Separation Anxiety: My own story and what you can do to stop it.
This is a bit of a long one, but bear with me. It's a huge topic and so many controversies exist in how to deal with this so very common problem.
Separation anxiety in a dog is not nice to live with. It causes so much stress and ends up ruining so many owner/dog relationships. One of the most common reason for re-homing is separation anxiety and it can make you become a prisoner in your own home.
Imagine that every time you leave your house you wonder what will be left whole when you return or how angry the neighbours will be after your dog has been barking and howling for hours on end. Worst case scenarios involve dogs that have managed to escaped the home or chewed and/or eaten something dangerous for them. It's not nice. I know, I've lived with it for many years. One of my dogs would chew everything, and the other would howl and bark. Perfect combination.
This is about 20-25 years ago and not only did I not have the knowledge I have today, I lived in Sweden back then, where crates are forbidden and so are E-collars. All that I could do was to manage the behaviour the best I could, which included muzzles and simply not leaving my home too often or for too long. I tried all the usual methods you're told; Ran them for hours each day, because that would make them tired. Left them for a few minutes at the time and I only came back in once they were quiet. I left them with food stuffed in a toy or puzzles, I tried citronella bark collars and even tried (unlawfully!) an E-collar. Back then, they weren't great and after testing it on myself, it went into the bin. In the end I had muzzled dogs locked into the bathroom just to keep them safe while I did the school runs. I had managed the situation, but my dogs still had anxiety.
Thankfully my dogs were good with both humans and dogs, socially, they were great! We went to obedience classes, they could come with me everywhere, they spent time playing with other dogs etc. etc. I was lucky enough to have good dog owner friends and we helped each other if we wanted to go out an evening by looking after each others dogs, so I wasn't quite the prisoner in my own home, but not all people are as lucky.
One day I agreed to add a Rottweiler to my home. He had both human and dog issues and the couple that had him was about to have a baby so couldn't keep him. I had a small reputation in my local area as the "dog-lady" who had helped people before so they contacted me via a mutual friend. They told me that he only lived in the kitchen area of their flat as he couldn't be trusted with people. They only walked him around the block of flats as he pulled like a freight train and was aggressive towards other dogs. He had been attacked on several occasions by other dogs and he had experienced human abuse in form of beatings, not by the owners I might add.
He was a handful to put it gently, and honestly I was in way over my head. We struggled through a lot of stuff and boy did I make many mistakes, but we got through it. He ended up a very sweet lad who I had a lot of fun with and whom I loved dearly. So, why am I telling you this story about him...? Because despite all his severe issues, there was one he DIDN'T have, and that was separation anxiety!
So what was so different with this dog compared to mine? Mine had all the love, care and affection they could possibly get. They were spoilt rotten, slept in my bed and was with me all the time. They had never been abused or attacked. They had free access to all of my home and my furniture. About this time, Cesar Millan started to show up on TV and one day sat watching his show, I heard him talk about: "Exercise, Discipline, Affection" in that order. Then he hit me with "Affection, Affection, Affection" and how that can create so many issues in dogs and a massive light bulb went off in my head. Could I love my dogs in the wrong way and too much??? Was I to blame for my dogs anxiety?? Looking at the rottweiler and my own dogs, the truth was staring me in the face. The rottweiler had had too little love and the wrong kind of discipline, but mine had had too much love, freedom and affection without the BALANCE of rules and boundaries. I had rarely told my dogs no or set any boundaries, particularly in my home!
I allowed my dogs to go wherever they pleased, to get affection when they wanted it, to enter my personal space and claim it without me asking for it, to decide when and what we played with by bringing me toys, to sleep in my bed. They were ALWAYS close to me. I had created needy dogs who couldn't relax if they didn't know where I was.
So what can we do to prevent separation anxiety in the first place and how can we help dogs that have already developed some sort of anxiety?
