How to stop your dog developing separation anxiety
Worried about your lockdown puppy when you go back to work? Experts urge owners to prepare NOW by giving dogs ‘alone time’ and establishing new routines to avoid separation anxiety
- For some dogs may be the first time they’re left alone when you go back to work
- Study found 29% of owners say pooches have become more needy in lockdown
- FEMAIL reveals dog trainer and behavourists methods to limit separation anxiety
Millions of dog owners across the country will already be feeling anxious about how their pets will cope when they go back to work post-lockdown.
For those who only got their faithful friend as a puppy during the pandemic it may be the first time they’ve ever been left for a prolonged period of time, while older hounds may have simply become used to having their humans around 24-7.
Recent research by Itch, the pet wellness company, revealed that three in five dogs bought in lockdown haven’t yet been left alone, with 62 per cent of lockdown pups having not even been in any environments other than their home. As a result, 71 per cent of owners worry their dogs will suffer separation anxiety when life returns to normal.
Meanwhile another survey commissioned by natural pet food brand Forthglade revealed 29 per cent of owners have seen their dog become more needy since the start of the Covid outbreak, with 22 per cent reporting an increase in barking.
While it’s still several weeks before most office workers in the UK are likely to make a full-time return, dog behaviour experts are urging owners to take action now to build up their pooches’ independence and ensure a positive transition.
Here FEMAIL reveals the tried and tested methods used by dog trainers and behavourists to limit separation anxiety.
While it’s still several weeks before office workers in the UK are likely to make a full-time return, dog behaviour experts are urging owners to take action now to build up their pooches’ independence and ensure a positive transition (stock image)
START TO LEAVE THEM LITTLE AND OFTEN
With puppies, Oli Juste, Itch panellist and dog behavourist, suggests starting out by leaving them alone and going into another room.
‘If this works well and your dog remains relaxed, go ahead and leave the house for a few minutes whilst leaving your phone behind to film him or her,’ he told FEMAIL.
‘If your pup still remains calm, slowly but surely increase the time your puppy will spend alone.
‘Just remember, when they are young they cannot spend too much time by themselves, so be sensible and remember to take them out for a toilet break just before and right after your return.
With puppies, Oli Juste, Itch panellist and dog behavourist, suggests starting by leaving them alone and going into another room (stock image)
WHAT IS SEPARATION ANXIETY?
Veterinary specialist Dr Joanna Woodnutt MRCVS explains: ‘Separation anxiety is the feeling of panic when an animal is separated from an important “resource” – usually a family member. It was an evolutionary advantage to stick together in a pack or group, so the feeling of fear when alone was useful to the canine ancestor. The problem is, in modern-day living we need our dogs to be relaxed when left alone for short periods.
This often isn’t the case, and signs of separation anxiety include howling and whining when left alone, or panicking when you go to leave the house. Bad cases will see your dog pacing back and forth, and destructive behaviour such as chewing. Dr Woodnutt told Pet Radar: ‘Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety may destroy furniture and even injure themselves. It also often gets worse without proper behavioural intervention; a dog that starts out crying when left alone can progress to pure panic and attempts to escape over several months.’
‘By the age of 25 weeks old you can start to leave them for up to an hour or two depending on how long they can hold themselves without a toilet break.
‘Ideally, I wouldn’t suggest you leave an adult dog alone for more than three to four hours at a time.’
Dog trainer Graeme Hall, who presents the Channel 5 show Dogs Behaving (Very) Badly and is known as ‘The Dogfather’, also recommends starting to make short solo trips out of the house to get your dog used to being solo.
‘If you can, get out of the house little and often, two or three minutes at a time, then pop back in again,’ he recently told BBC Breakfast hosts Dan Walker and Louise Minchin.
‘The message that we need to send across is very much, “We go, we come back, it’s not a big deal,” it’s very much part of every day life, so we get them used that. Then when you walk back in and they’re calm and happy, praise them.’
While the amount of time you can leave your dog for will vary according to their personalities, Graeme said the golden rule is slowly but surely.
‘Walk out the door for a minute, a minute or two, and walk back in and see what you’ve got,’ he said. ‘If that’s going well, over the next period of days and weeks extend those couple of minutes to 10, 15, 30 minutes. That’s the message, tiny little increments, and build it up.’
DON’T LOOK ANXIOUS ABOUT LEAVING THEM…
Graeme pointed out that dogs are ‘brilliant’ at picking up on our body language, so if you’re worried about leaving them on their own, don’t let it show.
‘The only thing you have to fear to some extent is fear itself,’ he said. ‘If you’re looking anxious, you can almost create your own problem. Even though you’re feeling anxious, try not to look it.’
He added: ‘It’s very much about praising calm behaviour and keeping things nice and calm, so when you do leave, you’re not revving them up.’
…AND DON’T WIND THEM UP WHEN YOU RETURN
‘Just like you should leave calmly with no long and big goodbyes, return calmly too,’ Oli said.
‘Don’t ignore your dog completely, just remain very calm and quiet. As fun as it is to get your dog super excited on your return, it will only make waiting for you next time more exhilarating and may promote further separation-related issues over time.’
GET A PUP-CAM
‘Some neighbours may make it very clear to you, but the absence of complaints doesn’t mean that your dog is OK,’ Oli said.
‘Investing in a home camera can be very useful too.’
