Sunday, 27 October 2013

Separation Anxiety - Secret Life of Dogs!

Channel 4's Documentary 'Secret Life of Dogs' Reveals ....

Well - not that many surprises for me - but then if it did, I wouldn't really be doing my job properly!

I am hoping though that it has revealed to the average owner, that far more dogs suffer anxiety on being left home alone, than they realised, and that quite possibly, their dog is one of them.

I am often quite ruthless with reviews of TV shows but this isn't really a review and in any case, for once, I am pleasantly surprised that what WAS covered was pretty damn accurate, and its only real failings was it was trying to cram into an hour, a topic that really requires a few DAYS to discuss!

So - if you found this blog because you were googling the show, if you were watching and want more information than can be found here I'll try to fill in the gaps!


If you have a puppy or you are thinking of getting a puppy and you are keen to avoid a separation anxiety problem, pin your ears back, this bit is for you!

Your first step is this: do not force separation on your puppy.Yes, your puppy  needs to be gradually introduced to the idea of being entirely alone. No this does not need to happen by shutting him in a room and leaving him to cry his head off until you return!

The dogs who cope best with being left alone are the dogs who are confident and able to be independent.
Confidence and independence are grown gradually, at your pups pace, NOT at a pace dictated by you, your desire to go out without your pup, your work schedule etc etc.

The first error the majority of people make is in forcing (you cannot call it anything but force, if you shut the door and prevent access to you, this IS force) a pup to spend the night times alone, probably in the kitchen or utility room, whilst you go to bed upstairs.

Lots and lots of horribly outdated books will tell you that this is necessary and this is how your pup learns to be alone - this is one of the biggest untruths within dog training bar none.Actually, what this does is starts your pup off anxious and distressed. You are building the foundations here for a really big problem - separation anxiety.

What most puppies will do, is yell. They will cry and whimper and howl and bark, they will make sounds that make you think they have broken a limb. IF they shut up, it is to hear if anyone is responding. If they do finally go to sleep, they go to sleep exhausted and distressed.

Do these things sound like the building blocks for a happy and confident puppy? No.

What inevitably happens, is that you go back to the puppy - because your neighbours will go nuts, because you cannot sleep, because it sounds like the pup has hurt himself, because you think he needs to pee and most of all because you eventually have to go back into that room.It does not matter what the reason is - the fact is, you returned, and the puppy now thinks 'if I make a horrendous noise for hours and hours, someone WILL come back in the end'.

Hey presto - you have taught your puppy to scream for hours on end! The relief of your return is MASSIVELY reinforcing to him, and it is thoroughly impractical to suggest you do not return at all until he learns to be quiet, for some puppies that might take days!

The better option with a new puppy is to have him sleep beside you, in a box or a crate. You can sleep downstairs with him on the sofa, or you can have him sleep upstairs with you beside your bed.

This means your puppy does not need to scream - you are right there. Additionally, it means if he DOES wake, you know it is because he needs the toilet, and you can take him outside immediately.

Whilst that means you will have a few disturbed nights, in fact the vast majority of puppies are so calm and relaxed with this routine that they will be able to hold it over night very quickly (of course, being distressed and anxious does increase the frequency and urgency of toilet needs, being calm and relaxed has the opposite effect!).

It does not matter one jot whether you eventually want your dog to sleep in your bed, in your room, on the landing, in the kitchen, in the utility room, on the goddamn MOON - if you let your pup build his confidence and independence at his OWN pace, and have him sleep with you until he can cope alone, you will avoid  one of the major early causes of separation anxiety.

Teaching Your Dog to Cope Alone

So, teaching a dog to cope alone is basically the same process whether your dog has a problem with this or not.

You need to teach him that you being gone is actually not just fine but GOOD, you being gone needs to be associated with relaxation, rewarding experiences, calmness.

The major difficulty is of course that most of us need to go out, whilst we are also teaching our dog to handle being alone. If our dog is not ready to be left for 2 hours and we have to go out for 2 hours, there is a problem!

I wish I could tell you that you can fix separation anxiety AND still go out to work every day but honestly, you really can't.

