Separation anxiety as a syndrome
A syndrome is a set of recurring symptoms that can be repeatedly associated with each other due to their similarity and the fact that they occur together. Because no measuring methods are available, a medical diagnosis cannot be made on the basis of these symptoms, which means that treatment is based on the dog owner’s description of their dog’s symptoms. Even though studies indicate that genetic factors may influence separation anxiety, it cannot be established as an official diagnosis in medical terms. According to current research, very little is known about separation anxiety.
Symptoms of separation anxiety
The most common symptoms of separation anxiety that may occur with dogs during separation include:
- destructive behavior around exit points
- escape attempts via doors and windows
- vocalization (barking, howling)
- sweaty paws
- refusing to eat
- urinating indoors
- destroying large property items (e.g., a sofa)
In addition, some symptoms occur when the dog is not alone:
- anxiety begins even before the owner leaves
- hyper-attachment to a person
- reacting when the particular person leaves, even if left in the company of other people
Dogs suffering from separation anxiety react almost without exception to signs indicating that the owner is preparing to leave, and some individuals may try, even aggressively, to prevent the owner from leaving. Another common symptom is hyper-attachment, which means that the dog follows the owner as much as possible, even in the house. For these dogs, so-called micro-separations can also be very difficult to handle, including minor signs of the owner not paying attention to the dog, or the owner going away for a short while such as to take a sauna bath in the home. The range of symptoms and causes of separation anxiety are multi-dimensional, but as a rule, separation anxiety involves extreme anxiety and the urge to follow the owner even from a locked apartment or when confined in a fenced-in area.
Impacts of change of home
The intensity of separation anxiety, and the time when it begins, have been found to be linked to the age at which the dog has moved to the current home. The probable reason for these results is that puppies who have stayed with the breeder longer than usual may not have experienced many useful things at the vital socialization stage, and may find various things frightening in the new home more often than other puppies. Separation anxiety is also more common in dogs of all ages that have been rehomed, than in dogs that have lived in the same home since puppyhood. It remains open to speculation whether these research results are due to the fact that dogs with separation anxiety end up being rehomed more easily than other dogs. Even other correlations can be detected, since a study found that 58.8% of dogs with separation anxiety were also fearful in other ways, and 49.5% of these dogs suffered from a fear of noises. Fearful dogs with noise phobia also end up being rehomed more easily than balanced dogs.
Howling brings mother back
From the viewpoints of evolution biology and survival of the species, separation anxiety is a useful, innate behavior pattern. In the world of wolves, it was a threat for the pup if the mother went too far away while the pup was still very young. At that stage of the pup’s development, it was vital to stop the mother from leaving, and that was done by calling the mother back. Due to the innate response in the pup’s nervous system to such a situation, the pup reacts with a so-called distress call to the mother. A distress call is a nervous vocalization that the mother reciprocates by returning to her pup in distress. This innate behavior of the mother and pup kept the pups safe.
The purpose was also to form a social relationship between the pup and its mother, possibly for life, to make life possible in a pack. In nature, and in a wolf pack, wolves are automatically exposed to separation from an early age to an extent suitable for the pup’s nervous system and in relation to the pup’s development in other respects. While a wolf grows, becoming stronger and more capable to cope and survive, it also becomes more independent. Pet dogs, in turn, do not always have the possibility to be exposed to separation to a suitable extent in relation to the dog’s level of development. As consequence, instead of growing into a brave and capable adult dog, the individual dog may become increasingly dependent on people.
A number of studies in the 1970s to 1990s found that in the dog’s brain, separation anxiety is triggered via an independent motivational pathway, which is why unlike other fright experiences, separation anxiety does not necessarily activate the areas of brain associated with fear. In the studies, other experiences of fear (such as loud noises during separation) have even lessened the behavior associated with separation anxiety momentarily. This has been thought to correlate with the distress call theory so that pups do not disclose their whereabouts by emitting distress calls when a predator or other threat is nearby. However, based on research data, it cannot be stated that the state of fear associated with separation anxiety would in any way be less severe than other fears. Even though during an individual case of separation, other fear may dampen the dog’s behavior related to separation anxiety momentarily, in the long term, the impact strengthens such behavior. This is because the overall sense of security is affected.
Classification of problems
Even though separation anxiety is classified apart from other separation-related problems, in terms of intensity and origin, separation-related problems that emerge over time due to other reasons may begin to resemble it. For this reason, all kinds of problems related to separation are currently processed as a whole, as one large category that can be divided into sub-categories. For example, a study conducted in 2020 divided various separation-related problems in dogs into four main categories, each of which could be further divided into three sub-categories, respectively.
Regardless of the category of the problem, it usually takes at least 10 months to remedy separation-related problems associated with fear and anxiety in dogs. Separation-related problems associated with welfare are not necessarily any faster to remedy than problems related to intense fear. It is recommended that from the beginning of training, at least one year is allocated to the training process to enable making the dog feel secure and alleviate the fear of being left alone. Depending on the individual situation of the dog, the treatment period may last up to 1–2 years.
