The Anxiety of Isolation

Separation anxiety is quite well-known to some owners. Here’s a scenario too many dog owners are familiar with: you come home after a hard day of work to find your curtains in shreds, the walls stripped to their panties, and your puppy sheepishly wagging its tail.

Was this just poor management on your part? You were sure you closed the crate’s door properly, but somehow that darn Devil made its way out, AGAIN! If this is the case, it’s more likely to be something a lot more serious, something many of us dog lovers dread: separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety is a crippling behavioural disorder in dogs. It’s characterised by a series of intense behaviours triggered by the departure of their owner. It can include anything from howling and barking, to defecating, self-mutilation, and the destruction of anything, be it expensive or not.

Unfortunately, it’s become one of the most common behavioural issues reported in pups.

So, what can we do?

The well-agreed answer amongst experts is prevention. Treatment is extremely difficult (although not impossible) and requires a lot of patience and commitment, so prevention is your best first step.

You should focus on isolation exercises during the first few months of their life. Before they learn to come, sit, and roll over, they need to learn how to be alone. I love food puzzles for this. Fill a Cow hoof or a Kong with some of peanut butter, pate, yoghurt with fruit or pate and freeze it overnight. Freezing ensures the treats take a longer to finish, allowing you to prolong the exercise.

Offer your pup the hoof or Kong and wait for them to get super invested. We’re talking lip licking, tail wagging, and complete focus. Quietly and without any fan fair, step out of sight. Wait just a few seconds before returning. The key to training any behaviour is lots of repetitions that start small and build gradually.

If your pup is insistent on following you, place them in a contained area (a crate, x-pen, or even tethered). Everything about your behaviour needs to be nonchalant. No cooing, awhing, or squealing praise for your pup. Just leave and return. Leave and return. Leave and return.

For the first 6 months of a puppies’ life, they should never be left alone for long stretches of time. A good rule of thumb is an hour per month of age, so 3 hours for a 3-month-old. Before you go, they should be well exercised and ready for rest. Great options are a game, training session, or a sniff walk.

Destructive behaviourThey also need to have something to do while you’re gone, they can’t just be expected to sit in the dark and wait. I like to leave some soft chew toys for them to keep busy. You can also play calming music to help your pup be relaxed and happy while you’re away. Or simply leave the radio or telly on.

When you leave and again when you return, you should keep your behaviour calm. The departure should be uneventful, and the greeting short and sweet. A recent study found that playing or feeding your dog within 30 minutes of arrival greatly increased their likelihood of separation anxiety. A quick pet and a pee break are the best way to greet them, and once they’ve settled you can play to your heart’s content.

Now if you’ve missed the boat on prevention and their anxiety is full blown, the best advice I can give you is to seek a professional. I like to compare it to anxiety in children. We would never expect a parent to deal with their child’s disorder without the help of a therapist, so why do we expect dog parents to fix their fur-babies anxiety on their own?

Along with a training plan, it’s likely your pup will also need the help of medication. Even in humans, therapy often works best in conjunction with medication, so let’s not expect more from our dogs than we expect from ourselves. A veterinary behaviourist is the safest route to go. Not only can they come up with an awesome training plan but they can also prescribe the best medications to go in hand.

Recovery is possible. A recent study found that 64% of the dogs treated for separation anxiety were successful. They did see a lack of compliance from some parents which may coincide with many of the unsuccessful cases. Its also important to note that progress can be slow. You are trying to change an association that has been built over time. It may seem like nothing is happening until one day it is.

Do not lose hope. Make sure to follow through with every exercise your trainer gives you, even if it feels redundant.

At the end of the day, separation anxiety is a common problem that will most likely continue to increase. Its important we get a head start with our puppies, being sure to teach them to be alone, but also to not over-isolate them. When faced with a more serious problem, there is no shame in asking for help from a professional. You’re doing what is best for you, for your pup, and every expensive thing in your house.

N.B. This post has been written by the lovely, Megan Sheil, who is a professional dog-trainer with 7 years of experience working with animals in every field from horse racing, dog training, and even avian hospitals. You can follow her dog adventures on Instagram: @sheil.train or book a free consult through her website: www.sheiltrain.com

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