For some dogs who's anxiety is already low you might be able to run a behaviour modification program alongside having to leave him, but it is going to add months or even years to the process, but for a dog who has a serious problem that just isn't going to work.

For those with a serious problem I recommend you find a dog day care (vet them carefully, not a place that just allows dogs to whizz around together in a small, stress filled environment), a dog sitter, at worst perhaps a kennels would take your dog as a day boarder, which might still be stressful for him but it removes that stress from the home.

The beginnings of this program are, you teach your dog not to tolerate or accept being along but to actively choose to be away from you. Along with that comes understanding and acceptance that you are not available - make a note of that 'not available'. If he can cope with you not being available AND he can choose to be alone, he is much better equipped for when you are not available BECAUSE you are not there.

Step 1 - for dogs that shadow their owners (skip this if your dog doesn't do this).

From now on you ONLY pay attention to your dog when moving between rooms IF you invited him to follow you. If you didn't invite him, then pretend he isn't there.

You don't have to be harsh or military style about this, you don't have to ALWAYS ignore him, you can invite him to come with you as much as you like, as long as its clear that when you invite its good, if you don't its boring.

A couple of times a day, make a point of flitting between two rooms. Now each time you are about to set off on one of these pointless back and forth trips, set down a nice comfy bed (one he doesn't have down all the time, it can be a mat or mattress style bed, or a brightly coloured towel on his normal bed).
So you go from living room to kitchen and back again. Over and over. Don't invite him, ignore him BUT... pay attention out of the corner of your eye.. every time you see him start to settle down in the new room, move on again.

The idea is here you are pushing the point home 'follow me when I didn't ask you to, and its REALLY annoying'.

After a few days of this, most dogs are going to start to hang back certain for the pointless sessions if not on other occasions too. You will see them lurk in the hallway seeing if its worth following you, or peer round a doorway rather than be right at your heels. This is a good sign, your dog is starting to think 'well... she's just going to fart about... there's no need for ME to keep getting up...'

When you see this happen, its time to add in the next step.

Step 2 - dogs not following but curious as to where their owner has gone.

 and... set down a juicy bone, bigger than his head. If you can't do that, rig up a Kong toy filled with something extra delicious that is either so big he can't pick it up easily OR can be tied to a fixed object.

Now commence your flitting about - he has the choice, he can follow but a/ he knows he wasn't invited b/ he already knows that this is likely to be a pointless exercise and c/ he has something MUCH better to do that he cannot take with him!

He is most likely to choose to stay where he was on his bed with that bone.

What you are doing here is giving him a Visual Cue - the mat or bed or towel becomes a cue that tells your dog 'my owner is unavailable right now'.

By allowing him to choose (even though you are stacking the odds, he has no idea about that) and motivating him to make the choice you want, he can cope much better.

Step 3 - use your visual cue and his motivation to stay where he is, to build up the time you can be out of the room. You should start by just extending the time you are in the other room by a few seconds, build it up to a minute or two, then add in going up stairs or to another room.

Each time you add a new element, say going upstairs, cut down the duration again. So you might be able to spend five minutes away from him in the kitchen, but when you add in going upstairs, keep it down to just 1 minute or less to begin with.

Step 4 - going out of the house! As with the changes inside the house, build this gradually. If he has already learned to link things like you picking up house keys or car keys or putting on certain shoes or coats, leave those things for the time being and just build stepping out of a door, closing it, coming back in immediately.

If your dog does have negative associations with you putting on coats, shoes, picking up keys etc, address those individually - so you might start to pick up the car keys.. but then go upstairs. Or you may put on your going out coat... and then sit down in the living room and read a book.

Doing this breaks down those associations, that your dog previously used to chain together and were cues that told him 'she's going out soon... start to panic NOW'..

This of course is why it is super hard to fix a seperation anxiety problem if you are still going out for long periods, because every time you go through that routine of shoes, coat, car keys, handbag, leave the house, lock the door - you are re-teaching that chain of visual cues that says 'going out now PANIC PANIC' and effectively undoing the work you are doing with the above steps to teach new visual cues.

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thepethealing said...
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