As you may have understood already from the above, is that not having rules, boundaries and structure in place from the beginning is a bad idea. It's not that hard really and once you have it as a routine it has become a lifestyle. Living with anxiety, as many people know, is harmful for your mental state and dogs are no different. They are at extra risk however as many dogs with separation anxiety chew things that are dangerous for them and they end up on a vets surgery table or they bark and howl for so long that owners are at risk for being evicted if they can't sort it. We can normally sort out separation anxiety issues here in less than 48 hours, as we are one of the few places in the UK who believe that it's not only OK to say no to your dog and to correct bad behaviours, (one of the major lacking parts of any positive only methods) but essential for a balanced dog! Is it really mean to help dogs (and their owners!) move on from a very stressful state of mind quickly, rather than using methods that usually take many months or just doesn't work at all...?
The training starts the moment you take the leash and bring your dog home, whether it's a puppy or an older rescue or re-home, and it is ongoing 24/7 from there. You are always training and communicating with your dog. Start with introducing your dog to your home in the right way; by waiting politely at the door and not just rushing through it as you open it. This takes a bit of practise, but if you do it every time you both enter and leave the house with your dog, it won't take you long. This will set you up for both a calmer dog as it enters the house, a calmer dog when you're going for a walk and a calmer dog when you need to leave it alone.
Do structured walks every day for at least 60 minutes. (Not puppies!) A structured walk is where the dog is walking politely at your side without pulling, sniffing, marking, barking or lunging and don't allow your dog to meet other dogs on leash, as that will only make your dog excited and we're trying to promote calmness. While on your walk, when you find a nice grassy spot you should "release" your dog (By saying ok, break, free or whatever command you have chosen) and let it have a potty break for 10 minutes or so, then carry on your structured walk. This walk is essential in our books as it is a great foundation for good behaviour for both on, and off leash.
Crate train your dog. Another essential for us as this will prevent soiling, pacing, chewing, barking at the windows etc. It keeps your dog safe when you can't keep an eye on them and it also stops them from following you around the house at all times, creating that neediness to be near you as I spoke of earlier. Crate your dog over night.
Teach your dog the place command. Having your dog following you around wherever you go, or lying at your feet constantly, is not healthy and can cause many problems. A dog that wanders around, paces, follows you, spends time reacting to sounds, reacting to people passing outside your window or similar, are all activities that can promote anxiety. It is much harder for these dogs to be calm when you leave. The place command has the added benefit of also training impulse control.
Create a calm environment in your home. Every morning when you get up or when you come home after being away, don't make a big deal out of it. If every time when you enter the house the first thing you do is greet your excited dog with an equally excited voice and by petting it, you've just rewarded the excited state of mind. Same when you leave the house! Don't let the dog treat your home as a kids playground. Any high energy play should take place outdoors. At our place, most people think our dogs are bored. They're not, and they're not tired. They're just in a calm state of mind. We tend not to excite the dogs unnecessarily either; when we go for a walk, it's just that, a walk. When we feed they have to be calm, going in and out of cars or any doors, they need to be calm. The rewards? They get to go for a walk, come with us, get fed, get played with etc.
Let them earn affection. This is probably the toughest one for most dog owners, including myself. Affection comes in many shapes and forms when it comes to dogs. It includes all from petting, verbal praise, getting to play, food rewards to the greatest reward of all; to experience the world together with you and just...be. Sharing your affection with a dog should be treasured and mean something. A dog that is already excited will become even more so with constant praise and affection, and a dog that is used to getting it when they want will not appreciate it as much.
These are the ground rules as I see it, if you implement all of the above you should see a difference fairly soon in your dog. If you have an over excited dog you can always add some tread mill exercises which helps your dog drain some more energy. Remember though, exercise alone will never fix any issues, all you're doing is getting a really fit dog with loads of stamina!
If you have THAT dog that despite putting all the work in just can't be quiet in the crate, chews his way out, is a danger to himself or others while left alone, you may need some extra help. As I said earlier, we are perfectly ok with correcting a dog for a bad and/or dangerous behaviours and help them find a better way to cope, but most people will need some extra help doing this in a manner that will actually help the dog. Most owners are too emotionally involved with their dogs at this point, that frustration and anger comes into play. I get that, completely, but those emotions will not help your dog and that is where we come in. Have a look at our website and fill out a contact form and we'll be able to help you.
All the best, and happy training!
(PS: Videos on how we train the behaviours and commands mentioned above will be up on our website soon!)