One of the most important elements of helping a dog learn that being home alone is safe, is ensuring that they are not left alone for any longer than they can comfortably handle. When I first start working with people, most dogs are not comfortable with being alone for any time at all, and therefore it is vital that that dog is not left alone at all, other than when the humans are working through the controlled daily training plans, which are set on a daily basis and are very much tailored for each individual dog.
Why is suspending absences so important?
This is something that is not my specific requirement, although it is my one ‘non-negotiable’, but it is a requirement of learning. I know that if a dog is being left alone to feel anxiety and panic, they will simply never be able to learn that being home alone is safe.
The outward signs a dog shows to convey that they are anxious about being left home alone vary massively from dog to dog. Some dogs bark, howl, toilet in the house and destroy things (often soft furnishings but clients of mine have reported their dogs have pulled down venetian blinds and scratched the door to pieces), some dogs will show apparent ‘milder’ signs such as pacing, licking their lips and yawning, and some dogs will injure themselves trying to get out of the house or out of a confinement area that they are in (see my previous blog on why confinement and separation anxiety aren’t a good match – Separation Anxiety – to crate or not to crate? – Polite Paws Dog Training).
This stress that the dog is experiencing which drives those outward signs mentioned above will hugely impact their ability to learn that being home alone is safe. In order to teach a dog that being home alone is safe, we need to build absences up slowly (and how slowly that is is dictated by each individual dog), but always ensuring the absences are kept under the point that dog experiences anxiety.
Separation anxiety is a phobia
If we had a fear of heights, for example, a professional would not immediately take you to the top of the Empire State Building. How would you feel if that happened? Probably absolutely terrified and it would reinforce to you that being at a height is scary! Instead the professional would ascertain what height you could comfortably cope with before feeling scared, and gradually work on increasing the height you feel comfortable at over time. This is the same with dogs who are anxious about being home alone, if they can comfortable cope with an absence of 5 minutes, and then we leave them alone for an hour, they will once again be feeling terrified. So what do you think then happens next time you go to leave the house? They associate you leaving with that horrific feeling of panic, and the anxiety begins well before their previous threshold of 5 minutes.
Stress takes its toll
Stress and anxiety has a profound mental and physical impact on not just dogs, but all animals and humans as well.
Stress affects our dogs in numerous ways and it can result in behavioural, physiological and immunological responses. “More severe stress may induce dogs to perform thermoregulatory behaviour (increased salivation, panting and anti-diuresis) and to develop stereotypies”, and stress can have an effect on the dog’s immune system as well as causing physiological effects (B. Beerda et al, 1997).
So from the point of view of teaching our dog’s that it truly IS safe home alone, and from an ethical point of view, its important we suspend absences so that we dont place them in positions where they are experiencing stress.
Suspending absences is do-able….and temporary
When we talk about ensuring your dog is not left alone at all other than our controlled absences, we must also remember that this is temporary. Its a means to an end while your dog becomes comfortable being alone.
My separation anxiety clients are the most amazing people and go out of their way to ensure their dog’s needs are met, and that they are set up for success when learning absences are safe. People who haven’t had a dog with separation related behaviours simply cant understand how being unable to leave your dog impacts your entire life…..and my separation anxiety clients are just amazing. They are resilient, motivated and some in particular have the most amazing set of carers lined up for their dog at all times.
There are many options – friends and family, neighbours, dog walkers and dog daycare (ideally the small, home based ones rather than the large commercial ones), other separation anxiety dog owners (I have, in the past, put clients in touch with each other if they are local to each other to act as back up dog care if the dogs got on….which they did!), there may be a local agricultural college or college where students may be willing to come and sit in your house and study and look after your dog (obviously these would need to be thoroughly vetted as with anyone who comes to your home or looks after your dog). But my point is…..often there are options that people may not have thought of and sometimes all it takes is asking.
My main reason for writing this is to emphasis that yes, it can be hard to suspend absences, and it often does require creative thinking and an expense, but without doing that, you will never be able to leave your dog home alone, so its important not to dismiss working with a professional to overcome your dog’s separation anxiety for a temporary inconvenience.
If you would like help working on your dog’s separation anxiety please complete the form on the page linked below: Remote Online Separation Anxiety Dog Training (politepawsdogtraining.co.uk)