Separation issues: Preparing to go back to work.

Separation issues: Preparing to go back to work.

During this time of isolation, you may feel that you cannot work on separation issues with your dog. Or may be there were no separation issues before, but now that your dog has had a period with you at home due to Covid-19 lockdown, s/he may have issues going forward.

At the beginning of lock down, I noticed my dog seemed more clingy. He was ensuring he knew where I was in the house, and if I made any move towards the front door, even if it was just to put the bins out, he would jump up and squeeze through to ensure he was coming too! My change in routine, meant a serious change in predictability for my dog. Predictability is enormously important to our animals, and endless studies have shown that increased predictability correlates with improved welfare. For me, alarm bells are ringing.

However, it is possible to encourage independence, even if you cannot leave the house yet.
This is particularly important for new puppy owners or dogs who may appear particularly at risk to developing separation issues, either due to their nature or due to their owners circumstances.

Encouraging independence around the house

🐕For example, you could ensure every day you leave your dog in an area of the house while you get on with other things. This could be the kitchen, their crate, the utility room – choose the area where you would tend to leave your dog if you were actually leaving.

🐶Ensure it is an area they are comfortable and relaxed.

🐶Leave them with a kong, lick-it mat or snuffle mat. However, this is just for enrichment. The idea being they will also have some time alone where they need to self-settle once they have finished the activity.

🐶 For dogs with separation issues or barrier frustration, make it easier initially by staying in sight, or ensuring you return before they have finished their toy. The duration of the separation can then be built on gradually.

🐶Do not allow your dog to follow you everywhere. This practice is best started early on in your relationship. If your dog is never used to doors being shut, and being able to follow you upstairs, to the bathroom, to the kitchen, to the living room, to put the bins out etc. – it is going to be a big shock to them when you shut a door and prevent them from following you. If your dog becomes distressed if they cannot be near you, so you do not feel you can shut any doors behind you as you move around your property, contact a behaviourist.

Practicing Separation

🐕You could also try a short practice separation each day.

Go through your usual leaving routine (e.g. for me it is ‘in your bed’, I give my dog a small treat, I say ‘back soon’ and then I leave). Take a book and sit in your car for 5-20 minutes, and gradually extend this time. It is worth filming your dog (just prop a tablet for phone up in view of your dog if you do not have a PetCAM).

The leaving routine is important as it helps to increase predictability – your dog understands that it means he is being left, he was meant to be left and you will come back. However, there needs to be some repetition for this connection to be made.

Ensure your dog is relaxed

There is no hope in expecting your dog to relax while he is alone, if he is in a hyper-excited, anxious or frustrated state when you leave him. Be aware of his emotional state. If he is not relaxed, consider why (discussions with a behaviourist may be necessary).

One point that cannot be argued with is that a tired dog is more likely to be able to relax. This means ensuring your dog is well exercised each day (preferably before separation).

Well exercised means –

🐕 For my older dog this means a gentle trot around the streets, with plenty of opportunities to stop and sniff. Do not under-estimate the power of scent activity for your dog. A lot of cognitive processing goes into sniffing all those lamp posts!

🐕For my younger dog this means a run in the field in addition to lots of sniffing opportunities.

🐕For my highly driven working breed this means a morning walk with a run and plenty of sniffing opportunities PLUS ten minutes of training. Training could include basic obedience, impulse control exercises, scent-work, retrieve exercises that include direction and scent elements. Quality over quantity. Ten minutes is enough

🐕Notice blasting the tennis ball around a field via a ball thrower has not come up. I would want to avoid high adrenaline activity if my aim is for a relaxed dog.

Signs that your dog is not coping with separation

🐶They become distressed when they identify that you are preparing to leave (to varying degrees I’m sure)
🐶They try to prevent you leaving e.g. block your path, nip at feet, refuse to go to their area if this is where they are usually sent when it is time for you to go🐶 They are destructive when left (and only when left)
🐶They urinate/defecate when left alone
🐶They whine/howl/bark when left alone
🐶Or their distress may be less obvious. As a behaviourist I am often only called in if their are issues with house soiling, destruction or there has been a noise complaint by a neighbour. However, I am sure there are many dogs showing milder signs of unhappiness which could only be detected if we filmed some separations to get a general idea of their behaviour.

Milder signs of distress which may remain undetected could include:
🐩 staring at the exit
🐩 panting
🐩 holding the body with tension e.g. they may curl up in a tight ball, or they may look out the window with a stiff body posture
🐩licking their legs
🐩not eating any treats/food toys left down for them

What to do if you feel your dog is not coping with separation

If you feel your dog is not coping with separation it is a good idea to contact a behaviourist. A behaviourist will be able to assess your individual situation and tailor their advice to you and your dog.
We will be thinking about the age and health status of your pet, when and how the problem has developed, what issues are maintaining the distress behaviour and how one could improve the welfare of your pooch whilst supporting you in being able to live your life still whilst dealing with this problem.

I am not going to lie, separation anxiety is difficult to live with and can be life changing for the owner.

Separation related problems however, can be easier to resolve if the route cause of the problem can be addressed.

Coming out of Covid-19 Lockdown

Small things can make a big difference, and ensure it is not such a shock to our dogs when life ‘returns to normal’ by following some of the advise above.

Particular attention can now be focused on practice separations, as for many of us we are now allowed to take more than one form of exercise per day. This means we can walk our dogs, and walk/run ourselves separately. This seems to be the perfect time to start introducing graduated periods of time away from our pets.

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