by Selina Clarke
From the day Rufus arrived he wouldn’t leave my side, and I mean never, I couldn’t even visit the little girl’s room without him sitting next to me. I couldn’t leave the room to make some dinner, or fuss the cats; he had to be with me 100% of the time. I soon learnt that this was called Separation Anxiety. In Ruf’s case he was scared to be left on his own in case he was abandoned again. He had had 3 homes at least, possibly 4, by the time he came to me at approximately 14 months old. Basically he was feeling extremely vulnerable and scared.
Separation anxiety can show itself in several ways. Initially they will show panic, rapid panting and pacing, but as you won’t be there to see this you won’t know its happening. This panic does tend to subside quite quickly. The signs you’ll see on your return are likely to be untouched food and chews, scratched doors and frames, and dug up carpets. This is all caused by their need to escape and find someone to be with. Some dogs will bark or howl and some will need to go to the toilet in the house through fear.
I was extremely lucky in finding a dog trainer who was also a dog behaviourist and she gave us lots of help and advice which I will try to share with you. Most importantly if you are going to seek the help of a dog behaviourist to work with you make sure you find one who uses positive reinforced behaviours and not one that uses negative reinforcement such as noise activated spray or shock collars.
Firstly you need to teach your dog to be alone. I did this by leaving him for short periods of time in one room by himself and as soon as he didn’t whine or cry or scratch I would go back in and reward him with lots of fuss. This then progressed to making the time I was out of the room longer, again with lots of fuss. At first I’d recommend only being away for one minute and work up to about 20 minutes. I can’t stress enough how important it is to take this phase slowly and not to rush your dog or you could end up back at square one. You might need to walk out of a door close it behind you and literally walk straight back in and reward your dog with a piece of chicken or cheese not allowing him/her time to whine or cry or scratch on your first few ins and outs.
Then you start by leaving the house and following the same pattern as above, leave for one minute and return to fuss your dog, very slowly increasing the time you are away. Another trick is when you leave the house don’t make a fuss of your dog, just walk out the door, no goodbyes, no kisses, straight out the door.
When you return to your dog after you have been out expect to be greeted with nervous weeing. This isn’t uncommon and it isn’t the dog’s fault. He’s just so pleased that you are home to him and he is safe again that he has a little tinkle. We dealt with this by letting him come out of the front door on our return so he sprinkled outside and there was no harm done. This will gradually stop as the separation anxiety problem is more controlled and your dog learns to feel more secure with being left.
Evenings when I was watching telly or quietly reading, Ruf would demand attention, which was easy to give to him by giving him my hand as a comfort. I soon learned that this was another part of his separation anxiety showing up and by letting him demand attention I wasn’t helping his problem. From then on when he came to me for a fuss I completely ignored him, to the point of standing up and turning my back to him, and after a while he would give up and walk away. I would wait a few minutes and then call him to me for a fuss and lots of playing. This taught him that he got fussed when I wanted to do it and not when he demanded it.
Again you have to stick to this like glue, no matter how hard it is on you or how harsh it seems to the dog. It isn’t. You are helping the dog in the best way you can by teaching him/her that they don’t have to be with you every minute of the day to be happy. You are just showing them that they WILL get attention but on your terms and not theirs. This will help them to cope better when you aren’t there.
If you have a partner that the dog is not so clingy with, make it their job to feed the dog, walk him, give him treats, and groom the dog. This will take the pressure off you as the dog has to interact with someone other than yourself. You can also make a tape recording of family activity to play when you are out.
Remove everything that your dog can damage that you don’t want eaten, chewed or destroyed. Instead, get some cardboard boxes and put a couple of biscuits in them with some shredded paper and tell your dog to “find” it. Start by doing this when you are in the house so he is learning what a fun game it is. It only takes 2 minutes to clean up and it is teaching him what he can rip up and what he can’t. When he’s learned what a great game it is, start hiding them around the house and say “find it”. By doing this with Ruf as I leave the house it takes the attention off me leaving and his mind is on the great game he’s playing and where are those biscuits?
And also put a t-shirt that you have worn to bed so it is covered in your scent in his bed so he can still smell you when he’s settled down.
