Looking through various sources relating to separation anxiety in dogs, they all have one central message. Teach your dog more independence!
Re-assessing your relationship with your dog and looking for clues of co-dependence is the first step for your dogs successful recovery.
Dog trainer Victoria Stillwell says: An independent dog is not a dog that does what he likes, whenever he wants. Instead, he’s confident enough in himself to allow you to disappear for periods of time. He won’t trail around after you all the time or get upset if you close the bathroom door. This is not a proof of devotion; your dog just can’t cope being away from you.
To get your dog on the path to independence a program of desensitizing and counter conditioning might be helpful.
Simply ignoring your dog is a great teaching tool. I have tried this in many situations. If done consistent and with patience and love it works well with most dogs and although it might seem cruel at times, your dog will acquire better social skills on the way.
Give him attention at your terms. If he wants to sit with you, move away. If he paws at you or wines, don’t respond, don’t even look at him. If he jumps up on you, turn around. Don’t allow him to follow you at all times. Close the door behind you, first for short times than at increasing length. Ignore him if he is overly boisterous when you re-enter the room.
In all the above situations wait until he calms down and then reward him with a treat for being calm.
In more serious cases you may have to go to more length to desensitize your dog to the fact that you are leaving. Since dogs are creatures of habit, they are fast learners when it comes to figuring out your rituals before you leave the house. My dog knows exactly when I’m getting ready to go out when I change my clothes and put on shoes. Packing my handbag is another clue. Because she knows that she will get a treat, she’s actually looking forward to me leaving. I don’t take this personally because I know that she is just as happy when I return.
Anxious dogs might start panicking when they see their human parents getting ready to leave. Sometimes it helps deflecting those anxiety attacks if you go through the leaving ritual several times a day – but not leave. Change your clothes, settle back down, and then change them again. Put on shoes just to take them back off after a while. Open the front door, just to close it again. Leave the house in your slippers for 30 seconds and then come back. Slowly, very slowly increase the times you leave. Ignore your dog’s overjoyed reaction when you return. Wait until he settles. He’ll learn fast what is required to get your attention and a yummy treat.
Veterinarian Dr. Dodman asks not to punish your dog on your return for their bad behavior. Punishment never works if delivered more than a few seconds after the event: rather, it simply serves to confuse the already distraught and bewildered dog.”
All of this must be accompanied by giving your dog enough exercise and other obedience training. If you need to be out regularly, arrange for a dog sitter or drop him off at doggy care.
Some vets recommend temporary medicating a dog in very bad cases of separation anxiety until training has made some progress. Some recommend crating your dog for extended times while you are home (with food, water, and toys and NOT as a punishment) to give them a ‘safe haven’ to retreat to when you’re gone. Some recommend spraying a perfume through the door before you enter the house so that over time the dog associates the scent with your return. After a while you can spray it before you leave to reassure your dog.
Sources: It’s Me Or The Dog by Victoria Stilwell; The Dog Who Loved Too Much by Dr, Nicholas Dodman; Secret Lives Of Dogs by Jane Murphy, and special thanks to my dad who trained dogs for all his life.
Painting by Gabriele Bungardt