One of the greatest joys of sharing your life with a dog is their observable delight when you come home. However, if you’ve ever lived with a dog who struggled with separation anxiety then you know how heartbreaking it is to realize your dog isn’t showering you with pure happiness, but instead relief that you’ve returned. While nothing feels entirely normal right now, life and routine will someday resume, with many dog owners leaving their dogs home or crated for a period of time, almost daily. One major concern dog owners have is how their dogs will handle the transition to being home alone once life returns to “normal”. As someone who lives with a dog who has struggled with separation anxiety throughout her life, I’d like to share with you what she has taught me.
Working consistently and tirelessly to alleviate Gypsy’s separation anxiety was one of the most emotionally exhausting things I’ve done in my life. Her needs are at the top of my list every time my routine changes, because I know that regression is a real possibility for her response to being left home alone. To be clear, she is with my other dog, Karma, but that rarely makes a difference in her level of comfort when I leave the house. Instead, I have to make a conscious effort to maintain her level of comfort. If your dog is recovering from separation anxiety or you’ve brought home a new dog, whether a puppy or adult, here are some ways you can proactively approach teaching your dog to feel comfortable when confined or left home alone.
Practice “Home Retreats”
Creating a safe space where your dog has a history of feeling relaxed and resting calmly will be an important aspect of setting them up for success. If they only enter a specific area of the house when you are leaving them home, they’ll begin to associate that space with discomfort and stress. Any time they enter that space they will begin to anticipate your absence, only accelerating their stress response.
Once you’ve decided where they will stay when you’re gone, whether they will be left loose in a particular room or crated, you can begin taking them into that area for “retreats”. Initially, you will be in this safe space with them as part of their support system. If the designated area is a bedroom or living space, your dog may already have a history of relaxation in that area, which will work to your benefit. During these retreats, you and your dog will spend time working on calming activities. You might read a book as your dog rests on a bed and licks a Kong filled with food. Alternatively, you might watch a movie, knit, or video chat with friends while your dog rests next to you. The calming activity should be stationary, constant movement on your part might make it difficult for your dog to settle. It’s important to note that you won’t confine or leave your dog alone when you first start going on the retreats.
In order for your dog to rest or relax during their retreat, they may need to have received a healthy amount of exercise prior to the retreat. Additionally, having appropriate toys, chews, and bedding will be important for their successful self-soothing and ability to achieve relaxation over time.
When you see your dog is able to settle during the retreat, you can begin to desensitize them to your movement around the space, with the long-term goal of being able to leave them alone. You will start with small movements and gestures. Stand up, stretch your arms, then sit back down. Your dog might get up the moment you move, this is normal. Just continue what you were doing before you stood up and draw no additional attention to yourself or them. You can continue to build your movement over time, always waiting for your dog to settle before you stand up and begin walking.
The next steps could be as follows:
- Stand up, walk one foot away, return to your starting position.
- Stand up, stretch, walk toward the center of the room, return to your starting position.
- Stand up, walk toward the threshold of the room, stretch one hand out in front of you, return to your starting position.
- Stand up, walk towards the nearest door in the room, touch the door frame, return to your starting position.
This pattern can continue to build until you are able to wiggle the doorknob on the door, open and close the door, walk through the threshold of the door while remaining visible and accessible, walk through the threshold of the door and close it for a fraction of a second then enter the room and return to your starting position. You can then sporadically add-in actions that would predict your absence, like picking up your keys, putting on a coat or shoes, etc. all without actually leaving. The goal is for your dog to think nothing of your movement or actions and to remain settled throughout your entire retreat, even as you completely leave the space for short bursts of time.
To increase your dog’s level of comfort in the retreat space, you may also begin to acclimate them to having calming music or a white noise machine on or using pet safe essential oils in a diffuser to promote relaxation. The key here is that these additional tools are turned on regularly enough that they don’t become predictive of your absence or a stress response. The added benefit of such calming aids is that they also tend to work for humans, helping you to feel calmer as well (and who couldn’t use more calmness in their life).