I have had Rufus just over a year now and he can safely be left for up to 3-4 hours without any damage to the house. There were certainly days when I never thought we’d get to this stage with him.
Latest update on Rufus and separation anxiety 22.05.06
Rufus has gone several months with no problems at all. Recently after Flo joined us he started barking when left again because I had stopped leaving him “find it” items. I didn’t know how Flo would react to the treats being around the house and I didn’t want any fights over treats in my absence. I needed to be sure they could both be left with no food aggression between themselves and the cats. When the neighbours let me know that the barking had restarted I had to get my thinking cap on and quickly. I have now started hiding his biscuits in toilet roll tubes and Kong’s upstairs for him to find while Flo sleeps through it all downstairs. Also I can leave the house without Rufus seeing me (which is his trigger, rather than the time left). He’s far to busy sniffing under the bed and under blankets to miss me.
Several people have enquired of me whether getting a second dog helps separation anxiety, because of them having the extra company when left. Up until now I have been unable to answer this question from my own experience. This recent episode has proved to me that it certainly doesn’t help and is no reason for getting a second dog. In fact you could end up with twice the problem especially if the second dog is another young playful dog which could learn from the first more settled dog and pick up on his/her stress levels. I hate to think the destruction that two dogs with separation anxiety could cause together and also the damage that it could do to them mentally in the long term.
Time and patience are the only true solutions to separation anxiety.
Another quick update on Rufus, he is 11 now and over the years we have had a few small relapses. We have moved hoes and he has become a bit confused and therefore we have had to go back to basics but quickly things have settled back down. Reading back through this has helped because we have been able to see what our old routine was and what helped him previously so yes even a dog that has had separation related issues can still have blips when his routine has been disrupted but it can quickly be sorted again.
We have had several dogs join our home over the years, mostly older dogs from rescue, a couple who have had separation anxiety but whom have joined us at 10-11 years of age and it has been very deep rooted and although we have tried we have failed to find the root cause for them and therefore have had to work around the issue rather than solve it.
Ollie Welsh Springer came from a one owner home who very sadly his owner passed away, we know very little apart from that and can only imagine he felt abandoned and had no idea why his owner had left him. He became extremely abandoned bonded to me, and although he loved my partner Rob and my Dad his separation anxiety was to me alone, if I left him he would cry and howl but he didn’t give two hoots when Rob went to work.
Jinx Welsh Springer had been quite badly abused and had a very sad story to tell, his separation related issues we can only assume came from that he was now thankful for having company and didn’t want to lose it, who knows, we can only guess, at least he could be left with my partner or my Dad.
As a few of you reading this will know I have worked in ‘rescue’ for many years so I have come across this problem fairly frequently and finding the root cause can often solve the issue.
I remember a middle aged English Springer called Tess who came from a very loving home who had to rehome her through a personal crisis and who went to live with a friend of mine and when my friend went out each morning Tess would howl the place down. There had been no mention of any type of separation anxiety when I had taken all of Tess’ details from the owners and this was something I always asked each owner signing over a dog. I went back to the owners and they said that whenever they went out they used to give Tess a biscuit and say the words ” We’re off out now, we’ll be back soon, be good”. I passed this information on to my friend and who put the biscuit and wise words into action the next day and from that day forward she never heard Tess howl again.
I guess the point I am trying to make is that separation anxiety comes in many forms, with young dogs they need to be taught the confidence to cope to be left alone and to know that you are going to come home to them. If this part of the training is missed early on it is still possible to do as they get older it just takes more time and patience but it is worth doing. Sadly as dogs come into their elder years then it is much harder to crack and easier to work around the problem the best you can. If you can find your dog’s trigger, whether that be seeing you walk out the door, fussing your dog before you leave, your dog seeing you put your coat on or pick your car keys up then you have a better ground to work with. As the years have gone on I have definitely learnt more about seperation anxiety and it isn’t the quickest thing in the world to crack but it is so worthwhile when you look back and think I’m so glad I perservered. 10 years down the line with Rufus and he was worth the chewed Rosewood coffee table.