Preventing Separation Related Anxiety/Frustration
Updated: May 12
Currently, we are all supposed to be staying at home, remaining at home, going out as little as possible, and it is tempting to think that for our dogs, that is brilliant... And it might be.. but.. For some dogs, that change in routine is going to be stressful, even if it's fun, it might still be adding stress. It may also cause a breakdown in routine, and when you return to work and to socializing outside your house without your dog, you could hit a big problem - your dog can no longer cope with being left. So what can you do? Manage stress, reduce stress, avoid stress.
These should be your first steps when addressing any change in routine or attempting to change behaviour. Observe your dog, what winds him or her up, what worries them, what sends them giddy. Take some notes and then either avoid those things, or, sandwich them between more calming, relaxing activities. For example: Watching wildlife out of the window sends my terrier loopy, he can't get at it, he'd like to chase it but he cannot, so he yells and it runs away and that's reinforced and so he repeats that behaviour and gets himself into a right state. Solution: Block his view by using frosted window film, moving furniture, drawing blinds, entertaining him in another room. This breaks that cycle of stress, reinforcement, more stress. For example: My partner in another room dogs do not usually go in, with the door shut, can be heard shouting at computer games and the dogs find this really frustrating, triggering anxiety at the loud sounds and frustration as they cannot get to him. Solution: Turn down the volume, entertain the dogs in another room with something calming, suggest partner plays different games or does not play, suggest that dogs be allowed in the room with him so they can see whats going on/be with him. By noting down what winds up the dog, what upsets the dog and then finding work-arounds, you can reduce stress quite a lot. For the things you can't avoid, giving dogs a calming activity such as Free Work, scent games, massage, simply finding scattered food (note, not all dogs find the same things relaxing!) to bring them back down can really help. Ok so my dog is now really calm, my house is a serene haven of chill... now what?
If you had a routine of leaving your dog before covid-19 lockdown, and your dog was genuinely ok with that, then approximate that routine as much as you can. For example, if you got up at 8 and dressed and went out... get up at 8, dress, go read your emails in your car. By sticking to as much of the routine as is practical, the change when you do go back to work will be minimised and your dog will tolerate it far better. Again, make notes as to what your routine is, what actions or events are significant to your dog? If your dog thinks you putting on work shoes and lippy is significant, then include that in your routine. If he thinks you putting your PJ's and slippers on means you are staying home, then do not use those to go and sit in the car in, it won't meet his idea of 'normal routine'. If your dog was NOT ok with being left pre-lockdown, they already had a problem with seperation, then do not follow the above, you will simply cause frustration/distress. For these dogs, and for puppies who have not yet been left, you will need to firstly desensitize them to all the potential triggers that tell your dog (or will eventually) that you are leaving, and then gradually build up an 'absence routine'. How to do this is really too vast to cover in this blog (and I have covered much of it previously). The key points are that you avoid frustration or anxiety being caused. Identify all the possible triggers in list form and keep adding and amending that list. Keep diaries on what your dog has seen, done, experienced, and how they have slept, each day. Break each stage down into tiny steps - tinier than you may think possible or necessary! For example: Bert starts to worry when his owner puts on her work shoes and starts filling her handbag with stuff, looking for keys and putting on her coat. To desensitize Bert, we identify that work shoes, handbag, looking for stuff, keys and coat are all triggers. Then we take ONE of the triggers from this list, lets say handbag. Pick up handbag, put handbag down immediatley. Repeat 5 times, without speaking to Bert, but keeping an eye on him. If he settles whilst this is going on we know that's ok. If Bert fails to settle or if Bert gets more worried, we know this is too much so we will refine further. Bert doesn't settle but doesn't get worse. So now the new routine is to touch the hand bag but NOT pick it up, 5 times in a row. Bert settles whilst this happens. When Bert reliably settles during this desensitization session, when his face says 'meh, I don't care about this', we know we can add something else, we can push the desensitization a little further. So now the new routine we try is to touch the hand bag 5 x and lift it but not fully pick it right up just once within that 5 repetitions. Touch, touch, touch and lift, touch, touch, end. The same sort of break down applies to all those potential triggers. Start at a point you think Bert will be ok with. Watch carefully and if he is not ok, scale it down. If he IS ok with it, you can push things a little further. Always be ready to drop back a bit on difficulty or duration of session, even if the dog is doing well, as even when it looks like nothing is happening, the dog is processing whats going on. If we simply make things harder and harder, we will go too far, and cause