How does your dog cope being left alone?
Canine separation anxiety is now widely recognised. If you’ve had an anxious dog or know someone who has, you’ll understand how emotionally draining it is for both dog and human. Seeing any animal in distress is heart breaking and, for the human, life seems to shrink as going out feels impossible. I’m sharing my experience – to show that it can happen to anyone and more importantly to give hope that a solid training plan, working with a supportive Trainer, as well as lots of patience … and sausages! … can help your dog become happy home alone.
Our dog came from a shelter. He didn’t have a name – he was just ‘pup’. No-one knew his date of birth but we reckoned he was somewhere between 3 & 6 months old. Gerry was anxious of lots of things: men, children, noises, movement, being touched particularly near his head, and of course being left alone. For the purpose of this article though let’s focus on how we tackled the Separation Anxiety.
- The ‘Find It’ game. This simple, fun game gave Gerry confidence, got him using his nose and his brain which helped to calm him down (and tire him out!) While he enjoyed sniffing out ‘treasure’, it gave me a way to gradually practise leaving the room or garden to practise a mini-abesence. Here’s a video of the game
- Desensitization to triggers. I wrote a list of all activities which seemed to make Gerry fret that I was leaving the house: keys jangling, putting on certain shoes, getting a jacket, picking up my handbag, locking the doors/windows etc. I focussed on one at a time so for example I went through a phase of randomly picking up my keys, jangling them, putting them down and going back to my computer or reading. I wanted to break the association in Gerry’s mind that keys = mum is leaving me. I found Patricia McConnell’s little book “I’ll Be Home Soon” very useful.
- ‘Relay Training’ with a great dog walker. The team at Muddy Buddies were beyond brilliant. They took great care to build rapport with Gerry and ensure he had oodles of fun on his walks. They were fully on board with my plan for absence training too. So, for example, we worked on Relay Training where Muddy Buddies would drop off Gerry and take him into our house, then I would arrive a minute later … then 2 mins later then 5 mins, 10 mins – you get the picture!
- The Flitting Game. Practise doing a mini-version of an absence (or preparing for an absence) for example: sit on a chair and do somethign boring (as far as your dog is concerned!) like looking at your laptop; then get up and walk a few steps towards a door. Then turn around and sit back down again. Repeat the ‘flit’ a few times. As you do this, ignore your dog – as in don’t talk to him or touch him, but keep an eye on him – as he begins to settle … flit again. Over the course of a few sessions you should find your dog becomes slower to get up, slower to settle, lurks in the hallway or in doorways, starts to look annoyed at you because this is now TEDIOUS… ugh and unrewarding. It’s important to remember this is not some strict military regime, if you WANT your dog to come with, to talk to him, to fuss, him, fine, outside these sessions invite him along. The point is that when you do not invite him, it might not be worth his effort to follow you… and when he realises that, you can then occasionally add in a good reason NOT to choose following you. There’s a second stage to this flitting where you can add in food. Read more here: At any point your dog is free to come towards you, if he does that’s fine, don’t say hi or anything but make a mental note that perhaps this was a step too far and to scale back. The idea is that your dog learns that it is his own choice not to follow and sometimes, that choice is highly reinforcing, sometimes it is just saving him some tedium and effort. He is free to check up if he’s worried, there’s no force or pressure at all.
- Short, frequent absences. At first I couldn’t even be outside the front door for 3 seconds before Gerry would have a meltdown. So, that data became my start point. I began standing outside the front door for 1 second, then coming back indoors, then 2 secs, then 3 secs. Gradually – and I mean gradually – we got to 10 seconds. Progress wasn’t always linear but each week there was some improvement. And I became great friends with my neighbours as they got used to me standing outside the house, out of view of Gerry, still as a statue and clutching my timer! (I wanted accurate data). Getting to 1 minute was a triumph – I could now put out the bins! Getting to 5mins better still and once we’d hit 15mins, things progressed faster. There were setbacks but the general trend was positive.
- Being a bit boring! Confession: I was so rapt up in trying to get it ‘right’ for Gerry I probably went completely overboard. Instead, I had to learn to give him (and me) some down time – time when nothing much happened. This enabled Gerry to disengage from me. I started by creating short periods a few times a day where I’d just sit and read or stare at the computer or my phone. Something Gerry found dull enough that he’d potter away from me … even if only for a few seconds initially. You could also try some “Flitting” – this term was coined by Trainer Emma Judson at The Canine Consultants. In brief: Pick two adjacent rooms, ideally kitchen and living room. Set your timer on your phone (silently) for 5mins. Then make multiple trips from one room to the next, fiddle with something in one room, then move on. As you do this, dont engage with your dog! After a while your dog may become slower to follow you … because it’s tedious. Read more here.
- Pub training. (A vital part of any training plan!) The problem was that if my husband and I went to pub or café and I tried to get up to go to the toilet, Gerry would howl until I returned. Which was hard for my husband to manage (even with treats) and disruptive for everyone else … and of course, embarrassing. We broke down the activity into baby steps eg I would get up from my chair and then sit back down again; gradually working towards being able to take a step away and then return; then 2 steps and return, then 4 steps etc until I could start to go out of sight for a few seconds. It was a slow process but it worked.
- Calming ‘me’ down. My default setting was ‘fast’. Years of working in London meant I was on warp speed and permanently multitasking; I even wrote ‘To-Do Lists’ in my sleep. I had to learn to relax, be calm and be present. Easier said than done. Changing oneself is both the simplest and hardest thing! I started learning breathing exercises – trickier than you might imagine! Drowning out everything else to focus on breathing … in …. and out. I also made a conscious effort to do tasks more slowly and purposefully eg if I’m washing up, I just do that – rather than also writing a to-do list in my head, and going through voicemails on my phone. There’s pleasure to be had in focusing on doing one thing and enjoying the moment. Dogs know this intuitively – they’re masters of being in the moment – and prefer it when we are too.
- Dog-Cam Footage. We tried a few different recording devices from mobile phone apps to dog cams. Having data about what went on when we left the house helped us moderate and adapt our training plan. And as training progressed it also gave us reassurance that Gerry was at ease … as we watched him making himself comfortable on our bed!
- Marlena Del Martini Price. Her book and blog were invaluable. They gave us a clear plan to follow and made us understand the importance of going slowly, noticing small improvements … and celebrating them! This article “6 Mistakes Your Cant Afford To Make Treating Separation Anxiety” is also super helpful.
The tactics we used may not ‘work’ with every dog, after all each is an individual but I hope the above gives you comfort that you’re not alone on this journey. And that success is possible – for us that meant Gerry can be left, relaxed and content home alone.
If you’d like help with this issue or any other type of dog training, contact www.www.joyfuldogs.co.uk