The other day browsing through social media I came across a dog group (happens quite often in my feed, as I am sure you can imagine ;)). In the group they were talking about separation anxiety and one person was asking if getting another dog would help her current dog with it’s separation anxiety and to my surprise many of the comments was a profound yes !
So today I want to address this issue that many dog owners struggle with, including myself with Belga. I have 2 rescues from Portugal, both very different. Chester is more independent and doesn’t really mind people leaving from a group or that I am leaving – if he could he would quite enjoy taking his own walk I think. Belga, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. She will do everything in her power to keep a group together, herding them to stay close if she has to (also breed related). If we are in different rooms in our home she will place herself in the room in between, doing regular check ups on all of us to see if we are still there. Belga, if she could, would like to follow me wherever I go, and is not fond of me leaving at all.
But what is separation anxiety really?
Separation anxiety is when your dog cannot be left alone, and if left becomes highly anxious and stressed out. Behaviors possibly leading to destruction of some form or self inflicted damage. Your dog might urinate or worse in the house, he/she might start chewing on furniture, doors or walls or start howling or barking out of desperation of being alone.
If your dog on the other hand is more dependent on a person and acts like described above when that specific person leaves we are more likely talking about attachment issues, related to separation anxiety, but not the same as it has nothing to do with your dog not liking to be left alone in your home but more about that he/she wants to be with that specific person constantly.
Getting another dog in the household is therefore not always the best solution. Sometimes it helps if we are talking about your dog not liking to be left alone, but if the anxiety is due to an attachment to a specific person or a fear, then a second dog will have no effect on your current dogs state. Dogs, as you might have understood in the intro about my dogs, are first and foremost individuals. They have their own personality, their own needs and their own way of experiencing the world. Just like we humans do. And getting another dog on the sole basis to get rid of your other dog’s anxiety is not a valid reason for getting a new dog. Let me tell ya….a multi dog household is a lot of work! With 2 dogs you have 2 personalities whose needs you have to fulfill, no hands are free when walking and 2 minds need be tired out in order for them not to become the super destructive duo that will turn your house into ruin. Your old dog might also affect your new dog, causing them both to become anxious and stressed.
So, how to work with a dog with separation anxiety?
If your dog has separation anxiety my first advice would be to contact an ethologist or specialized and qualified dog trainer in your area (remember I am also available for Skype consultations) to help you make a plan for how to work with this. This step cannot be emphasized enough as you might do more harm than good if you decide to tackle this problem on your own.
Then you can start your work. Each dog is an individual and needs a specific set of training tools in order for the both of you to succeed in getting rid of the separation anxiety.
Here is some general advice you can start with.
First, identify the cause behind your dog’s anxiety. Is it when he/she is home alone in general? Is it when a certain person or animal leaves? Is it only sometimes (then it might not be separation anxiety, but something on that day or time that is scary – like the garbage truck or fireworks). This is most easily done by putting up a video camera and film your dog while he or she is home alone and then observe the film afterwards to see how your dog behaves and if there are any triggers in the environment that makes your dog change their behavior.
Next thing to figure out is how to change that behavior, or rather how to make your dog confident enough so that he or she is comfortable being home alone. Now, first I want to point out that if you do have a dog that has separation anxiety it will be very hard to fix if you keep leaving your dog alone for 8-10 hours each day. All dogs like to be with their family. If you do have a long workday and you cannot bring your dog to work with you or come home during your lunch break, then you should look into a doggie day care or hiring a dog walker that can take your dog for a nice enriching walk or a dog sitter who can spend some hours with your dog.
The third thing is enrichment enrichment enrichment!!! It is super important that you leave your dog with something to do when you leave your house and they are home alone. An activity toy such as a frozen Kong can keep your dog entertained for hours, and if you do this every time you leave, your dog will soon make the association – ok, mummy or daddy is leaving, then I get something yummy! Making your leaving a positive!
The fourth thing is to always make sure to give your dog enough exercise before you leave him/her. A tired dog, is a calm dog!
If your dog is very attached to a single person in your household then you need to take another approach and start getting those other people to engage more with your dog. Give different family members different dog tasks – one feeds, several people take different walks, all play their own game with the dog, all give equal amounts of attention to the dog. This will not only inhibit the dog from creating a strong bond with only one person, it will also enhance the bond to the entire family leaving everyone happier. It should be said that some dogs do pick their favorite people, but by having everyone engaged and involved in your dog, then that also makes it easier for the dog when their favorite person leaves the home. Because they know they can go to someone else and get the comfort that they need.
Separation anxiety is not by any means an easy quick fix, and it will take time and commitment to get your dog to a place where he/she is comfortable with you leaving. As in all training it is important to break the process down in small steps that both you and your dog can succeed in, so that it becomes a fun journey to change behavior with of course the expected bump on the road now and again, instead of a frustrating one.
Always contact a professional before embarking on this training journey as each dog is an individual and needs their very own specific training steps in order to succeed.
Until next week,