Separation Anxiety: An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure – By Debbie Kendrick, ABCDT and VP of ABC

Wednesday, December 03, 2008 : 4:47:43 PM
Separation anxiety can be a very serious problem. Many dogs have injured themselves jumping out of windows, digging out of yards, or chewing through walls and doors trying to find their owner. This is unfortunate because separation anxiety is often preventable. Every student you work with should be educated about the things they can do to help prevent separation anxiety from ever developing. You should help owners understand that their dog is a pack animal and that being alone is not natural for him. Try to encourage each owner to teach his or her dog to accept being alone. Even people who think they will never have to leave their dog alone should teach him to accept being separated from them. Some people don't find out that their dog has separation anxiety until they take a vacation, become hospitalized, go back to school or start a new job. Preventing separation anxiety is much easier than treating an already existing problem.

Here are a few rules and exercises for preventing separation anxiety that owners should implement upon the arrival of a new dog or puppy.

1. Establish the proper relationship using the Leadership Exercises outlined in the ABC Curriculum. Dogs that possess too high a rank within the family structure are much more likely to develop separation anxiety. This is because it is very unsettling and stressful for a bossy or dominant dog to sit at home while his “subordinates” leave.

2. Crate train the dog. The dog should be put in his crate once or twice a day while the owners are home. Total crate time should not exceed 1 hour per day.

3. The owner should practice a couple of long “Down-Stays” a day with their dog. A long “Down-Stay” means the dog must be at least 5-10 feet away from their owner and they should last between 5-10 minutes each time. If the dog does not have a dependable "Down-Stay", have the owner tether him in place on a buckle collar until he does.

Remind the owner to never leave their dog unobserved, even for a moment, when he’s tied. Use intermittent food treats to reward the dog for being in this “Down-Stay”. Gradually increase the length of time to 15 minutes or so. Most people find it convenient to have their dog practice a “Down-Stay” at the opposite end of the room while they watch TV in the evening.

4. While the owner is home, the dog should also have some alone time in the backyard or dog run as well. Make sure you check the backyard or dog run to see that they are safe and escape-proof before starting this exercise. It is important to not place the dog in the backyard or dog run for longer than he can easily tolerate. Have the owner keep a close watch on the dog while he’s confined so they can interrupt any attempts at escaping. Make sure the owner remembers to positively reinforce the dog for being alone in the backyard by providing him with a baited Kong, Buster Cube, bones etc. Remind the owner that exercising the dog before placing him in the back yard can make it easier for him to remain calm. If the dog barks to be let in, do not open the door. Instruct the owner to ignore the barking and only let him in after he has been quiet for several minutes. Remind the owner to start with very short periods of time (2-3 minutes) and encourage them not to give in!

5. Teach the owner to give the dog a transitional object when they leave him. A transitional object is something like a treat-stuffed Kong that the dog gets only when left and no other time.

6. Get the dog used to having the owner leave the house. The owner should make note of their usual routine for leaving the house. A common routine may be – picking up your purse or wallet, shutting windows, turning off lights, picking up your keys and walking out the door. Have the owner do this a couple of times each day so the dog becomes de-sensitized to the routine. The owner should give the dog his transitional object (baited Kong etc.) each time they leave. Many dogs start getting anxious before the owner even leaves when they see them – picking up their keys etc. The dog realizes that their owner only does those things when they are about to leave. Repeating that routine at times other than when the owner actually leaves can help keep the dog calm when the owner does leave.

The transitional object you choose must be something the dog really likes. This develops a good habit of the dog getting something positive and distracting each time he is left alone.

7. Get the dog comfortable being left in a room alone. Have the owner walk through the house and when the dog attempts to follow them, have the owner close the door behind them as they exit, leaving the dog in that room. You do not want to leave the dog in the room longer than he can easily tolerate. Initially, the owner may only leave the dog in the room for a few moments. Some dogs need to practice an easier form of this exercise for a while before being left in a room with the door closed. If this is the case, start by practicing “Down-Stays” in the room(s) the dog will be left in. Have the owner gradually leave the room with the dog in his “Down-Stay”. The owner should not close the door until the dog is comfortable having the owner walk out of the room and go out of sight while he is in the “Down-Stay”.

8. Get the owner in the habit of making calm arrivals and departures. When they leave, they should just say "good-bye" and go. When they return, they should act nonchalant for the first 10 minutes or so. They should open their mail, get their messages, get a drink of water etc. Emotional departures or arrivals can actually create anxiety.

Remember that being alone is not comfortable for most dogs. Teaching dogs to accept this will help prevent separation anxiety from occurring.

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