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Understanding and preventing separation anxiety

With many dog owners spending more time at home recently, we are expecting to see an increase in separation anxiety issues once they can return to work

01 June 2020, at 7:05am
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Trainer and behaviourist for Agria Pet Insurance, Carolyn Menteith, gives an insight into separation-related behaviour problems and advice you can give owners to help them avoid issues when their dog is left home alone once more.

For most dogs, having us at home far more is a joy. They still get their daily walks – maybe several – and they have the company of their beloved owners 24/7. Providing they can get the exercise they need, for dogs, lockdown has been a win-win situation.

For puppies, this can be the perfect time to train them, get them used to their new life and begin the bonding process that will last for life. Owners can concentrate on toilet training, playing interactive games, starting to work on training exercises – and just have some relaxing home time building their relationship with their new best friend.

There is however one big potential problem. What hap-pens when we return to our regular lives? What happens when dogs who are used to having us around all the time must spend time home alone?

If we are not careful, we are creating issues that will last long after the lockdown is over. Separation anxiety is one of the hardest behaviour problems to cure or manage – and for a dog who doesn’t have the coping skills to deal with home alone time, life can be anything from an occasional misery to a constant state of anxiety and stress that affects their entire life. Thankfully, it is also one of the easier behaviour problems to prevent.

Separation-related behaviour problems occur when the dog doesn’t have the coping skills to be alone or without their owner. It is like a human panic attack - involuntary and highly distressing. Every instinct in their body tells them that being alone is a source of anxiety or fear - because they’ve never been taught that it is “safe” and that it’s just part of the life of a companion dog.

Teaching a dog home-alone coping skills is a crucial part of socialisation and habituation – but it’s something that owners often neglect in their desire to create a strong bond with their dog. Whether you have a puppy or an older dog, it is important to spend time working on this while you are at home more than usual, to ensure that your dog is happy when everything goes back to normal.

Teaching home alone skills

  1. The aim is to teach your dog that being on their own is safe and even enjoyable, so when you do leave them, leave them something tasty or fun to do
  2. Start from as soon as you begin your life together – or if you haven’t – start today
  3. Prevent your dog following you everywhere all the time using a stairgate and give your dog a treat while you’re gone. The aim is that they look forward to your absences, not worry about them
  4. Start small... Give your dog their dinner and leave the room for a minute – and slowly build up this time. They are slowly learning that good things can happen while you are not there.
  5. Try scatter-feeding so they can learn that good things can and do happen when you are not there
  6. Use an interactive toy (like a Kong) - and leave them the other side of a stairgate while they work out how to get their food out of the toy
  7. Once you know they are happy, very slowly build up the length of time you leave them. If you go too quickly, you’ll only teach them that you keep vanishing for ages and it is scary!
  8. Use a webcam to spot any signs of separation-related behaviours. If you do, consult an accredited behaviour professional with experience in separation anxieties for help. These problems do not go away on their own – and usually get worse
  9. Remember, training home alone skills are just as important as toilet training or any other life skill

Policies from Agria Pet Insurance include cover for help from a qualified behavioural therapist. To find out more about working with Agria, including offering your clients 5 Weeks Free insurance, contact the Agria Vet Team on 03330 30 83 90, or online