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Home alone… a trainer’s guide

Wish it was that easy to tell our pooches that all is well and we’ll be right back! Their depressed face and destructive ways make going away all the more difficult. Here’s how to deal with separation anxiety in dogs.

Malaika Fernandes

One of the most common problems that pet parents complain of is that their dog is destructive when left alone. Their dog generally howls, digs, chews, barks, urinates, defecates or tries to escape from the house. Although these signs indicate that the dog has not been trained in a constructive way to be alone at home, they can also be signs of distress. When a dog displays the signs and is accompanied by other distress behaviours such as drooling and showing anxiety when the pet parents are about to leave the house, it shows that the dog has separation anxiety.
Why does separation anxiety develop?
A dog can develop separation anxiety issues because of either being abandoned or handed over to a shelter, abrupt change in schedule, not being trained systematically to be left alone at home, etc.
Common symptoms of separation anxiety…
Urinating and defecating: Dogs suffering from separation anxiety either urinate or defecate when left alone but if this happens in the presence of the pet parent then he’s probably not toilet-trained well. Also get your dog checked for incontinence by a veterinarian.
Barking and howling: It is often triggered in a dog when he gets upset because people he’s attached to are about to leave.
Chewing, digging and destruction: Dogs with separation anxiety issues often chew and destroy household items and can injure themselves.
Escaping: A dog with separation anxiety issues may try to escape when he is left alone and also cause injury to his teeth, paws, etc in the process.
Pacing: Some dogs walk or trot in a specific pattern when left alone. Some move in circular patterns, while others walk back and forth in straight lines.

Dealing with separation anxiety…

  • Counter conditioning: If your dog has a case of separation anxiety, counter conditioning might reduce or resolve the situation. Counter conditioning is a treatment process that changes a dog’s fearful, anxious or aggressive reaction to a pleasant one instead. It is done by associating the sight or presence of the undesired situation with a situation that the dog loves. For instance, every time before you leave the dog alone you could give him a puzzle toy stuffed with treats that will take him some time to finish.
  • Tire him out: Another trick is to exercise him just before you leave so he is too tired and will just sleep before being left alone.
  • No predeparture cues: Also predeparture cues like getting ready to leave like dressing up, etc can make a dog anxious causing him to pace, pant or whine. One solution to this approach is to teach your dog that when you get ready to leave, doesn’t always indicate that you are going to leave. This will reduce your dog’s anxiety because these cues won’t always lead to your departure.
  • Mentally exhaust him: Also exhausting him mentally before you leave with an activity such as ‘treasure hunt’ where you either hide his food treats or favourite toys would also be a good exercise.
  • Safe place: Crate training is also a good tool for dogs if they are taught that the crate is their safe place to be in when left alone.
  • Take professional help: However in some extreme cases of separation anxiety, it is always best to get in touch with a certified canine behaviourist who will help you modify your dog’s separation anxiety behaviour.

(Malaika Fernandes is a certified canine behaviourist & trainer (Northern Centre of Behaviour, UK) and is the director of Walk Romeo – Canine Training, Behaviour Modification, Grooming & Pet Sitting Services in Mumbai).

The right treatment…
“Separation anxiety among pets is commonly seen but not correctly understood. It is generally known that a pet parent tries to resolve such problems by hiring a dog trainer, assuming a fix lies in teaching the pet a new habit. But one also needs to consider the possibility of distress. To understand how one needs to deal with separation anxiety, it’s important to focus on underlying problems especially when an emotional reaction is triggered.
Treatment instead of teaching a new trick is a good way to start. For example – doing things that make a pet feel better rather than trying to teach him a different command. Techniques such as counterconditioning and desensitisation are known to be used by psychologists to treat separation anxiety. Here one tries to eliminate underlying issues or re-teaching things which require time and patience.  One also needs to rule out any medical problems or medicines as a cause of the same.”
– Sonya Kochhar, director, Canine Elite, New Delhi