Prevention of separation anxiety in dogs during the lockdown

In this blog post, we shall be looking at the subject of separation anxiety in dogs and how to prevent it during the period of the Coronavirus lockdown. Now interestingly, for any of you out there with dogs with what we might call a 'pre-existing condition' of separation anxiety, or simply become stressed or anxious when left alone, then because we're in this unique situation of living at home with our dogs 24-7, then you may not be struggling too much with that separation anxiety as an issue at this time, which is somewhat ironic, I know. 

As we move closer and closer to what could be seen as 'normality' after the Coronavirus lockdown, I am seeing an increase in cases of separation anxiety in dogs, and although you may in fact require one to one help from me (you can make an enquiry here), I have created this post and video to assist with those that either can't allow another person in the home or feel that they just need a few pointers to get moving again.

I have been putting pen to paper to create some thoughts for you on the subject of separation anxiety because what we don't want when we do return to work later down the line, is for our dogs to be suddenly put in a position where it is alone and it all goes from quite a lot of attention to potentially very little and that your dog starts to exhibit various anxiety-based behaviours as a result. To ensure that any behavioural problems of that description are not creeping in,  I have created two main strategies for your dogs during the coronavirus lockdown that helps specifically with the subject of separation anxiety.

Maintainance of existing behaviour and keeping separation anxiety at bay

One of the headings is maintaining the basic standard that you should already have with your dog. Maintaining standards on the one hand and then, on the other hand, we're really looking at specific measures that we can keep in place to help prevent separation anxiety from becoming a likely issue for you and your dog once you do return to a routine that involves leaving your dog alone more.

Now I think it's fair to say that some dogs tend to have a greater disposition towards developing separation anxiety than others, and I don't mean that in the sense of certain breeds, although that can be true as well, some dogs have just under the surface this propensity to develop separation anxiety; especially when you return to work, or go through any other significant changes that can trigger your dog's anxious behaviour, and so this is something really important to me because I see this sort of behaviour occurring a lot in my day-to-day consulting work, and I know first-hand how disruptive, upsetting and restrictive it can be for the owner. Of course, it is the dog going directly through that anxiety, and that's not good or healthy for the dog as longer-term stress is widely understood to set the scene for future poor health in both humans and our dogs.

I am going to make a running assumption that you already have a degree of what we might call a 'basic standard', platform or foundation of good behaviour and that you consider your dog to be generally under your control and behaving in a manner that you are happy with. To give you some keywords that I look for in a dog in the home are things like manners, so we want the dog to be mannerly. We want the dog (especially in the home) to do things and interact with you and others, but essentially, we don't want a dog bouncing off the walls, so the home should be a place of calm behaviour for your dog. We want our dogs to be polite and look to be given permission to do something - not everything, but maybe the main things which I shall elaborate upon later, such as doorways, being given permission to eat its meal and so on. Simple but effective things of that nature and we also want our dogs to be respectful. What I mean by that, is a respectful dog would not be doing anything really unpleasant or untoward, such as grabbing clothing, or your hands, your feet or anything of that nature, whereby we could say that the dog is getting out of hand, and it goes beyond okay, that's what I mean by respectful behaviour. N.B. Respect does not equate to fear. Should you feel that your dog is not meeting this standard, or is nowhere near it (it happens), then we need to start there - at the beginning. I have a large and free resource of blog posts and videos with many pointers in them, so start there I suggest. If you feel the challenge is too great, then you can always contact me so that we look at your dog on a one to one basis together. I certainly don't expect you all to live with your dogs in the way I describe 24/7,  like some military drill, that is not the case at all. We can still integrate and carry on with having fun and joyous relationships with our dogs, where we're integrating appropriate levels of exercise for the breed and age, where we're playing with the dogs, we're using brain games, things of that nature. See my favourite Brain Games For Dogs Book on Amazon for more ideas.

So when you look at those two elements together, they create a positive tension. Apply consistent, sensible rules on one hand, but to balance it off, we have the fun and enjoyment of the exercise and brain games on the other hand. When we have those two elements balanced off nicely, well, we have a balance, and that is really what I want you to achieve with your dogs. Balanced dogs lead to happy, relaxed owners that truly enjoy the experience of owning a dog.

