Understanding and preventing separation anxiety

With many of us spending much more time at home recently, we are expecting a spike in separation anxiety issues when we return to work. What is separation anxiety and what can we do to prevent it? Expert Trainer and Behaviourist, Carolyn Menteith, advises.

So many of the UK's dogs have had a ball over lockdown. More company, more exercise - living the life they would choose alongside their owners every minute of the day. And for new puppy-owners, this has seemed like a perfect time to train them and really integrate them as part of the family. Owners can concentrate on toilet training, playing interactive games, starting to work on training exercises - and just have some relaxing home time building their relationship with their new best friend!

But what will happen when we return to our regular lives? Our dogs - used to 24/7 company - having to adjust to spending time alone?

Separation-related behaviour problems (usually referred to as separation anxiety) are, unfortunately, one of the hardest behaviour problems to cure or manage - and for a dog who doesn’t have the coping skills to deal with ‘home alone’ time, life can be anything from an occasional misery to a constant state of anxiety and stress that will affect their entire life.

Fortunately, with the right knowledge and undesratnding, it's a problem that is easy to prevent. Separation-related behaviour problems occur when the dog doesn’t have the coping skills to be on their own or without their owner. They are never being naughty or trying to make their owner feel bad for leaving them; it's actually like a human panic attack which is out of their control and very, very distressing. Every instinct in their body tells them that being alone is a source of anxiety or fear. Why? Because if they have never been taught that it is “safe” to be alone or without their owner, it is automatically a scary thing to face. 

Teaching a dog home-alone coping skills is as much a part of socialisation and habituation as getting them used to all the sights, sounds, scents and experiences that their life will inevitably bring, but it’s a part that owners often neglect in their desire to create a strong bond with their dog.

Whether you have a puppy or an older dog, it is important to spend as much time working on this as you do on your exercise, training and interactive enrichment to ensure that your dog is happy to be alone.

Teaching Home Alone skills

1. The key to teaching your dog that being on their own is “safe” and even enjoyable, is making sure that when you leave them, there's something tasty or fun to do! This way - you being gone is a good thing, rather than a time for them to be desperate for you to return.

2. Start as soon as you get your puppy so it's all normal and just part of life. If you haven’t already been doing this, start now but start slowly.

3. Small small… Give your dog their dinner and while they are eating, leave the room for a minute. If you feed them in the kitchen, use a stairgate so you can close that to prevent them following you. Dinner will be much more interesting than worrying about where you are, but they are slowly learning that good things can happen while you're not there! Gradually build up the time you are away to take in their entire dinner time - but be aware that a puppy will need to go out to the toilet immediate after they’ve eaten!

4. If you have a secure garden, try scatter-feeding your dog. Take your dog’s kibble and drop it in the grass for them to hunt out - starting in a small area and then scattering a bit wider. This way, you can leave them while they find it - again, showing them that good things can and do happen when you are not there - and they are also using their scavenging, foraging and scenting instincts.

5. Feed your dog in an interactive toy (like a Kong) - and again, leave them the other side of a stairgate while they work out how to get their food out of the toy. They will love the natural chewing and gnawing which is a stress-reliever for most dogs. Start by making it easy to empty so they win quickly, then make it harder as they understand how to get dinner. While you are leaving your dog, keep checking in - even if from a distance - to make sure the toy is durable and safe.

6. Don’t let your dog follow you everywhere. While we often like that our dogs need to follow us wherever we go (even to the loo!), it isn’t good for our dogs to think they will always have constant access to us. Use equipment such as stairgates in doorways. These are great as they're cheap and quick to fit, and are not such a physical barrier like a door as they can still see you - and give your dog a treat while you’re gone. Again, they will learn to look forward to your absences, not worry about them.

7. Once you know your dog is happy being left for a few minutes, you can very slowly build up the length of time you leave them. Don’t do too much too fast. You are teaching them that being alone is safe and nothing to worry about. If you go too quickly, you’ll only teach them that you keep vanishing for ages and it is scary!

8. If you are at all worried that your dog might not be happy when you leave, use a webcam to find out what they are doing when you are not there, and if they show any signs of separation-related behaviours (vocalisation, pacing, panting, salivating, scratching at doors, destruction or chewing, loss of toilet training, inability to eat when alone, aggression (on your return, on leaving, or generally), consult an accredited  behaviour professional with experience in separation anxieties for help. These problems do not go away on their own - and usually get worse!

9. Look on training home alone skills as being as important as toilet training or any other life skill. Your dog is learning from you every minute you are together. Make sure you are teaching them what you really want them to learn for all the years you have together in the future.

*If you are planning a new puppy at any time (especially from any of the breeds prone to separation-related issues - generally toy breeds and those breeds originally developed to work with a strong owner bond), it's important to ask the breeder if they have started teaching the puppies to be happy on their own. 

If you have an Kennel Club Pet Insurance policy, you can access the free Pet Health Helpline, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The veterinary-trained team will advise on any concerns or queries that you may have over your pet’s health – much like the NHS 111 service for people. Call free on 03333 32 19 47.