Treating moderate cases of separation anxiety in dogs
Does your dog have a moderate case of separation anxiety? In the previous article we talked about treating mild cases of separation anxiety in dogs with desensitization, counterconditioning, and other tricks. Go back to that article if you haven't read it yet.
If you have tried desensitization, physical, social and mental stimulation, and counterconditioning with food, and your dog still shows symptoms of separation anxiety, you might be dealing with a case of moderate separation anxiety.
It is best if you speak with a dog behaviour specialist about your dog’s specific case. Mild cases may become more severe with time if not addressed appropriately.
In this article we are going to cover ways to address moderate cases of separation anxiety.
Shorten preparation time
In some cases, there is no specific trigger that makes a dog anxious; it is simply the length of time that it takes the owner to prepare to leave the home.
If you have a lengthy preparation routine, that causes you to worry about being late, your dog may pick up on your frequent nervousness right before your departure, and respond with separation anxiety.
Try shortening your routine, and making sure that when you leave you are very calm and ready for your departure.
Your routine should be short enough that you leave before your dog gets anxious. If your dog starts following you around 15 minutes after you’ve started preparing to leave, it means you really only have 15 minutes to get ready.
Note: this doesn't apply to every situation – only in cases where dogs get nervous if their owner prepares for too long.
Provide a safe space
Some dogs prefer to have a safe space. If your dog responds well to a crate, and loves to sleep in it, be inside it, and considers it their safe space, then it might be best to leave your dog in the crate.
If you haven't introduced your dog to a crate, it is never too late to do so. Dogs enjoy the den-like, snug, cozy feeling of being in a crate.
Crate-train your dog while you are at home, and then try leaving your dog in a crate when you go out.
Cover it with breathable material and turn on soft, soothing music. The crate should be big enough for your dog to stand in and turn around.
Over time, your dog will learn that your absence means quiet time in the crate, and you won't have to tell them to go there. Once you are gone, your dog will simply go to the crate on their own and settle down.
If your dog doesn't respond well to a crate – doesn't want to get into it, doesn't sleep in it, doesn't consider it their safe space – then you need to leave your dog in the room they consider to be safe and comfortable.
Some dogs enjoy the comfort of the bedroom, or another quiet room. Other dogs feel helpless being hidden away at the back of the house, and prefer to stay in 'their territory'.
Whatever your dog prefers, it is better to train them to go to their 'safe space' and stay there after you are gone, than to leave them by the door.
Train your dog to stay home alone
If your dog doesn't respond well to you even being out of sight, then you need to train your dog to stay on their own on command.
Note: this situation is the borderline between moderate separation anxiety and severe separation anxiety, and you should seriously consider hiring a dog behaviourist.
Unlike other types of training, such as teaching your dog to come to you, or to sit down, teaching your dog to stay home alone requires a very calm and low-key approach.
1. Start by teaching your dog a command for 'stay'. Your dog should understand that you require them to stay where they are for as long as needed, when you say 'stay'.
2. Next, train your dog to ‘stay’ while you walk out of the room and then return immediately. Your dog shouldn't follow you to the other room, but stay where you’ve left them. They should remain calm when you return. If your dog becomes anxious, you should stop the training and start over once they have calmed down.
3. Once your dog can cope with you disappearing from view, increase the duration of your stay in the other room. Start with just a few seconds, and gradually increase the time.
Play games to teach your dog to be on their own
Everything is easier when it is a game. If your dog enjoys playing with toys, you can train them with the Special Search Game.
1. Start by teaching your dog a ‘stay’ command. Your dog should understand that you require them to stay in place for as long as needed, when you say this.
2. When your dog stays in place, show them their favourite toy and immediately cover it with something, such as a small blanket. Release your dog, and give the command 'search'. Your dog should understand that you want them to find the toy. Reward them for finding the toy, and bringing it to you.
3. Next, command your dog to 'stay'. Place their toy away from them, out of view. For example, you can place the toy behind a piece of furniture or around the corner. Finding a toy will therefore entail you being out of their sight for a second. Your dog should be able to focus on bringing you the toy without worrying about leaving you for a moment.
4. Next, increase the difficulty by asking your dog to ‘stay’, and walking out of the room to place the toy elsewhere. Your dog should be able to stay where they are and not follow you. Return, and command your dog to 'search'.
5. Gradually increase the difficulty of the game by taking more and more time to hide the toy and placing it in hard-to-find places.
6. Add another level of difficulty by placing your dog in another room and closing the door while you are hiding the toy. While your dog is searching, stay in another room and be out of your dog's sight.
The goal of this game is for your dog to associate your absence with the game, and to focus their attention on the toy when you return.
Stay calm and discourage your dog from barking or jumping during play time. If your dog doesn't like searching for toys, try hiding little treats.
Increase the level of difficulty by going up to 20-30 minutes of separation. After playing this game for a few days, your dog should be able to stay relaxed when you make them stay, and when you return.
They should be very willing to be put in another room, even for a long time, because they are certain that you will return to let them find the toy.
To keep the association strong, you need to continue to play the game every now and then, even after your dog has learned to be on their own. This is so your dog doesn't start to associate being away from you in another room with negative emotions and stress again.
Did any of these tips help your dog overcome their anxiety? Share your success stories in the comments.
If you would like to know what to do in the case of severe separation anxiety, read the next article.