*As a further aid, you might like to look at a number of specific products that I have personally created and can assist in cases of separation anxiety. The Separation Anxiety list is on Amazon and can be seen here.

How to maintain good manners in your dog

Carrying out simple things you can do in your home with your dog on a daily basis where you're really addressing the little functions that in fact we all (or most of us) do with our dogs, every day. So one example is the sit and wait or the stand and wait - just the simple concept of the dog waiting for access to something it wants helps keep your dog attentive and tuned in to you. You can ask your dog to wait before you go through a doorway. You may be going first, or you may just be opening the door and then allowing your dog to go, but the key point is you're not a door opening service, and as soon as the door opens, you might currently allow your dogs to rush, push or barge past excitedly. Really, what we're trying to do here is to slow the dog down and retain that element of calm control, so getting that wait in place is really important.

Sticking with the stay and wait exercise, ask your dog to wait before allowing it to eat its food is also a helpful measure. I do nothing more than five seconds so that the bowl is put on the floor, I count to five in my head and then give the 'Okay!' release command. We can also ask our dog to sit and wait before being petted. Avoid offering an automatic response to your dog approaching you, or at least, not so that every time your dog approaches you the hand automatically comes out and your dog is effectively taking attention from you whenever it pleases.

Also, sits and waits before your dog has access to a privileged location is another one that comes to mind. Placing your dog in the sit and wait before you say 'Up!' onto the sofa, or maybe on your bed, or any other sort of specific area. Naturally, when a dog has its own beds, it can move in and out of those without your permission (although you may implement short stays on those also periodically).

As another example of maintaining the basic standards, let's look at mealtimes and food manners. What we're really looking for here, as I have just touched on above, was the sitting and waiting before eating, but just as importantly, when you are eating, your dog is not begging, it is not sitting square in front of you waiting for some food or under the table waiting for a dropped slice of carrot or a crumb of Wensleydale. These things in themselves are not the end of the world, but really what they are trying to do is to have a nicely-rounded collective approach so that your dog understands that there are some sensible, balanced rules within the household. So no begging, no dogs under the table, no handing food to your dogs during your own mealtimes, and that the dog should not be encroaching upon any family member whilst they're eating, including children - especially very young children that don't have the awareness or wherewithal to say to the dog 'Away', or 'Lie down'.

If you have any healthy left leftover scraps, then put them in the kitchen in a bowl in the fridge and use that food as food for you to work with your dog with training and distraction methods when you leave your dog alone for a period of time. Please ask your dogs to sit and wait before saying 'Okay' to come up on the sofa, bed and so on. When you lose control of these at privileged locations (dogs helping themselves without permission) you can have some difficulties, so consistency across the family members as to how you give access to privilege locations is really important in my experience.

Please don't allow your dogs to barge past you, this is especially important with bigger dogs, but fundamentally it is important with dogs of all sizes, but the bigger the dog, the bigger the issue from a management point of view, so please ask your dogs to sit and wait, open the door, and after the wait your dog can go through the doorway when you give permission. So as I said earlier, you'll either be going out yourself, at which point you will go first and then encourage your dog to come out with you or if for example just letting a dog out into the garden for a toilet break, just get it to sit and wait on the step and count for five seconds with the door open and then give the okay command.

How to stop separation anxiety developing in your dog

Let's look at the second part, where we're looking at measures to help prevent separation anxiety in the first place. Owners with dogs that already have separation anxiety (not so much a current issue as you're home together and this may need to be addressed under a separate one-to-one later on) because the subject of separation anxiety can be really very broad, and the different permutations I find within this heading are very wide, so you may need specific one-to-one help later on, but putting that aside, these are good ways to help keep the status quo for those of you that are home with your dogs all day at the moment, and so when you are returning to work later on, we hope that your dog can manage and cope with that change in its day-to-day circumstances. As a word of reassurance, dogs are highly adaptable and please don't think that your dog will develop separation anxiety as a result of the close lockdown conditions we are experiencing, but those dogs that have the propensity for this condition as I mention elsewhere, are the ones that this article will apply to.

