Congratulations on your new puppy or dog! You will not find a more loyal housemate than your pup. They are truly wonderful creatures, but new dog owners often feel more overwhelmed and frustrated with their dog than in love. If you feel this way, you are not alone. Your dog is overwhelmed with his new life too. He either recently left his mother and siblings and moved into a human pack or he’s been let down by his former owner, thrown in a shelter and now has to start over. Can he trust you? Will you abandon him too? Will he develop separation anxiety?
A problem that arises in dogs and is often not discussed or treated until the situation becomes difficult to handle is separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is a condition causing distress when your dog is left home alone. Signs your dog may have separation anxiety include excessive drooling, defecating or urinating in the house, destroying belongings, barking and howling for long periods and attempts to escape the home. Indications your dog is attempting to escape the house may be scratch marks in the wall or door and damaged windows.
This article is not about solving separation anxiety. It is intended to help you prevent separation anxiety before the situation gets out of control. Separation anxiety is one of the top reasons dogs are relinquished to shelters by their owners. People misdiagnose anxiety as behavioral problems. If you think about it, dogs are pack animals. A dog without a pack will not survive long in the wild. When human packs disappear for hours at a time, some dogs panic. Any dog can develop separation anxiety. While people believe dogs rescued from shelters have a higher chance of becoming anxious when their owners leave (abandonment can lead to separation anxiety), I wonder how many of those dogs suffered from the condition long before their owners abandoned them. Anxiety is devastating. Following the steps below can keep your fur baby happy and mentally healthy.
- Crate train your dog. Your dog should spend time in his crate even when you are home. This way he doesn’t connect the crate to your absence. If he spends time in his crate when you are home, crate time will feel natural and not trigger anxiety. Many owners struggle with crate training. We want to debunk some of the reasons.
- They are away from home for several hours a day and don’t want the dog to feel trapped. In reality, the crate is the safest place for your pup anytime you cannot keep an eye on him. There are too many things for the dog to get into. Since puppies eat everything, there is a risk of injury and possibly death for a puppy who free roams the house. Leaving a dog unattended is as unsafe as leaving a baby on the floor or on a bed and walking away.
- He hates the crate. All he does is cry, bark and scratch at the door. Unfortunately, there are things in life we all hate. If my kids had their way, they would never go to school again. We force our kids to do things they don’t enjoy because we know what is best for them. A dog is no different. We can make the crate a fantastic place for our dogs. Play crate games that encourage dogs to walk into the crate on their own rather than dragging them by their collar or pushing their butts inside. Feed them in the crate. When you lock the crate, fill it with safe bones (non-edible) and toys filled with soft foods like peanut butter and 100% pumpkin. You can even soak dry dog food in water until it’s mushy and then freeze it inside a treat-dispensing ball. Freezing the food increases the amount of time the dog has to work for the item. Don’t allow the dog to play with crate toys when he is free. Withholding the toy until he is crated gives him something to look forward to when you leave.
- Exercise your dog. Mornings can be hectic, but waking up a little earlier each day to walk your dog, play ball in the backyard or get some training in will exhaust your dog. Keep the walk or playtime structured. Include commands in your routine and keep your dog focused on you. This is not the time for him to interact with people and other animals along the way. A tired dog is too sleepy to feel concern over your absence. You can also hire a dog walker to stop by the house once or twice a day to walk your dog.
- Don’t make a big deal when you leave and come home. We fawn over our animals when we leave the house and when we come home. Dogs don’t need you to say goodbye. That is a human trait. Put your dog in the crate fifteen minutes before you leave. Once he is inside, ignore him. Finish your morning ritual and walk out the door. When you return home, put your belongings away, greet your human family members and go through the mail. When the dog is calm, let him out of the crate (for non-crated, older dogs, give them a pat on the head). Refrain from kissing them and any form of petting that increases their arousal. Never correct them for bad behavior when you return home. If they chew up their bed, clean it up. Rather than yelling or punishing, don’t replace the bed. A dog who eats his bedding is safer without one.
- No rough housing indoors. The backyard is the place for rough play and running. Whenever the dog is indoors, he should remain calm. Dogs need to entertain themselves in a quiet, calm manner.
- Don’t let the dog follow you: Your dog should learn the sit-implied-stay command or the place command. When you run to the restroom or to another room to retrieve something, he should remain in command until you return. He should also remain in place while you eat.
- Limit treats and petting. If your dog is anxious, pull back on the amount of times you pet and give him treats. We are not saying to deny your dog affection, we are simply suggesting that you refrain from overdoing it. When your dog is asleep, don’t lay with him or pick him up. If he is resting or playing with a toy, don’t call him over to sit with you. Independence is healthy. There are numerous reasons your dog should never sleep in your bed. Preventing separation anxiety is one of those reasons.
- Don’t cater to your dog’s every need. If he is fed, given access to the yard for bathroom, has toys to keep him mentally challenged and does not have medical issues, then the whining is bossy and should be ignored. Whining grows old real fast. He needs to amuse himself and not look to you for constant play.
- Don’t ask your dog questions. Do you want to go in the car? Are you hungry? Do you want to go for a walk? Questions cause arousal. Remember, dogs should remain calm indoors. I have never met a dog who refused food because his harness is too tight and he’s watching his figure. Dogs always want to do these things. Let’s not get their hopes up every time you put your shoes on. Side note: I just read this paragraph to my husband and now my dog is whining. I created arousal.
- Change your morning rituals. Dogs who show signs of stress in the morning are mostly set off by triggers. How many times have you wondered how the dog knows the difference between a weekday and a weekend?
“He wakes me up every weekend to go for a walk, yet he stays in his bed the days I go to work.”
This happens because we are creatures of habit. Every weekday morning my alarm rings out. I go into my son’s room and wake him for school, search my dresser for clothing and then take a shower. On the weekends, I wake up without the alarm, lounge in bed for a while, eat breakfast and clean the house. The dogs are used to the sounds associated with my routine.
Confuse your dog by changing up your routine each day. Pack your lunch before taking a shower. Take a shower and then search for clothing. Put your bags in your car before locking the dog in the crate. Eliminate the trigger.
- Ignore barking and whining while in crate. Dogs should learn that barking, whining and scratching make their owners walk away. You should only tell the dog to quiet down one time. After that, ignore the behavior. A citronella collar is a popular tool used to prevent barking. The collar releases citronella every time the dog barks. Since smell is a dog’s most sensitive scent, this method is torture for a dog. The citronella lingers in the dog’s nose for an extended period, causing the punishment to last an unreasonable amount of time. I would avoid this method and practice ignoring bad behavior.
Incorporate these tips in your pup’s life the moment they enter your home and help them grow into a healthy, stable dog. Summertime is the most popular time for families to welcome a dog into their home. Work on these methods before September creeps upon us and your puppy is alone for extended periods.
Finally, don’t worry that every accident or destructive behavior is a sign of separation anxiety. Dogs that have accidents or chew furniture when you are home require obedience training or housebreaking help, they are most likely not suffering from anxiety.
The certified trainers of Sublime K-9 Dog Training are here to help you with your dog needs. You can reach us by calling at 631-241-6482 or visiting our website www.sublimek9dogtraining.com.