Pandemic Pups Part II: Separation Anxiety
Part I of Pandemic Pups discussed the challenges of socialization during the pandemic and offered tips on how to make it work. In this segment, I’d like to talk about my other big concern: separation anxiety.
While it’s wonderful to be able to spend long days at home with a new puppy, and to have the time to train and bond with him, that’s also a whole lot of togetherness. Depending on where you live and your circumstances, you might currently be leaving your pup alone for short periods daily or weekly, or you might not be going out at all. But what happens if you have a job where, once the pandemic is under control, you’re expected to go back to work outside of the home? What happens to a puppy who’s used to having you there 24/7 when suddenly you’re gone for most of the day five days a week? I’ll tell you what happens: separation anxiety. And, by the way, this applies whether you have a puppy or a newly adopted adult dog.
Even dogs who aren’t bred to be our companions and may not genetically prone to craving closeness can develop separation anxiety when they find themselves suddenly alone for long periods. If you know you’re going to eventually have to leave your pup by himself (and which of us won’t, even if it’s for short periods?), it’s best to prepare now. The best way to accustom your dog to periods of isolation is in very short increments, increasing gradually to longer ones. Where you start will depend on whether he’s okay with you being away from him physically and visually. In other words, is he the type who needs to be where you are all the time? Does he need to be in close physical proximity, or can he lounge alone across the room? Or is he okay as long as he sees you, but becomes stressed if you leave his sight? The idea is to create tiny increments of separation, starting from wherever your pup is comfortable.
The following excerpt from my book Don’t Leave Me! Step by Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety is an example of a protocol for a dog who becomes stressed upon being even physically separated from his person:
In Chapter Eight, you chose an Alone Zone in which to keep your dog when you’re away. Perhaps you decided on a crate, or the kitchen or laundry room with a baby gate placed across the entrance. Those areas are all conducive to successfully implementing the exercises that follow. If your choice of an Alone Zone was the yard, and there is a sliding glass door leading to the house, that’s fine too. But if you plan to leave your dog loose in the house when you’re gone, use a gated area or crate (assuming he’s comfortable being crated) for now.
Place your dog in the containment area along with a nice, comfy dog bed (or crate pad, as the case may be), and a soft item such as a T-shirt or towel that carries your scent. The scent item will be left with your dog when you do actual departures, as it will provide comfort. Using it now as well will prevent your dog from being able to discriminate later that you actually leave only when the scent item is present.
Scatter a few treats in the confinement area. Avoid using tiny, moist treats that can be virtually inhaled. Instead, use small morsels that will take at least a few seconds each to be chewed, such as raw baby carrots or dried chicken strips. Alternately, spread a little bit of peanut butter inside a hollowed out, sterilized bone. (I do not recommend sterilized bones for regular chewing, as they are so hard they can crack a dog’s teeth.) Close the gate, sliding glass door, or crate door. Move a short distance away but remain in sight. How far you should go depends on your dog. If he normally becomes distressed even when you move just a foot or two away, sit on the floor or on a chair just outside the confinement area. If your dog is already comfortable with you sitting a few feet away, start there.
Note: If your dog is much more motivated by toys than treats, leave him with a super interesting, novel toy to play with instead.
Relax. Read, work on the computer, or engage in whatever other sedentary activity you’d like; just don’t pay attention to your dog. Attention, by the way, means touching your dog, talking to him, or even looking at him. And yes, I know it’s hard to ignore that adorable fur face! Some dogs will whine at first, or keep checking that their person is still there, but most will settle down to eating the treats fairly quickly.
Throughout the exercise, you will have to periodically get up to scatter more treats (or refill the peanut butter bone). The idea is to keep your dog cool and calm as he happily munches away with you nearby, so at first, keep those treats coming! He shouldn’t be without them for more than a few seconds at a time. Later on, you’ll build longer durations without treats present.
After a few minutes of practicing the exercise, calmly remove the gate and let your dog out. Don’t make a fuss; just go about your business. Congratulations! You’ve successfully begun to teach your dog to cope with being separated from you physically.
Repeat the sitting-within-view exercise a few times daily, and as your dog becomes able to handle it, sprinkle in some standing up, then sitting back down again. Try standing, stretching, then sitting. Take a few steps away and return. When your dog is ready, begin to move a bit farther away, but don’t go so far that you’re out of sight—that’s the next step. As long as your dog remains calm, begin to add in longer periods between the restocking of treats. The trick is, as always, to extend the difficulty and duration of the exercise very gradually.
Of course, there’s more to it than that (and the book does go on to visual separations and then actually leaving the house), but this gives you an idea of how to start. It may seem like a hassle to do these things now, but believe me, as a behavior specialist who has treated many cases of separation anxiety, I can tell you that the time you put in now will be well worth it. It’s much harder to help a dog get past separation issues than to prevent them.
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