I shall break this heading down into two subsections. One, behaviours that occur within the home and Two, the behaviours that occur in what I've called out of the home. and what I mean by this, is you coming and going in and out of the home, and that is also something we really need to look at especially for later on when you return to work so that it doesn't become an issue for you later on.

Your dog's behaviour within the home - keeping it simple

So in the home, we need to look at your day-to-day interactions. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with you being home with your dog 24/7, but a focus and awareness upon the interactions when you're together are important. On a personal note,  we are home with our dogs on a daily basis, but we do have the comings and goings in the day, and the dogs are left alone at night, but also for a few hours each day and we purposefully build that in, so if we're leaving the home, the dogs are put away on their own together (though kept apart by a baby gate, as Ruby is 18 months and Pip at 14 years does not want her mischief in her face) and that we are satisfied that they can cope with that absence. The dogs know that there is nothing to become distressed about, and the dog can be quite happy and relaxed, especially when it sees a Kong device and knows that it can relax in the knowledge that you're coming back, especially due to previous practice runs that have been built up over time.

Attention seeking behaviour can take on many different forms, but be sure that you are giving attention to your dog on your terms not when the dog is expressly requesting it so you may be in a position where you choose to literally ignore your dog's attention-seeking efforts, either simply by blanking it by looking the other way, or you are continuing to read the paper, and most dogs will give up behaviours that are non-productive, and you should then see your dog give up, and then go and lie down and relax, which is really what we want. 

You can, of course, give your dog attention, but be much more mindful about this subject and in trying to ensure that your affection and attention is being given on your terms and not your dog's. Maybe your dog follows you around everywhere? Is your dog your shadow? This is indicative of a dog that may have some underlying concerns about where you are, and not wishing to be left alone. Now, many dogs will naturally want to be with you throughout the day, so please don't confuse that desire to be with you with a dog that simply cannot be left alone. It's okay if you move from one room to another and spend a prolonged period in that room working on a laptop or relaxing with a cup of tea and paper, but if you find that when you attempt to go to the bathroom, or into the kitchen to make a drink for a few minutes and your dog is right there stuck on your heel, then that is not the relaxed behaviour that I would encourage you to establish, so that is something that I would ask you to prevent. If you have a partner in the house, you could either get them to hold the dog that is in the lounge as you go into the kitchen for a few minutes, or if you are home alone then you may need to issue a 'Stay' or 'Wait' depending on which words you use, and then to close the door behind you. Getting your dog used to being placed in a room on its own for short periods initially, and then we can build those up over time. All of your efforts in this area will be built up over time - you can't rush it.

Finally, we are looking at managing sleep and rest areas. Most dogs tend to sleep in a room on their own, such as the kitchen or utility room without any difficulty, so maintain that if that is what you're already doing, and I am also aware that some dogs sleep in bedrooms with their owners, so this is where we are getting into interesting territory, because I am not inherently against dogs on the bed, although I personally recommend that your dog sleeps in a room away from the owner, because if we allow our dogs to be with us 24/7, day and night, then when you do choose to go out of the house your dog may find it a challenge, so I usually recommend that dogs don't sleep in the bedroom. Again, I'm not inherently against dogs sleeping in your room, especially if you have an ongoing arrangement and the dog is okay and doesn't show any signs of separation anxiety.

Your dog's behaviour as you depart and return to the home

The second measure to help prevent separation anxiety really looks at the behaviour of your dog as you come and go from your own home. Not so relevant for a lot of us at the moment, although of course, we are still leaving the home where appropriate to do so, especially for those that have a daily routine whether maybe going to work, or going to help family members - all sorts of different circumstances that basically mean that we're leaving the house and then returning.

