Separation anxiety (SA) happens amongst pets and humans. Its presence and intensity also varies from one pet to another. It is especially worrying when your furry friend barks a lot, and chews and scratches home furnishing to destruction when you are away. When that happens, you need to use effective strategies to remedy SA to keep your bond harmonious.
In this piece, we will talk about what is dog separation anxiety behaviour and what is not. We will also discuss the definitive signs of SA and the ways to resolve this pet distress.
Knowing the Signs of Separation Anxiety
Not all dog mischief is a symptom of SA. According to dog trainer Brian Kilcommons, dogs sometimes engage in mischief because they enjoy them. The acts are not done as a reaction to or way of coping with your departure. Trash-raiding or destroying furniture can also be due to incomplete house-training. When such problems happen even when you are home or when his routine is changed, they are not signs of separation anxiety.
How do you know when your dog is experiencing separation anxiety?
- He always wants to be near you no matter what you are doing.
- His mood significantly changes when you start preparing to leave.
- Whilst you are away, he engages in activities that he normally does not do when you are at home. He drools too much, vocalises excessively, destroys various items in the house, and has potty accidents in the house. He may even attempt to escape. But when you are present, he does not show these behaviours.
- He is overly excited in greeting you when you return, even if you were gone for just five minutes.
The Key to Resolving Dog Separation Anxiety
Remedying SA requires consistency and patience. Your dog’s age, size, breed, or intensity of his SA are not good predictors of his ability to overcome isolation distress. As such, it is not clear when your dog will be able to resolve his anxiety. Realistically, the time frame can range from weeks to a few months.
Instead, focus on gradual improvements—achievement milestones, if you will—rather than a total cure. In time, your pet will get to that coveted 100 per cent recovery goal.
That being said, the key to successful separation anxiety training is gradual exposure to longer periods of your absence. The first step is knowing your dog’s anxiety threshold. Your training strategy should begin from this base. Aiming for something far beyond what your dog can cope guarantees failure. An example is leaving him for three hours although he starts getting distressed within a minute of your absence.
This is how to discover your pet’s isolation threshold:
- Strategically position a device that allows you to watch your pet’s behaviour when you go out of the front door. For example, you can use video calling apps installed on a gadget.
- Use a stopwatch to monitor the time threshold. Start the clock once you close the door after going out. Walk some distance so that your pet cannot see or hear you. Note what your dog is doing after you leave.
- Keep observing your pet for five to ten minutes to get a better picture of his behaviour.
- Return as soon as the ten minutes are up.
The anxiety threshold of your pet is the duration between your departure and the moment the distressing behaviours start manifesting. It could be anywhere from five seconds or several minutes. It could even start even before you go out the door.
How to Desensitise Your Pet to Your Departure
- Practise going out and coming in the house.
- The length of your departure time should vary, but is still close to your dog’s threshold. If your pooch starts whining when you reach for the doorknob, start with just opening and closing the door without going out. Open the door a little and then close. Walk away.
- After a minute, go to the door again and twist the doorknob but do not open. Let go and then walk away again.
- After another minute, go back to the door and take a step outside. Close the door and then go back inside quickly.
- Gradually lengthen the duration of your absence in the next few days or weeks. You may do so in increments of thirty seconds, depending on your dog’s threshold and progress. The total training time should be thirty minutes, four to five times a week.
- Avoid reinforcing your pet’s reactions. Try not to establish eye contact or even talk to your pooch as you do the steps described previously. But this does not mean totally shutting him out. You can briefly play with him in between the variations. For example, you can toss a ball after the one-minute pause before moving on to the next variation. The no-contact strategy is meant to make your dog understand that separation is normal.
- Desensitise your pet to your pre-departure routine. Your dog’s anxiety may start rising whilst you are getting ready to go. As such, practise your pre-departure routine with him. You can set aside time for this, aside from the training period for the actual departure.Let’s say your pre-departure routine involves putting on your coat, taking the keys, and wearing your shoes, in that order. For the first day, do the coat wearing only. Then take it off and wait for a minute before doing it again.After a few days, wear your coat and then pick up your keys. Return the items and wait for a minute before taking them again. The decision on when to add a new item depends on your dog’s reaction and progress. Remember, ‘gradual’ shift is the key. Continue to add new items until you have your whole routine done without incident.
More Tips on Breaking Separation Anxiety
Training time should be done at different times of the day. Otherwise, your pet will think that the desensitisation only applies at a certain time of the day. Also, other people in your household should be involved so that your pet will learn to be calm no matter who leaves.
Here are a few other tips:
- Be calm, firm, and confident You should not be guilty about leaving your pet home. Your dog will catch on to that (and other negative energies) and be distressed himself. Take your leave calmly to emphasise the normalcy of the separation.
- Walk your dog before leaving Help your furry friend let out any pent up energy by exercising him before leaving. If you only have a short time for that, put on a doggy backpack on him to make the short walk challenging. Dogs tend to behave better when they are tired.
- Leave him your used clothing Something that smells like you can make him feel as if you are still around and can help ease the isolation.
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