Dealing With Separation Anxiety

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Whether your dog chews, urinates, howls or destroys household objects, this behaviour is upsetting for you and your dog. If this behaviour only happens when your dog is alone then it is probably due to anxiety. The fact is, dogs are pack animals and being left on their own does not come naturally to them. But with a little discipline (on your part) and lots of patience your dog can learn that being on his own is just part of the day's normal routine.

Crate training can be useful for some dogs (see article below). If your dog can feel content in a crate you can use it to help him feel safe when he is anxious or frightened, or to stop destructive behaviour if you are leaving him on his own.
Aromatherapy oils (article below) or DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheramone) can be useful for some dogs to help induce a calm state of mind.

For some dogs it may be enough to make alone time a positive experience by giving them a toy such as a kong stuffed with food as you leave. If your dog leaves it until you come home then take it away, so that your dog learns that he only gets the food if he eats it while he is alone. Taking your dog for a walk before he is left alone will also help him stay calm. For more anxious dogs you may need a little more patience and follow the steps below.

One of the biggest mistakes that most people make is to make loads of fuss of our dogs when they leave and on their return. That is what humans do, but dogs do not need to say goodbye. What you are actually doing when you make a fuss of your dog as you leave is bringing attention to the fact that you are leaving and that it is something to worry about (as your dog will no doubt pick up your feelings of concern) It may seem completely unnatural to us, but the kindest thing that you can do for your dog is to practice Cesar Milan's 'no touch, no talk, no eye contact' rule. If you just go about your business without talking to your dog and leave without saying goodbye you are teaching your dog that being alone is just part of his daily routine. Again on your return just walk in without making any fuss and ignore your dog until he calms down. This may be very difficult for you but your dog will thank you for it.

Your dog very quickly learns the cues that lead to you going out such as getting your coat and keys. While your dog is learning to feel safe alone it is a good idea to pick up your coat or keys whilst you are at home from time to time to help reduce the anxiety caused by these actions.
When teaching separation techniques you are aiming to keep your dog's level of anxiety low. He is going to display anxiety as you practice these techniques, but your aim is to keep it at a low level so that he is never reaching a state that will be counter-productive. Signs of anxiety in dogs include drooling, panting, pacing, barking, digging, hiding, flatulence, or urinating.

'Practice' leaving the house. Try going out and coming back in immediately several times a day until your dog stops displaying signs of distress. Gradually increase the time your dog is left, first 5 minutes, then 10, then 20, then half an hour up to a full 8 hours if necessary.
The ideal situation would be not to leave your dog on his own while he is learning these techniques. If you haven't got a friend or relative that could look after him while you are out then it would be worth considering doggy day care or a professional Pet Sitter until he has mastered the art of contentment in solitude.

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Crate Training

Short periods in a crate can be really useful for a dog who is displaying separation anxiety.  A crate can be used when you are doing something that you do not want your dog to be involved in, when people are visiting or if you are going out for a short period to relieve anxiety and/or to curb destructive behaviour.  Dog owners may feel mean at first shutting their pet in a cage.  It is like a ‘prison’, where their pets are locked in and miserable.  In fact, dogs would naturally choose an enclosed area to hide in for protection, as your dog shows you when he chooses to hide under the table or in a quiet corner.  Offering him a crate where he can feel sheltered will nurture those instincts and give your pet a safe haven, but it must be done in the right way.  If you immediately shut your dog in the crate and leave him there alone he will get stressed and then he will always associate the crate with a bad experience.  Allowing your dog to use the crate gradually will teach him that it is a positive experience.

Steps for crate training

  1. Put the crate in a draught free corner, where your dog can see you.
  2. Line the crate with a favourite blanket or bed to encourage him to think of the crate as somewhere to relax.
  3. Try taking your dog for a long walk before training so that he is calm.
  4. Put treats or toys in the crate so that he associates the crate with positive things.  Put the treats in the crate just inside the door so that he has to go in the crate to retrieve them.
  5. Gradually move the treats further into the crate until your dog is comfortable laying in the crate.  Your dog should quickly learn that the crate is a safe place and use it to lay down. Do not shut your dog in the crate until you are sure that he is comfortable using it with the door open.  
  6. When your dog has been using the open crate for a couple of days, offer him a bone or chew and shut the door for a few minutes while he is occupied, or shut the door while your dog is asleep.  When he notices the closed door, open it and give him lots of praise.
  7. Repeat above until he seems comfortable then leave him in the crate for a few minutes, gradually increasing the periods that he is shut in the crate until you are both confident with periods up to a couple of hours.
  8. Once your dog is content using the crate with you present you can begin to leave the house.  Start by going out the door and returning immediately.  Do not give your dog lots of fuss as you leave or return.  Repeat this until your dog does not become anxious, then leave for a few minutes, gradually increasing time until he is content left for a couple of hours.
  9. Puppies are primed for learning new techniques and crate training may be very fast.  You may need more patience with an older dog who has learnt conditioned behaviours from his life to date.
  10. Never use the crate as punishment and never discipline your dog whilst he is in the crate.  He needs to see the crate as a positive experience and a safe haven.

Aromatherapy Oils

Many essential oils are safe for dogs and can be invaluable in the care of anxious animals (and their owners).  When using essential oils around pets it is worth bearing in mind that your dog's sense of smell is far superior to ours. The oils must be well diluted and you should watch your dog's reaction to ensure that the smell is not bothering him.

If you have cats in your home you need to be very careful which oils that your cat has contact with as many essential oils are toxic to cats.  

Lavender and Roman Chamomile are two essential oils that are calming and safe for both cats and dogs.  

Essential oils must be well diluted.  I recommend 1 drop of oil to at least 30 drops of olive oil or sunflower oil for dogs.  Applied to paws, ears or the back of the neck they can help to induce a state of calm.

Tranquility Oil Blend to reduce anxiety in Dogs

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Valerian and lavender oils have been shown in clinical trials to reduce anxiety and depression in humans.  Fortunately, both these oils are safe for dogs too and can be really useful to improve your dog's mental health or simply to help in frightening situations.

This blend is specifically designed for anxiety, depression, fear or traumatic events in dogs, but it can be used in humans if you can bear the smell of valerian! This product is not suitable for cats.

Always spot test before using aromatherapy products.
Put a drop behind the ears, on paws or under 'armpits' to achieve the best effects from the relaxant oils.

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