As a Dog Behaviourist, one of the most common behavioural problems I am asked about is separation anxiety. Due to Covid, many dogs during the lockdown period were with their owners 24 hours a day. With many people returning to work, separation anxiety and a lack of socialisation were major problems that have continued to be problematic today.
Specific breeds are also more prone to separation anxiety and include Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Chihuahuas and Cocker Spaniels. Whereas Bullmastiffs, Chow Chows, Miniature Schnauzers, Lhasa Apsos, Boston Terriers, Akitas and Chinese Shar-Peis are the
breeds to least exhibit separation behaviours.
Our mutual goal is to resolve a dog's anxiety issues and teach them it is okay to be left alone. For a dog though, separation anxiety could be termed as a panic attack, triggered by being separated from whom they are closely attached to ... their owner.
Barking or howling, urinating or defecating in the house when alone, chewing or destroying objects and digging holes are all signs of separation anxiety in a dog. The most extreme behaviour is the dog escaping from it's yard trying to find their owner. The results can be anything from self injury while escaping from inside the home or yard through to being fatally injured on the road.
Counterconditioning may help or reduce the problem by changing the current behaviour. This treatment uses something the dog loves like food, toys, puzzle toys or treats, which are introduced each time the owner must leave the dog. The dog will then associate being left alone with good things happening to them. Over time this counterconditioning will help the dog to realise being left alone is a good thing.
Session Plan Counterconditioning and Desensitization
Unwanted Behaviour - Separation Anxiety
For Mild Anxiety:
⦁ Prepare puzzle toys or treat toys before leaving the dog. An example would be a Kong toy that can be stuffed with high value or favourite treats (dog friendly peanut butter, air dried chicken, low fat cheese, etc) . This is even better if frozen as it will take the dog longer to finish it, usually about 15 to 20 minutes. If the owner is leaving in the morning, the dog's breakfast can be hidden inside the toy instead.
⦁ Any toys that are high value or special, need to be removed once the owner comes home and brought back out each time they leave.
⦁ Leaving a radio or television on as background noise.
For moderate to severe separation anxiety, a more detailed training program is needed using counterconditioning and desensitization.
For Moderate to Severe Separation Anxiety:
⦁ Start with several daily sessions, calmly and quietly over at least two to three weeks.
⦁ It is crucial to not make the dog anxious or fearful when first starting the training.
⦁ The dog cannot be left alone during this training program except when the owner leaves the dog in their desensitization training. The dog would need to be with a family member or friend, cared for at home, taken to work or with a doggy day care or dog sitter.
⦁ Be flexible with the dog, watch their reactions.
⦁ Dogs know the sounds and cues of their owner leaving whether it is the sound of the keys or getting their bag or shoes out. If the dog begins to show any signs of anxiousness at this stage, begin the dog's training at this point. Use the same cues as if you are going out but each time do something different. For example pick up the keys and your bag or wallet and go and watch television. Change the outcome of your cues for leaving. This needs to be done several times a day for several weeks until the cue response from the dog does not incite an anxious response.
⦁ Start leaving the dog for very short bursts. Ask the dog to sit or drop in front of a room, go into the room momentarily, close the door, wait a few seconds and return to the dog before it shows any sigs of being anxious. Gradually build up (the seconds) over time, longer periods away from the dog. The time apart from the dog needs to be gauged so the dog does not become frantic.
⦁ Combine leaving cues (keys, coat, shoes) with going into another room. Ask the dog to sit in front of a room and once again go inside with the leaving cues.
⦁ Work on different rooms as well as the front and back doors.
⦁ Don't rush the separations by making them too long, slowly build up to forty minutes. Forty minutes has been found to be when most of a dog's responses will occur. Once the dog can tolerate that period of time start adding a further five minutes of absence. Incorporate counterconditioning with food stuffed toys just as you leave
⦁ The owner can now start leaving the dog for longer periods of time. Leave calmly and confidently.
⦁ When returning to the dog, calmly talk to the dog but don't pay any attention until the dog has calmed down. If the dog is over excited, basic obedience may help the dog to focus and relax by asking the dog to sit.
⦁ Give the dog plenty of exercise throughout the week, especially before you need to leave the home.
⦁ Provide mental stimulation with feed mats, interactive toys, chew toys and safe raw bones.
For warmer weather, a chicken breast can be frozen in a container of water and turned out for the dog to lick and chew through during the day.
⦁ Leave the radio or television on for background noise as many dogs find this comforting.
⦁ Joining a class to learn nose work with your dog and using that training, hide food treats before you leave.
⦁ Interactive games of tug and fetch.
⦁ Any exercise that will tire the dog out before you leave.
⦁ Veterinary prescribed medication for severe cases of anxiety.
© Jill Hardcastle
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