If your house is anything like mine, you’ve spent the last few lockdown months enjoying the company of your dog(s) almost all day, every day and most of our furry friends have loved having us around more.
But now the lockdown restrictions are starting to lift (maybe!) and we start to think about returning to our previous workplaces rather than being on furlough or working from home, it is important that we start planning for when we return to our (new) normal daily routines.
This is especially important for puppies that have never been left alone before, or for dogs who were showing signs of separation anxiety before lockdown started.
How severe their anxiety is and the way it manifests, is different with each dog. However, the basis of response is the same – they are worried about being left alone.
What are the signs of separation anxiety?
The more subtle signs include panting, pacing, trembling and excessive salivation or drooling which you might notice as you prepare to leave the house, maybe when you are picking up your car keys or putting on your ‘work’ coat.
The more obvious signs are howling and barking, which you might hear as you leave the house, or destructive behaviour like scratching at doors and chewing furniture while your dog is left home alone.
You may also find that they start toileting in the house when they left alone, when are normally perfectly house trained the rest of the time.
Lastly you may notice that your dog is frantic with over-excitement when you get home.
How can you help your dog cope?
Getting your dog used to being home alone can take a matter of days if your dog is adaptable, but for some dogs it can take many, many months of practice using the techniques that follow:
If your dog was relaxed about being left home alone before lockdown, try to slowly restore some of their previous routine:
- Re-introduce the normal daily routine that will apply when you go back to the ‘office’ – including the same waking up times, morning and evening walk times and feeding times.
- Leave them on their own in the house while you go to the shops or go out to do some exercise, even if it is just for short periods.
- If you have a dog walker or pop back for lunch, ensure they get interaction at these times, but allow them some quiet time when they are likely to be alone in the house.
- Leave them on their own in a different room with the door shut for short periods of time while you are still at home. You can start with just a couple of minutes, and build up to longer periods as they get used to it.
- Avoid being too animated in your greeting when you return as this can build anticipation in your dog for a truly exciting greeting . Give your pup some love when you return, but keep it as low-key as possible. It’s ‘no big deal’.
If your dog was anxious about being alone, or is a puppy that has never experienced this before, then you need to be a little more cautious:
- Create a den – Make sure that they have a safe space in the house, with a comfortable bed that they feel relaxed in, maybe in a crate with the door open.
- Encourage your dog onto their bed, luring with a treat if needed, and reward them with a little treat for being happy and relaxed in their bed and staying calm and quiet. Make the treat a tiny one, delivered very quietly – don’t undo all your work getting them to relax by being too enthusiastic!)
- Once they are happy to settle in their bed, give them a distraction such as a stuffed Kong®, activity toy or safe chew toy and move a little distance away, but in the same room. If they remain settled in their bed, go back and reward them.
- VERY GRADUALLY increase the distance between you and your dog, and start moving into neighbouring rooms before returning and rewarding them with a treat. If that goes well, then briefly shut the door of the room or a baby gate and continue to practice this step with increasing time left alone. Don’t try to go too fast with this process as you’ll undo all your good work if they regularly break their relaxation to find you.
- When your dog is happy being in the room on their own with the door shut, start leaving them and spending increasing amounts of time in another part of the house. If you are able, once they are happy being left alone with you in the house, start to leave them in the house while you go out, starting with very short periods to begin with, even just 1 minute stood by the front door, and building up the amount of time that they are left very slowly.
- Your dog’s ability to cope with being left alone isn’t written in a textbook so how long this process takes is a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question. Don’t try to push it too fast, and keep a close eye out for any of the signs of anxiety listed above. If they are worried, then go back a step or two and go more slowly with building up your time or distances away from them.
Activity toys such as stuffed Kongs® and treat mats are great ways to help entertain your dog whilst they are left on their own provided they are safe to leave unattended, and only if your dog is not likely to destroy the toy and run the risk of choking on parts of it.
What if you don’t have the luxury of time to get your dog used to this?
If you are heading back to the office in the next few days, or if you are already back and your dog is upset when you leave, or you are noticing signs of distress when you come home, then a combination of Animal Communication to help your dog understand what is happening and hear what would help them settle, and Herbal Self-Medication to help them relax and cope with your separation may be supportive.