A Furbo Dog Camera sends you an alert when your dog is barking, and you can talk through it to calm them down. It even comes with a ‘treat tosser’ function, so you can reward your furry friend for good behaviour even when you’re out of the house.
THINK ABOUT CRATE TRAINING
Although dog crates aren’t a sensible option for every canine companion, there is some merit in their use for many.
Dr Woodnutt said: ‘Using a dog crate can help dogs with separation anxiety in two ways.
‘Firstly, it keeps them safe; dogs left to roam free and suffering from separation anxiety can damage themselves or even escape in their panic.
‘Secondly, it can provide a mentally “safe space” for your dog – a place they can go to be calm. It can signify, “I’m going out and I’ll be back soon” and provide a boundary for your dog.
‘Proper crate training can also help to prevent separation anxiety, as dogs are taught that being alone is not a bad thing.’
She added: ‘Be mindful that buying a dog crate will not solve separation anxiety on its own – your dog must be trained to accept this new living arrangement, and to understand it’s a fun, safe place for them to call home.
‘Crates also aren’t designed for you to leave your four-legged friends in for long periods – a dog that is crated for too long won’t get enough exercise or human interaction, and this can be a further source of depression or anxiety.’
INVEST IN AN ANTI-ANXIETY BED
Certain pet beds claim to help ease anxiety. Abi Petitt, who has worked from home throughout the pandemic, spending every day with her three-year-old cavapoo Ralph by her side, recommends the Silentnight Calming Donut Pet Bed, which she helped develop as part of her job at Comfy Group.
She told FEMAIL: ‘We have noticed over the last 12 months that Ralph has become increasingly more anxious when we aren’t near him, even when we’re just in the other room.
Certain pet beds claim to help ease anxiety. Abi Petitt, who has worked from home throughout the pandemic, spending every day with her three-year-old cavapoo Ralph (pictured together) by her side, recommends the Silentnight Calming Donut Pet Bed
The Silentnight Calming Donut Pet Bed appeals to dogs’ natural nesting instinct to help create a calming environment for them with its soothing donut shape (pictured: Ralph enjoying it)
‘He would always be on the lookout for someone to be near at all times, meaning he’d never settle in his bed for long periods of time in case he missed out on any action. It was like FOMO, in a dog!’
The Silentnight Calming Donut Pet Bed appeals to dogs’ natural nesting instinct to help create a calming environment for them with its soothing donut shape. Since using it, Abi said Ralph is a changed animal.
‘He now takes himself off to bed when he is tired which is a first,’ she said. ‘He loves to burrow into the bed and we frequently see him stretched out in it. He has had plenty of beds in the past and never quite became attached to them – as a puppy he would frequently sleep on the floor next to his bed – but now it’s his favourite place to go.’
CREATE A PLAYLIST OF PAW-SOME TUNES
Oli said: ‘In 2017, Glasgow University conducted some research on the effect of music on dogs where they measured the dogs’ heart rates, their stress level and time either standing or lying down whilst listening to various types of music.
‘The results suggested that dogs would prefer reggae and soft rock over other types of music.
‘It may be the slow tempo; either way, now you can get your dog’s playlist ready! Personally, I find that Radio 4 is also great.’
STOCK UP ON STIMULATING TOYS
Oli suggested leaving your dog with something fun and cognitively engaging to do, such as a food dispensing toy.
‘These can be great at home if they are introduced and used appropriately. For example, make sure to introduce them as games you play together first, to not turn them into a sign that you are about to leave the house,’ he said.
‘My three favourites are Kong, Odin and K9 Connectables. There are lots of treats to use with these toys, but a little cooked chicken certainly does the trick too.’
It’s important to continue keeping dogs mentally stimulated and their brains engaged when you go back to work – something that might be easy to let slip when life ramps up again.
‘Mental stimulation not only provides your dog with the feel-good factor, but it also keeps your bond strong, tires them out more than physical exercise alone will and can help in the reduction of challenging behaviours such as digging or barking,’ Dr Woodnutt observed.
‘Try to leave a visual cue out to remind yourself to spend 5-10 minutes a day completely focused on your dog.
‘A bag of treats left by the kettle could be a good visual prompt each time you make a warm drink, so you’re completely focused on your dog.’
ESTABLISH A NEW ROUTINE
While establishing routine can be beneficial to us humans, dogs can also flourish when they have a regular pattern to their days – or at least some key cornerstones of predictable mealtimes and bedtime routines.
‘As we start to move back towards our previous routine, try to make changes gradually so you’re not overwhelming yourself or your dog,’ Dr Woodnutt recommends.
‘If you’re able to stagger family members returning to work, school or university – so your dog doesn’t go from all to nothing overnight – this will help reduce the chances that they panic when left alone.’
CONSIDER A DOGSITTER OR DOGGY DAYCARE
‘If you aren’t back in work as yet, now is the time to get back in touch with any pet care providers you normally use – dogsitters or walkers – and rebuild your communication with them,’ Dr Woodnutt advised.
‘If government guidance allows it, think about booking in the occasional walk for your dog, so they are eased back into spending time with someone else other than their household.’
Oli recommends going by word of mouth for finding good dogsitters in your area – so time to start picking your neighbours’ brains!
For more information about Oli and Itch, visit https://blog.itchpet.com/itch-panellist-oli-juste-talks-lockdown-pups
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