Food, Games, Training, and Fun
The next tip I have for you is to turn the space your dog stays in when they’re home alone into an enjoyable area to be in. Retreats will build relaxation, but food and play still have their place in our proactive approach to isolation and confinement comfort. There are several ways to practice. The first is to begin feeding meals in the space your dog will stay in, whether that is a bedroom, living area, or crate, but know that they do not need to be locked in that space while they eat. The crate door, bedroom door, or baby gate used to keep them enclosed normally can remain open while they eat. These positive associations do not need to perfectly replicate your absence. And while you can build up to the full picture during mealtime eventually, many dogs will benefit from a slow transition like the one outlined in the previous section. You may begin with the aforementioned door remaining fully open, then over time closing slightly, but only if your dog remains relaxed while eating their meal.
Next, you can practice “fast food deliveries”. Fast food deliveries will involve high-value treats (like chicken, string cheese, or freeze-dried meat treats) that are intermittently placed in the crate or confinement space for your dog to go eat or find later. The delivery should be relatively nonchalant, if your dog doesn’t notice don’t immediately draw attention to the food or point it out. Give them time to find the delivery later if possible.
You can also begin to train and play games in and around the space where your dog will be confined. Use fun toys and toss them past, and into, the space your dog will stay in. Make this environment fun and enjoyable to be in. Another great way to do this is by practicing simple training or tricks in this space.
Practicing More Relaxation
I mention relaxation again because, ultimately, no matter how much fun your dog has in a space with you, once you’re gone your dog is more likely to rest alone, than play alone. Your work to create behavior patterns of relaxation while you are home with your dog will mean that relaxation is more accessible to them when you leave them, but only if you pair that work with desensitizing them to confinement and/or separation over time.
It can be incredibly helpful to your goals to have an additional crate or physical barrier available in the area where your family spends most of their time. For instance, if your dog will stay crated in your bedroom while you’re away, practice retreats in that space. Then, also have another crate in your family room if you spend most of your time in that space. In the second crate or confinement space, have the toys, chews, and bedding your dog enjoys available for them. You could also give them a filled Kong or other type of safe, edible chew. The option of choosing that space to relax in at any time throughout the day can increase overall comfort. Additionally, it will be easier to make this training a part of your daily routine if the crate or baby gate is in the space you frequent the most. You can also continue to practice relaxed separation and/or confinement in all areas of your house.
When you know you’ll be stationary in that space for a longer period of time, plan to practice “close confinement” or “visible separation”. An example of close confinement: You’re sitting on your sofa watching a movie with the family. Have your dog crated as close as possible to you, maybe only inches away to begin. An example of visible separation: You’re in the living area playing a board game with your family. Have your dog in the next closest room with a baby gate up. Ensure they are not too far away and that they can still see you. In both scenarios, continue as follows: Provide your dog with a long-term chew, like a frozen stuffed Kong, smoked bone or bully stick. In addition, plan to drop a small scattering of treats into the crate/behind the baby gate every few minutes throughout the duration of the movie/board game, halting your treat scatter if they put their head down, settle on their side or begin to fall asleep. Over time you will do two things: 1) Increase the amount of time in between scatterings of treats, the goal being for your dog to eventually fall asleep while waiting for the next treat scatter, and 2) Increase the distance between you and your dog while they are crated/separated. You are incrementally working towards being able to crate/separate your dog out of sight, for short periods of time.
These proactive approaches to building comfort with separation and confinement should only be used in cases where the dog is not at risk for self-injury, property destruction, or when anxiety is not causing detriment to their emotional welfare. Similar methods may be used in serious cases of separation anxiety, however in such a case seek the guidance of a qualified professional.
It is hard to say what the exact cause of separation anxiety is with influencing components like genetics and early learning history but guessing the “why” doesn’t really change the “how” of treating it. If you believe your dog is exhibiting signs of stress when left alone or confined or you’re observing behaviors that are a risk to your dog’s safety, it’s important to reach out to a professional for help. Certified Separation Anxiety Trainers are available virtually across the country, and an experienced trainer might have the strategies and knowledge you need to support healthy behavior change in your dog. While the methods outlined above are wonderful ways to increase your dog’s level of comfort with isolation and confinement, they are not a replacement for personalized help from a professional who is working in tandem with your dog’s veterinarian.
See you next time, at Central Bark!
Carla is an Operations Field Representative for Central Bark and co-owns a dog training and behavior consulting business, Good Karma Canine. Carla has three dogs Karma, a seven-year-old American Staffordshire Terrier Mix; Gypsy, a five-year-old Bull Terrier/Lab Mix; and Newt, a two-year-old Chihuahua.