Separation anxiety is a genuine phobia of being alone. We would describe a phobia as an extreme, irrational fear of a specific object or situation. The results of this for a dog owner mean that their life can be highly limited to prevent their canine companion from going through daily stress. I have heard many times how stressful this can be for human caregivers who want to help their pets but simply do not know how to achieve this whilst having weighing pressures from employers or friends and family. I am going to look at some of the contributing factors and myths that surround this subject.
It is often advised to start leaving your new puppy as soon as possible so that they will “get used to it”. Whilst it is important to work on alone training with your puppy, we also have to think about what a young puppy can cope with at this early age. They have likely come to your home from a breeder and their mum and siblings. This in itself is a big change for a very young dog who is in their initial bonding stage. Some time will be needed for them to adjust to the change, bond with you and to gain confidence and independence.
So how do we go about promoting independence and alone time without moving too fast. A good way to view the progression of this behaviour is in small stages. The first thing we would look to promote is settling or resting in the same room as you. In this stage we are not restricting access to contact with you and it is simply time dependent for your puppy to start relaxing away from you. Some owners will work on this using crate training, however it is still important not to restrict access by closing the crate door before pup is ready.
Once your puppy has started to nap constantly without occasional reassurance or contact with you, you can then work on the next stage. This would be promoting relaxing without you in sight. Again we need to be guided by the dog and not restrict access to risk causing distress. This stage could be tackled by simply adding movement whilst your puppy is calm and settled. For example, walking from room to room without engaging pup to come with you. The decision will still be for the puppy to make, however, you will be looking for them to decide it simply isn’t worth it or fun to follow you around instead of settling where they are. At this point it may be useful to intermittently add an incentive to remain where they are – a good example of this would be a tasty filled kong left on their crate or bed.
If you have worked through the stages above, your puppy should now be choosing to remain in rooms without you and happy to settle without your reassurance. At this stage you are now ready to work building short restricted alone time and triggers to you going out of the house. Once again you will need to do this in small stages and be guided by what your dog is comfortable with. For example – leaving the room and closing the door behind you for 3 seconds may elicit no reaction form your dog but 6 seconds may result in some crying. Alternatively, leaving them between rooms in the house may be perfectly acceptable but going out of the front door is too hard at the current moment.
A few important things to remember are:
Training will never be linear – be prepared to have to go backwards in stages whilst you work on this. Dips in confidence are completely normal.
What if I have an older or rescue dog that is suffering from separation anxiety and not a puppy – the steps are the same when building confidence alone. You may just be at an advantage to how fast you can move through the process.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help – call on friends and family to help care for your dog so that you do not NEED to leave them alone before they are ready. A professional force free trainer can help you work out the stages of your plan so that you can be confident that you are helping your dog feel happy and content on their own.
Kerry - Behaviour Counsellor