by Tracy Baldwin (ABCDT) for Rebound Hounds
Separation anxiety can occur in any dog, in any breed, with any background/history and at any age. Rescued dogs, shelter dogs and dogs who have been bounced around from home to home often show signs of SA (Separation Anxiety) stemming from the lack of consistency in their lives and all the stress they have felt. Once dogs are in our homes, the typical reasons for SA to appear or to escalate are: giving comfort to a nervous/insecure/stressed out dog, being excited and emotional when we come and go, allowing our dogs to follow us everywhere and be near us all the time (the Velcro Dog) and the big ones … LACK OF OVERALL RULES/BOUNDARIES/STRUCTURE and TOO MUCH UNEARNED AFFECTION. It’s important to realize that SA is not the problem but rather a symptom of the bigger issues listed above.
While it may be difficult for us to deal with the barking/whining and destruction that is often the outcome of dogs with SA, imagine what it’s like for the dog. If a dog is exhibiting signs of SA, it means they are stressed and anxious and have no skills to cope with those feelings. Their brains are not calm and they are feeling panicked. It’s an awful feeling for them, just like having panic attacks is awful for us. They need to release the buildup of stress and unless we teach them how to cope with being alone/independent, they will figure out a way to do it on their own. Barking, whining and being destructive is an easy way for them to accomplish an “anxiety dump”. It’s our job, as our dogs’ guardians, to help them cope with our comings and goings and to teach them to learn to exist without us always by their side. We need to create a less dramatic contrast between when we are home and when are gone. The best way to do that is to have a balance between affection/love and rules/structure.
We can’t expect a dog who has free access to their humans all day in the form of couch privileges, affection whenever they want and following us around wherever we go to be able to “flip the switch” and cope when we leave. Creating a “calm mind” in our dogs’ is not difficult but it takes time, consistency and patience. Like all training, helping a dog who has SA is a process and because all dogs are individuals, time frames for success will vary.
Starting our dogs off on the right foot is the easiest way to curb SA and even prevent it from happening. When bringing a new foster/adopted dog into our home, it is crucial to set the tone for living in our home the moment you walk through the door.
Walk them calmly into your home. NO unleashing and letting them have free roam. Too much freedom is overwhelming to new dogs. Keep a collar and leash on the dog when they are “free” in the house. Having them drag a leash around will allow you to guide them away from anything they shouldn’t be near and guide them where you want them to go.
NO COUCH. NO BED. NO LAPS. These are privileges that they have not earned. It has NOTHING to do with being the boss. It has to do with setting boundaries and teaching our dogs to exist independent of us.
Don’t allow your dog to follow you everywhere. Follow the crate training guidelines and put the dog into the crate or place a dog bed away from where you are and guide the dog onto the bed. If they get up to follow you, use the leash to guide them back. Repeat as many times as needed until the dog is staying on the designated spot.
If you work from home or are home all day it’s even more important that you teach your dog to cope without you around. Crate the dog for few hours every day. Create a routine of crate, potty times and feeding. DON’T allow the dog to go in and out whenever they want. DON’T be your dogs’ butler. It’s more challenging to stick to schedules when you are home all day, but it’s exactly what your dog needs in order to avoid developing SA.
Create clear and consistent routines. Crate time, potty time, meal time and limited free time. Dogs thrive on routines and knowing what is going to happen and when. Routines make them feel safe and decrease their anxiety.
Limit physical affection. Spoiling our new dogs with oodles of unearned and excessive affection doesn’t offer a feeling of security and safety to them. Instead it nurtures unbalanced/anxious states of mind. Our new dogs only need a few things to make them feel safe and secure. 1. A crate and comfy bed. 2. One or two toys to chew in the crate to pass the time. 3. Food and water. 4. Access to outside to potty. 5. Occasional praise and petting from us when the dog is quiet and calm.
Don’t allow your dog to invade your personal space and “demand” attention.
If bark collars are necessary, remember that they are simply a band aid for the problem and it’s important to help our dogs learn to self-calm and create a state of mind that can cope with our absence.
DON’T purchase bark collars from Petco or Petsmart. They are not quality products. Purchase collars from Dogtra or E Collar Technologies. DON’T use the auto setting, this setting might create a corrections cycle that will freak the dog out and cause them to panic and do more harm than good. Instead, find the level that works for the individual dog and set it on that. Test out the collar by setting it and leaving the room, making sure the dog does not become freaked out when the collar correction happens. Make sure to read the instructions that come with the collars for safety and to make sure you see the results you want.
DON'T rely on the bark collar like a crutch. Put in the work with establishing rules/boundaries/structure and balancing it with affection. The goal is a dog with a calm state of mind who can cope with life without stressing out.
Make your comings and goings uneventful and unemotional. Simply guide the dog into their crate and say “bye” or “see you later”, in a neutral tone. That’s it. Not “Mommy will be back soon, love you so much!! Be a good dog! Bye-bye sweet pea!!!”
And when you come home, ignore your dog. Don’t talk to them, don’t even let them out of their crate for 10-15 min. Put your bags down, take off your coat, check the mail etc.. Only when the dog is calm do you follow the crate guidelines for getting the dog out of the crate. Once they are out of the crate, there is no reason to pet them or talk to them. Take them out to potty and let them completely settle down before you engage with them.
SA is as difficult on our dogs as it on us, if not more. The greatest gift we can give our dogs is to teach them to be calm, independent companions whose calm state of mind allows them to cope and exist in our crazy world.