Petrina’s top tips
“As a behaviourist who specialises in Separation Anxiety, I’m often asked if dogs will get separation anxiety after their owners have spent so much time with them during lockdown. My reply is that extended amounts of time together won’t cause separation anxiety in itself, but how you handle going back to work might.
Here are my top tips to make the transition to leaving your dog on their own again an easier one.
Gradually start getting back into a routine
Giving your dog time to cope with short periods on their own is key to building up the amount of time you leave them. Popping to the supermarket, taking your rubbish out, going for a 5 minute walk on your own are all short activities you can do to help your dog cope with the prospect that you leave, but you always come back.
Meet the needs of your dog
‘A tired dog is a happy dog’ as the saying goes, and well, some of that is still true. Physical exercise is important to dogs, but make sure it’s good quality exercise, or you can end up leaving your dog high and dry and completely over-aroused so that they’re unable to relax.
Dogs LOVE to sniff, so by encouraging them to have a snoop around on their walks will help to stimulate their brain and keep excitement levels down; so that when they return home they can sleep.
Enrichment and mental stimulation
There are a zillion enrichment and puzzle toys on the market available for dogs these days. It’s an easy way to provide stimulation and get their problem solving skills going. Try feeding them some of their meals out of puzzle feeders, but make it easy at first so as not to increase frustration.
Provide plenty of safe chew toys, too – chewing releases feel good chemicals in the brain, and many dogs don’t have enough access to things they can chew on. If it’s safe to do so, leave chews and puzzle toys with your dog when you leave, they can really help to occupy them and reduce boredom!
Monitor your dog
One of the most important things to pay attention to when trying to figure out if your dog has separation anxiety (or at least struggles when being left alone) is what they do when you leave.
Are they having a fun party while you’re away? Dragging out the recycling and racing around the house, or destructively chewing everything in sight to make themselves feel better? Are they quiet, howling or crying?
Without knowing what they get up to, it’s impossible to say whether they are struggling when left alone. Most smartphones and tablets have apps to be able to watch your dog live on your phone, so pop up the road and see what they do when you’re gone. How soon does their behaviour change?
Consult a professional if you’re worried
The good news is that dogs with Separation Anxiety can be helped. We provide ongoing support through various programs from single session assessments, group coaching or intensive boot camp style personal training (for you to deep dive into training, not the dog to be rushed through!) – which suit differing budgets or levels of support required. You’re not alone in this and the sooner you start to help your dog the easier your return to work will be.”
For more info see www.petcoach.co.uk
Petrina Firth is a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer, Certified Pet Behaviourist and full member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers UK (01238).
Barry’s top tips (for puppies)
“When lockdown first started, the initial worry among dog behaviour specialists was socialisation. We quickly realised that actually, it was separation related problems that were going to be the real challenge. With people spending so much time at home, new puppies were not being exposed to the reality of busy, everyday life.
Teaching a pup to be alone is a process that should be tackled in a structured manner, working incrementally to build up duration so the pup doesn’t feel abandoned. These days we advise strongly against letting puppies “just cry it out” as this can lead to real distress, resulting in much worse separation issues.
A pup is crying as they feel frightened alone, they’re calling their people back. By leaving them alone they may eventually stop howling, but this isn’t a pup that’s learned to cope, this is a pup that’s experiencing “learned helplessness”. Learned helplessness is a state that occurs when an animal has been repeatedly exposed to a stressful situation and no longer feels able to control it, therefore they give up trying, even when they can change it.
With that being said, here are my top tips you can try to help your puppy become more comfortable with your absence when you go back to work.
Meet the needs of your pup
When starting to leave a pup alone, I have a rule that I like to stick to: only tired puppies that have had their needs met should be left. By this I mean that they’ve toileted, they’ve been exercised and that they have had quality mental enrichment through problem solving; using their noses to play scent games etc.
You can do this by putting food into Kongs, Wobblers, using snuffle mats and licky mats. Free options include putting food into kitchen roll tubes, asking the pup to find which pot has a treat under it, scattering their meals around so they have to find the kibble. A tired pup is much more likely to want to settle!
Create the concept of separation
My first recommendation is to create the concept of separation while you’re still in sight. This may include sitting leaning against their crate while they’re inside, or just on the other side of a baby gate. The dog can see you but can’t reach you. I use this time to read or do some work.
Once you have a dog that’s happy and chilled with this you work on putting more distance between you and the dog while remaining in sight. I’m always ensuring the dog is in a calm state. If there’s a minor grumble and the dog then settles that’s fine.
Busy, busy, busy!
My next step is to increase your level of activity while the dog is separated. This is a great time to fold laundry or empty the dishwasher. I call this game “Busy, Busy, Busy”. You should pop out of sight for very brief periods of time, literally seconds, and return to carry on with your tasks.
We’re teaching the dog that you have things to do that they don’t need to be involved in. You can gradually disappear from view for slightly longer periods of time. Remember, just like before, we don’t want to create anxiety, your dog should be relaxed through all of this.
The in-and-out trick
When working on exits from the house you can start by progressing in a similar way to “Busy, Busy, Busy”. You go to the front door, come back and sit down. You then approach the door again, go out, come back in, sit down. Continue with this, increasing the duration of your absence gradually.
Eventually the dog is thinking “are they going or not? Will they just get on with it?” We’re ensuring we’re not creating panic by just leaving the dog. We want to ensure we’re returning before any worry ensues.
There are many small cameras that show what’s happening on your phone and some apps that link a laptop or tablet to your phone so you can observe and make sure you don’t push it too far too soon.
It’s important that the whole family takes part so the dog understands that there are times when everyone will go. I have found that the majority of dogs feel more comfortable if they are left in just one room rather than having the complete run of the house.
Hire a dog walker
Finally, we need to remember that dogs are sociable animals. It’s neither fair nor responsible to leave a dog in a crate for extended periods, or home alone for large parts of the working day. Boredom can lead to destructive behaviours. Hiring a walker or day-care professional can be a lifesaver for both your dog and your home!”
For more expert advice on puppy training and dog behaviour, check out Mr.Bones training.
Barry is fully qualified with a degree in Canine Behaviour and Training. He is a full member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (01245) and a registered animal training instructor with the Animal Behaviour and Training Council. He covers most South London postcodes and does video consultations nationally.