As highly social animals, dogs aren’t naturally used to spending time alone. While many dogs readily adjust to having their family ‘pack’ scattered throughout the day, some dogs can become stressed out. Separation anxiety is characterised by behavioural signs of distress such as persistent barking, destructiveness, attempting escape or being overly clingy. Without proper treatment, separation anxiety usually gets worse, so it’s important to take action as soon as possible.
There are four main natural non-drug solutions you can try to ease your dog’s anxiety and teach them to be calm and relaxed in your absence:
- Ignore your dog. Try to make your departures and arrivals as low-key and as calm as possible. This is best achieved by completely ignoring your dog for 20 minutes before you leave and when you arrive back home. Even if your dog is barking, jumping up and running around in excitement, try not to interact with them until they have calmed down. This includes no patting, no talking to, or even looking at your dog. Be consistent with this lesson, so your dog learns that your comings and goings are no cause for fuss or alarm.
- Provide distraction. It’s important that your dog starts to associate their alone time with good things happening – like receiving a treat. While you’re preparing to leave, give your dog an appropriate food treat that will keep them busy. Good options include treat balls or Kong toys which your dog has to work at, a long-lasting chew toy, or a raw bone. Remove the treats when you return home so your dog learns to associate these positive treats with your absence.
- Daily exercise. Regular exercise provides your dog with mental and physical stimulation, and helps them to expend excess energy. Try to walk your dog before you leave, so that it’s more likely they’ll sleep while you’re away. Mix up the route you follow each day and visit different destinations to engage all your dog’s senses. Aside from at least one 20 minute walk each day, find some time to play a game with your dog. Choose an interactive game such as Fetch or Tug-of-War to maximise the fun. Give your dog access to a rotating selection of toys, so there’s always something new and interesting to occupy them.
- Vary your routine. Dogs are very good at tapping into your routine, noticing what actions you follow whenever you’re preparing to leave. This might include things like putting on a certain pair of shoes, picking up your car keys, or packing your bag. As soon as your dog notices you going through these motions, they may become anxious. Break the association between those cues and your departure by doing all your usual preparatory actions without actually leaving. For example, pick up your keys throughout the day without leaving the house, or pack your bag but then sit down. Over time your dog will learn that those cues no longer predict your departure, and that they’re no cause for alarm.
When seeking to treat your dog’s separation anxiety, it’s important to consult your vet to obtain specialist support and advice, as in severe cases medication may be required. However, by applying the above advice with patience and consistency for several weeks, it’s likely you’ll notice a reduction in anxious symptoms, and have a much happier, well-balanced dog.