HELPING YOUR DOG LEARN TO COPE WITH BEING LEFT ALONE
Separation anxiety and attachment problems are behaviours that may affect dogs from any walk of life. Some may end up in rehoming shelters because owners cannot deal with a destructive dog, so it is essential to help your dog learn to cope with being alone from an early age or as soon as you get him.
Why is my dog destructive or noisy?
Dogs are ‘pro-social’ animals. They are born into a group of dogs and prefer to live with their attachment figure, which was their mother as a puppy but is now probably you.
They are extremely sociable animals and have a social system similar to ours. So its hardly surprising that they can panic when left alone. Being ‘home alone’ for most dogs is a very unnatural and sometimes scary experience.
Dogs need our time and company to feel safe and secure. Please note that no adult dog should be left for longer than 4 hours at a time on a regular basis – or even the most confident and happy dogs may develop all sorts of behaviour problems.
Some dogs can become over attached to one person in the family and then can’t cope when they are left on their own. Destructive behaviour (which can include tearing up furniture or belongings, soiling or urinating in the home, persistent barking or even self-mutilation) is often a coping mechanism for dogs with anxiety and can indicate they are panicking.
Chewing and ripping can help a dog take his mind off being so lonely and may release ‘happy’ hormones which will make him feel better. If a dog cannot cope in isolation, he will probably become destructive or display these behaviours during the first 20 minutes or so of being left. Some dogs are not destructive but become depressed and just cry, bark or howl when left.
Please remember that destructive or noisy behaviour is not a purposeful or spiteful act by your dog – they just aren’t capable of that. Punishing your dog on your return for anything he may have done in your absence will only increase the amount of anxiety and confusion that he feels when you leave him. Unless you catch your dog and are able to interrupt him in the act of chewing something, he will not know that the punishment is related to what he has done and therefore it will have no effect on the unwanted behaviour. If anything it can have the opposite effect and increase his general anxiety and make the problem far worse.
The first step – teaching your dog to feel comfortable without you around
If you have a very insecure dog, it is essential that you start teaching him to develop independence and confidence when he is separated briefly from you. If he is unable to be relaxed enough for you to go into another room without him for just a few moments, you cannot even begin to think about going out and leaving him for a number of hours.
- Choose a room where it is quiet, where he feels content and where you and your dog are happy for him to be. Install a baby gate or tall barrier, so that he can see and hear you whilst you are in another room but cannot follow you.
- Start off by building the desire to be in this space, by placing his favourite things in this room. Best chews, puzzle toys, beds, music, TV or a radio, your old jumper or slippers, etc. Keep the gate closed for a while and let the dog look into the space desiring to get in to get his favourite things. A bit like looking into a sweetshop. Aim to feed your dog in this room and let him in after a few minutes of almost begging to get in.
- Gradually push the gate closer and closer to being shut so that he slowly learns to relax on his own. Aim to be nearby but let him learn to entertain himself in his dog den whilst you are initially distant and then gradually out of sight. He will soon learn that it is normal to be left on his own for short periods of time whilst the family are doing other things in the house. You will need to do this every day, several times a day.
- If this is not an option – perhaps you have an open-plan house – then consider introducing your dog to an indoor kennel. (Crate or pen) Please read our factsheet on the indoor kennel or talk to your vet or behaviourist about this. Please note that under no circumstances should a dog be left in an indoor kennel for long periods of time, or as a means of stopping behaviour problems such as destructive chewing without actually dealing with the problem in the first place. This could lead to your dog hurting himself by self-mutilation.
- If your dog is displaying any unwanted destructive or noisy behaviour when you return to ‘his’ room, you have probably been absent too long and he can’t cope with it. In which case you will need to seek the help of a reputable behaviourist. If he has coped for 5 minutes wait for a few seconds until he is calmly sitting and then let him out. f you speak or enter the room when he is doing something that you do not want him to do, you might be giving an unintentional reward and they could increase. To an insecure dog, even being shouted at to be quiet is a reward for this behaviour.
- Once your dog has learnt to be left for short periods you should be able to lengthen this time gradually.
Step two – changing your daily routine
- Encourage your dog to use his room for quiet rest several times a day, undisturbed by the rest of the family. If you find your dog in his room, always gently praise and reward him for being in the right place. Make sure you have a pot of rewards placed up high in the room, readily available for when you need to randomly reward.
- Try to reduce following from room to room. Get used to closing doors or gates behind you even if it is just for seconds , going in and out of rooms without acknowledging your dog. We call this ‘flitting’ – moving form place to place closing the gate briefly and the going back in again.
- Train and encourage your dog to follow a scent trail away form you into the other rooms to explore or chew. this will help him learn to be less dependent on your company in the daytime and learn to search and forage for his food.
- Vary the times of day that you take your dog for walks. If your dog is in the habit of always exercising at the same time and then you have to go out without your dog at this usual walking time, your dog will become very stressed and more likely to display his destructive behaviour.
- Also if you’ve been walking your dog once a day during lockdown at a certain time and then go back to work, and he can’t have his walk at that time, you could be increasing his frustration levels.
- Everyone that lives with you and your dog should take part in supplying the dog’s ‘life rewards’. These are all of the things that your dog needs in everyday life, such as feeding, training, walks and games. If only one person supplies the majority of these, a dog is likely to become over reliant to this person leading to insecurity when they leave.
- Avoid long drawn-out farewells or lots of fuss and attention on your return, as this makes it a big event in your dog’s eyes. Leaving casually and having very low key response when you return will show him that you going out is no big deal. If your dog is very excited or needy on your return, ignore him calmly for a few minutes and then greet him quietly when he has calmed down. There is no need to touch him or push him away, just go about your normal routine such as putting away shopping, and be calm with minimal attention.
- Closing the curtains to reduce visual stimulation and providing him with safe chews or toys may help to make it easier for him to be alone. Placing an unwashed item of your clothing in his bed might help him feel more secure. Try playing a relaxation tape, or soothing classical music or leave your TV on to drown out any outside noise that may disturb him.
- Use an Adaptil pheromone plug-in device or the Adaptil pheromone collar which emits a comforting scent that may help to calm your dog and make him feel more relaxed when left alone.
- Use a good quality anti anxiety supplement such as M&C Serenum or Kalmaid to help reduce anxiety. Please note: some dogs will need prescription medication depending on the severity of the distress.
- IF you do need to leave your dog at home alone, make sure it is not in the relaxation areas, as we want this area to be associated with feeling relaxed and calm, not fearful.
- Its sometimes better to leave a dog in a car for short periods instead of the house, as most dogs understand the owner will return to the car quite quickly. As long as it is not a warm day of course! Dogs usually learn that when people fill up with fuel that they will return to the car very quickly So, unless it is a warm day, the car might be an option for short periods.
- Build up a network of dog carers that you can leave your dog with. dog walkers, pet sitters family friends etc. for those times when you need to be absent for several hours.
Some of these steps will help with some dogs that are mildly worried about your absence. however, if your dog is really distressed when left or need more help with your dog’s destructive behaviour and anxiety problem please call a reputable behaviourist such as Victoria Cooper to make a behaviour consultation appointment.
This video can help you to understand Separation and Isolation distress. https://youtu.be/GqPQKLh883s