a plateau or a backslide in progress. Eventually you should have a whole list of triggers that are now, at least in some contexts, no longer triggers. Hurrah. Now you go back through the process, but this time adding them together. Mix this up in different combinations - shoes and bag, coat and keys, bag and keys, bag and coat, before you try to add in three things, or four things etc. This does sound very tedious and complicated and chaotic... which is why you really do need to keep good notes of what you are doing and how he is dealing with it. Finally - we do not use food to desensitize, food creates arousal and that's stressful so wherever possible, we don't use food. If you cannot break down a trigger into a small enough step to achieve desensitization, ie your dog is still fearful or worried and that either gets worse or doesn't improve... then we will use food to counter condition first. So that would look like this... Touch bag - give treat. Repeat 5 x, end. Touch bag, touch bag, give treat, repeat 3 x, end. Touch bag, give treat, touch bag, give treat, end. Note how we sometimes give a treat every time, sometimes we don't but we make the session shorter. Mixing things up like this can reduce the arousal a little - if you have a frustrated dog, do less, make it easier, reduce the value of your treats even. The goal here is that your dog sees the trigger and gets his 'woohoo treat time' face on - but this of course means once we have changed his emotional response from 'argh, scary!' to 'woohoo yay'.. we STILL need to desensitize to get back down from 'woohoo yay' to 'meh, I don't care'. Building desensitization routines and building absence routines are tricky things to do and I strongly recommend you find a separation anxiety practitioner to help guide you and support you through that process, or it can become too overwhelming, too difficult to see progress and very very easy to get wrong or give up! Can't I just shut my dog in another room for a few hours whilst I get on with work, won't that help him stay used to being alone?
I have seen this recommendation elsewhere and it really makes me cringe. IF your dog is already ok with being left shut in another room, or shut out of the room you are in, whilst you are home - fine, that's not a problem, it won't cause problems.... however it will not prepare him for you being out of the house, he knows you are home! You really cannot trick a dog into thinking you are out when you are in - he can smell you, he can hear you, he can feel you walking around, the air around your house moves differently with various doors shut/open. IF your dog is already not ok with this, if it causes them to bark or whine or shred the carpet or chew stuff... he won't become ok with it by magic, and it will not help him when you go back to work either. What if I distract him with a kong or chew?
Nope - distraction if done successfully, means your dog is unaware as to whether you are out or at home, so he isn't learning how to cope with that, he's too busy. He hasn't learned anything. It can also be unsuccessful... Your dog may learn that the kong or the chew predicts something unpleasant happening and so begins to show anxiety when you start to prepare the kong or hand over the chew. Your dog may be successfully distracted, but if he finishes his chew or toy before you return he may suddenly discover he is alone and panic or become very anxious. Your dog may find trying to destuff a kong very frustrating - I see this quite a lot as people go to ever greater lengths to make the kong hard to de-stuff, and so he is more likely to bark, dig, whine, howl etc or indeed, just give up and be very upset. Your dog may be too distressed to be distracted by the toy - I see this a lot as well, and in some cases the presence of a delicious kong they cannot currently eat, simply serves to add to the anxiety and frustration of the situation! If you have ever sat at your desk with your lunch on a plate, but been too busy to eat it, you will have some understanding of how that feels! Ok so what can I do? Asides from what I have already mentioned, you can also play games with your dog or puppy that encourage independence, choosing to go away from you and stay away from you, and that build confidence. Simple games that involve your dog going away to find food or toys, are easy to devise and can really reinforce that it is safe to do this. Have someone hold your puppy, put the food bowl down the other side of the room, go back to your puppy and release the puppy. He will choose to go away from you, hurrah.. to get the food, brilliant! Choice rewarded! You then stay put... so when he turns to look at you or come back to you, you are right there where he left you - he's learned it IS safe to leave you. Build that up so he's putting his head out of sight around a doorway, going all the way out of sight around a corner, going right across a second room... etc etc. At every stage, you stay put where you released him, so if he checks back, you are right there. If you find he is checking back a lot whilst still eating, or he is reluctant to go, scale it back and make the game easier again. You can also allow your dog (particularly for new rescue dogs and puppies) as much contact with you as they want, as this builds security and the more secure and confident they are, the easier it is to teach them, and the better their capacity for tolerating things they'd rather not do later on! Further reading: Vet and Behaviourist Amber Batson at Understand Animals has written more on this subject which is well worth reading here