How to solve separation issues in dogs

Posted by Betty. February 26th 2014.

Following on from our previous article this month about the causes of separation issues in dogs, we have gathered together some of the techniques owners can use to relax and reassure their dogs at times when they are left alone.

For many dogs that have built up patterns of behaviour and associations surrounding the owner leaving, helping them learn to relax away from the owner is a key starting point in modifying their behaviour.

Black Labrador

Here are some techniques that can be used to do just this:

1. Teach your dog a relax command, using a specific visual aid and verbal cue. Use a special mat or bed that can be folded away during non-training times. Firstly ask your dog to lie down on his/her mat or bed with a special chew. Particularly useful are large rubber toys that can be stuffed with food as these allow the dog to be trickle fed small scraps and continue to provide interest for long periods of time.

At this point it’s important to stay in the room with him/her. Position his/her mat a distance away from you so he/she is alone, but can still see you. Relax and read a book or watch television, so the dog doesn’t think you are about to get up and leave.

Repeat this exercise every day for 10 minutes or so whilst you’re in the room. It’s important for owners not to interact with their dogs at this stage. If he/she gets up to come over to you, ask him/her to go back over to the mat or completely ignore the dog so he/she realises nothing interesting or stressful is happening. A dog may repeat this behaviour many times if they are used to sitting close to the owner all the time. It’s vital at this stage that the owner is consistent and the dog sits on the mat to chew his chew.

2. Once he settles quickly and easily, you can add in a verbal “cue”. This may be “relax”, “quiet” etc. Use this cue every time he/she is on the mat relaxed, chewing his/her chew. At this stage an owner can stand up and start to walk around the room, again completely ignoring the dog if he/she gets up and tries to follow, until he/she goes back to the chew.

3. Once the dog is happy to stay on the mat, and anticipates the arrival of his/her favourite chew/toy with the mat, then the owner can leave the room for short periods. The key here is to ensure these periods are very, very short. Build up from just a few seconds, to a minute, to 2 minutes, 3 minutes etc.

As soon as the owner is sure that the dog is happy and relaxed with frequent trips out of the room and back and that he/she stays on the mat happily chewing the chew, then you can start to leave the house for a few seconds. You should shut the door, come straight back in and into the room where the dog is.

4. If the dog gets up and tries to follow the owner, just place the toy/chew back on the mat and go back a few steps to allow more time for the dog to feel comfortable.

It is important to note that during the first few weeks of the training period, it is crucial that the dog is never left alone, so they do not experience the negative emotions associated with being left alone.

5. If at any time the dog shows aggression with food/toy/chews or seems unable to cope with even very short periods alone, we advise the owner to contact a behaviourist.

6. Never be tempted to lock an anxious dog in an indoor kennel or cage, as this will often intensify fear and anxiety. The dog may hurt itself whilst panicking or may become extremely depressed.

7. Certain types of medication, pheromone products and nutraceuticals, may be of some use in some cases. However, these must always be discussed with a vet or behaviourist prior to use.

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