Depending on the age of the dog, we could be looking at a one, two, three or maybe even four hours alone depending on what you know your dog can already cope with. It would be completely inappropriate to leave a dog with separation anxiety for four hours to teach it to get used to it, it's going to 'fall over' as a process, and is unlikely to work so we need to build those departure times up gradually. One excellent way of establishing your dog's behaviour in your absence is simply to record him or her. Usually, audio recordings are adequate because then we can hear the whimpering, crying, barking scratching, we can guess the rest of it. If you have a video device and can monitor your dog's behaviour when you're away from the home, that can also be useful, and you could have audio as well and this covers off both eventualities. Depending on where you are with all of this at the beginning, you should see that your dog is more relaxed when left alone and that the time your dog takes to settle upon your return becomes less and less.

  1. Leaving your dog at home. When you do leave the house, be sure to leave your dog in a suitable location, consider things like a dog crate, maybe a utility room, or something like a kitchen - basically a location where you know your dog can cope in the area, and your dog is safe, so once you have a basic feel of how long your dog can be left for the behaviour of your dog in your absence, depending on where you are, we then need to build up these sessions and ideally, if you could reach something like the duration of being able to leave your dog for one hour, then that is a good platform and then very often I find all the hard work of building up to the hour, and once we have an hour under our belts, then we can begin to fine-tune it, but that is going to be the starting point to begin with. 
     As a rough guide, use a Kong Classic (see a recent video of my own dogs on one here) stuffed with enough of your dog's favourite recipe for the intended period, you can offer more than one Kong if needed! Keeping a simple log, leave your dog for 5 minutes and monitor for unwanted protests, and once that period is good, begin to add in a few minutes in keeping with your dog's relaxed behaviour. Throwing in a few shorter spells can be helpful, so it might look like this as a time progression in minutes: 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 12, 5, 9, 15, 20, 10, 25, 30, 35, 25, 35, 40, 30, 45, 50, 55, 60 and so on. Only progress on to the next duration stage when the current one is solid. In the first few days, I'd stay within earshot in the home, but then you can begin to add in a more realistic leaving the home routine, involving precursors that signify the departure that is normal for you, e.g. Keys, phone, wallet/handbag, coat and so on. You could even add in getting in the car if your dog can hear it. Departures from the house should also be calm and relaxed. Interactions that wind your dog up, or get the dog's emotional state high in any way before you leave the home should be avoided.
  2.  Returning to your dog. When you come back home after being out for a period of time (even if you were sat quietly in the home), be sure to make your home and room entry calm and not to have a party with your dog when you come back, regardless of how pleased you are to see him and how pleased he is to see you - the responsibility is on you to play it cool and relaxed. I recommend that you ignore your dog initially, wait for the excitement to settle down, and once you feel your dog is calm enough and you can call him to you asking to sit and then to pet him in a calm way, then you can offer calm affection. 

Depending on where your dog is with its behaviour upon your return at the moment, how long you ignore your dog before you attempt the call to you and give some calm affection, that can vary, but think along the lines of anywhere between 5 to 10 minutes of you coming home and ignoring your dog and then having a greeting with your dog after that time. Essentially, your dog's behaviour will dictate how long it should be ignored for. This approach allows you to get your priorities right, which is to say hello to family members first if that applies to you. I do anything else that has to be done of a pressing nature, and then think "Right, where is that dog?!" You can you then sit down and have a nice fuss up with your dog.

Setting your dog's expectations

The above simple approach for your returns to the home greatly helps set your dog's expectations and that can help your dog when left alone. Interestingly, I find that the tone of your usual greetings can have quite an impact on how your dog feels when it is left alone as well as how it feels in your absence. Aim to create as little difference as possible between being home, leaving, and then returning to the home, and then how you relate to your dog when you are home. I trust that these notes will help you achieve that and as a result, experience life with a dog that is pleased to see you on your return, but not bouncing off the walls with excitement and neither demonstrating separation anxiety symptoms in your absence, such as barking, howling, destructive behaviours or inappropriate toileting.

Remember, it is about keeping a balanced approach and on one hand, we're doing something to maintain the basic standards we should already have with our dogs as covered at the beginning of this article and then, on the other hand, we're looking at some specific measures that you can implement, simple measures that you can implement, to help ensure that your dog doesn't develop separation anxiety, and indeed if you feel there is separation anxiety in your dog, you can carry out those measures to help address it.