How to avoid separation anxiety following the UK lockdown
There are a number of ways in which the current lockdown has the potential to exacerbate an existing separation issue, contribute to the development of a new one, or enable us to make time alone a more positive experience for dogs who are already anxious about it.
Whether you’ve just taken on a new puppy or new adult dog, or have an established dog in the home with existing separation-related issues, or one who has never demonstrated problems with separation before, if daily life in your household has changed because of lockdown, now is the time to take action.
Helping our dogs to learn confidence in spending time alone, and knowing how to entertain themselves in a healthy manner, is absolutely one of the most important things we can do for our dog’s well-being, with the added benefit that it can make our own lives easier to manage too.
Dogs are naturally a social species, therefore if we do not spend time, through proactive training and management, helping them learn that they are safe and can have a good time when they are spending time alone, they can become anxious about being separated from human or animal family members for any of the following 3 main reasons:
Fearfulness / phobia – the dog relies on the presence of a human or animal family member to make them feel safe
Boredom – the dog does not know how to entertain themselves when they are alone
Frustration – the dog is not able to go out with human or animal family members to take part in activities they enjoy, or to do things at home that they normally enjoy because their owner isn’t there to provide access
Sadly, there are many dogs living in the world today who do not cope well with being left on their own, whether they are home alone, or even just in a separate room by themselves. For these dogs, spending time separated from human or animal family members with whom they have formed strong attachments leaves them embroiled in negative emotions and places them under psychological and physical stress.
Many owners of dogs with severe separation anxiety end up completely arranging their life around making sure that their dog is never left alone, which can have negative impacts on the owner’s well-being.
In order for our dogs to be relaxed spending time on their own, they need to spend time on their own learning that there is nothing to worry about, and that it can in fact be pleasant to spend time alone. This is where the current lockdown situation presents both challenges and opportunities as far as separation issues are concerned.
The following factors have the potential to cause problems, either because they mean that your dog is not spending enough, or any, time separated from you / other pets, or because they will cause your dog stress, which will in turn reduce their ability to cope with the ‘time alone’ training and management measures that you are trying to implement:
The whole family may now be at home nearly all of the time
If more people are at home, more often - increased noise and activity in the home
Family members may be ill, worried or stressed
Family routines may have become different and less predictable
Family members may be seeking more interaction with your dog
Your dog may be getting fewer or more walks than before lockdown
They may be getting reduced or no off-lead time on walks
They are having no direct interaction with people or dogs beyond those they may live with
There are 3 key things that you should do, both during lockdown and afterwards, in order to minimise your dog’s stress and give them the best chance of coping well with increased separation once family members are no longer at home as much of the time. These are:
1. Establish and maintain a STRUCTURED ROUTINE
This should be a routine for your dog that is as similar as possible to the one they will have when lockdown restrictions are lifted, including:
Feeding at the same times every day
Keeping the number of walks the same as they will be after lockdown ends
Keeping the number and type of play sessions the same as they will be after lockdown ends
Building social quiet time into the day, when your dog is just quietly hanging out with you without anyone directly interacting with them, for example when the family are working from home, watching television or sitting around quietly reading
Ensuring that your dog is spending some time on their own every day, gradually increasing the length of the time they spend alone, ideally up to the length of time they will be left when lockdown ends (if possible in the current circumstances)
2. Create a SAFE HAVEN
The safe haven is the place in your home where your dog can go to rest, feel safe and be left alone by both human and animal family members. The safe haven should be:
The place where you will actually leave your dog when you go out without them
A dog-safe room with a baby gate installed across the doorway (or a dog pen) in which your dog’s bed is located, ideally within a crate which has the door left open
Located in a quiet area of the house where your dog will not be disturbed by noise and activity when they are trying to sleep
Somewhere your dog can go to completely escape the presence of people or other animals if they wish to
Away from busy thoroughfares and from the main entry and exit points in and out of the home
In a location that does not get too hot, or too cold, and is free from drafts
Away from glass doors where your dog can see things outside which might disturb them in some way (or place a visual screen across the glass)
Always accessible to your dog, but out of bounds to human and other animal family members when your dog has gone there to rest / sleep
You need to spend some time with your dog in their safe haven helping them learn that it is a great place to be when you are not there, or when you are there but your dog is feeling tired or overwhelmed and wants to spend some time on their own. You can work on your dog’s crate training, ‘settle’ training, and provide them with enrichment (see point 3 below) with which they can interact by themselves, within their safe haven.
3. Provide your dog with ENRICHMENT
Enrichment basically refers to ways in which you can make your dog’s life more interesting, stimulating, enjoyable and satisfying, by providing opportunities for them to engage in a range of behaviours that allow them to fulfil their hard-wired doggy needs, such as chewing, digging, chasing, sniffing, playing, and hunting and scavenging for food.
Regularly providing your dog with enrichment, both when you are present and when you are not, helps your dog learn how to entertain themselves when they are left on their own, which protects them against boredom and frustration when human or animal family members are not present, and helps them to relax more fully because their core needs are being met.
There are many different ways that you can provide enrichment for your dog. Dogs Trust, the dog welfare charity, have produced an ‘Enrichment Guide’ which can help get you started with some ideas, the guide is available here - https://www.dogstrust.org.uk/help-advice/advice-for-owners/enrichment%20guide%202018.pdf
When you first introduce enrichment objects and games, start with those which your dog will find easy to work out, and then build complexity as their problem-solving skills develop. If you start with something too complex you may create frustration, or cause your dog to feel pessimistic and give up, because they don’t know what to do.
Offer different enrichment opportunities on different days to maintain your dog’s interest and develop their life skills.
Ensure that any enrichment objects left with your dog when you are not there to supervise are safe and durable.
For owners of dogs who already have difficulty coping with separation, if the lockdown means that you are now spending more time at home than before, then this is a golden opportunity to work with your dog, since the gold standard method for successfully helping most dogs overcome their fear of being alone is to not leave them home alone longer than they can handle.
To give you and your dog the best chance of success in improving or resolving your dog’s separation issues, we recommend enlisting the help of an experienced positive reinforcement trainer / behaviourist to help you construct a step-by-step plan to work through with your dog, and to review and update it as your dog progresses.
We hope that you find our tips for avoiding separation anxiety following the UK lockdown helpful, and if you would like some further support, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us.
Complete Canine Dog Training is run by Sara Alan-Smith, a positive reinforcement trainer based in Henley-on-Thames, South Oxfordshire. During lockdown, Sara is providing virtual home visits and one-to-one training via video or telephone call to owners anywhere in the UK, and is working towards running some new online group training classes. To find out how we can help with your puppy / dog training needs, contact us by telephone 07833 662417, email firstname.lastname@example.org or submit the contact form on our website at https://www.completecaninedogtraining.co.uk/contact
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