing genuine panic when being left alone. Simply being out of sight whilst in the home together can be enough to spiral a little pup into distress. At such a crucial time in their lives for learning and socialisation, it is an excellent opportunity to start as you mean to go on and treat your dog with separation anxiety best practices to ensure good habits are formed from the outset. Prevention is better than cure! Teaching your puppy to be comfortable in their own space even for just short durations is going to be an essential part of your pups socialisation.
Watch this space for a Cwtches Dog introductory course to Separation Anxiety for Puppies, COMING VERY SOON!
Techniques to Address Separation Anxiety
Once a dog has been diagnosed with separation anxiety, a tailored training program can be developed to help them overcome their fears. Strategies often include:
Desensitisation Plan: Introducing gradual increases in the time a dog is left alone can help them to become more comfortable with independent activities and gradually build their confidence.
Counter-conditioning: Pairing an owner's departure with positive experiences (such as toys, treats, or playtime) can help to change a dog's emotional response and help them associate separation with positive outcomes.
Consistent Routine: Maintaining a consistent schedule can help to reduce anxieties related to unpredictability and change, helping dogs feel more secure in their environment.
Environmental Enrichment: Providing stimulating toys, puzzles, and activities can help to keep a dog occupied and reduce their anxiety when left alone.
It's crucial to remember that each dog is unique, and what may work for one dog may not be effective for another. Therefore, a tailored approach designed by an expert trainer (points at myself) is essential to address your dog's specific needs.
Getting Help for Your Dog's Separation Anxiety
If you suspect that your dog is suffering from Separation Anxiety, it is important to get help from a qualified specialist professional. At Cwtches Dog, we specialise in helping dogs overcome separation anxiety. Our expert training programmes are tailored for those living busy lives and needing that personal touch to get them through. We deliver all of our separation plans online via zoom so even if you don't live locally in south-east London we can still help; we're virtual and cover the globe!
For more information on our training services for separation anxiety, get in touch with us today. Together, we can help your beloved pet overcome this challenging condition and thrive. Whether you're brand new to separation anxiety training or you need a little extra support getting you to your next target, we have a programme to suit; our 4, 8, and 12 week programmes have been designed to get you to where you need to be.