History of dog species explains causes of separation-related problems
Survival in nature requires the species constantly to find better ways to cope in the habitat. The domestication of dogs has been studied to some extent, but it is still unclear when and where dogs have become domesticated – the most likely scenario is that it happened in many places at different points in time. An educated guess is that wolves developed into village dogs that found food thrown away by people. These animals started to look like dogs and live in close contact with humans only some 14,000 years ago. It is likely that breeding of dogs for various purposes began around the same time. However, based on DNA comparisons, it is estimated that the genetic divergence of dogs from wolves into a separate species began as early as 135,000 years ago. This theory has been criticized due to the lack of fossil findings.
Domestication made the species more puppylike
Domestication has transformed wolves that manage in the wild into dogs that are dependent on humans. As consequence of becoming more puppylike, dogs have transformed from wolves that manage in the wild into domesticated, developmentally handicapped wolves (neurocristopathy). This can also be called domestication syndrome: the size of a dog’s brain is only around 64% of the size of a wolf’s brain, because modern dogs do not need similar survival skills. A newborn dog’s brain is similar to that of a wolf, but the development of a dog’s brain stops at the development stage of approximately a four-month old wolf puppy. In some respects, the development stage of dogs can be said to be that of a wolf puppy.
When dogs developed into humans’ closest working partners, the behavior and appearance of dogs changed. Dogs also started to reproduce at quite a young age in physiological terms, when people selected the most pleasant ones among them, that was, the individuals that displayed the most puppylike features. Over time, these dogs also began to retain the puppylike properties. On top of the behavioral changes, the dogs also got droopier ears and funny colorations. This phenomenon is know as juvenilization at adult age (neotenization). Due to this, for example, the socialization period of dogs is longer than that of wolves, even though wolf pups are fearless to a certain degree. Thousands of years ago, people kept wolf pups, too, as pets in their camps.
As early as in the 1860s, Charles Darwin already attempted to study the origin of dogs’ puppylike development and the strange changes in their appearance, but it all remained a mystery at that time. Later on, the neural crest theory of Adam Wilkins and his research team, from 2015, has been considered convincing. The neural crest is a cell structure that develops in dogs at the embryonic stage. It regulates, among other things, factors that influence fear, such as the functions of the dog’s sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) and the release of stress hormones. Wilkins’ team found that the neural crest develops considerably more slowly in dogs than in wolves. In practical terms, this means that at puppy age, dogs have a longer phase than wolves in which they familiarize themselves boldly with new things.
The impact of being puppylike on separation
The physiological changes in dogs caused by domestication have influenced the relationship between people and dogs in a quite unexpected way. Studies have indicated that today, the primary subject causing separation anxiety in dogs is a person, and the presence of another dog does not usually alleviate the symptoms of separation anxiety at all. In studies, dogs have also identified the smell of the person who raised the dog up to 4‒9 years after being separated. This period of time is longer than usual compared with identifying the smell of the dog’s mother after being separated. On the other hand, some studies have presumed dogs’ social and olfactory memory to be even lifelong, regardless of the subject.
In any case, according to current knowledge, separation anxiety is based on an exceptionally strong attachment particularly between dogs and humans. It is possible that the fact that brain development in dogs stops at the level of approximately a four-month-old wolf explains this development, as very young wolves are totally dependent on the care of more mature wolves.
Other separation-related problems
In addition to problems related to fear and intense separation anxiety, there are other separation-related problems. The challenge in identifying a type of behavior is that similar behavior may be caused by different reasons in different dogs. There are also large numbers of borderline cases in which the original reason for the behavior is difficult to establish. In order to start training, it is not necessary to classify the problem specifically as separation anxiety or another type of problem, but the behavioral traits must be understood to a certain degree in order to select suitable training methods.
Behavior that is originally caused by factors other than fear can begin to resemble separation anxiety over time. The common denominator for various problems is that the behavior triggered by separation in the dog is something that the owner finds problematic. Sometimes dogs can also express so-called silent separation anxiety, including constantly waiting by the front door or heavy panting. These are not necessarily problematic for the dog owner, but all types of anxiety during separation always affect the dog’s welfare.
Problems relating to separation anxiety may differ. Some dogs may react particularly to being left on their own, but it is not uncommon for dogs to react when a certain person departs. In that case, the company of other people will not necessarily alleviate the dog’s distress. That is why it is important to find out whether your dog’s problem is due to separation from a certain family member, or whether it is more comprehensively related to the fear of being alone. Treatment forms differ depending on the type of problem.
Common symptoms of separation-related problems include destroying objects and barking. Unlike with separation anxiety, the destructive behavior does not usually focus on exit points, such as doors or windows, but other property in the apartment. For example, the dog may look for food or other items on tabletops, or chew on the sofa. The dog’s behavior may also be restless as a whole, and it may be difficult for the dog to settle down to rest. Variation in behavior is typical for separation-related problems: owners often say that the dog reacts unpredictably to separation. On some days, the dog may sleep all day, or half of the time, and on other days, the dog may be restless all the time when alone on its own.
Problems related to welfare or the dog’s skills
It may be difficult for the owner to understand the emotional state the dog is in during separation, and the factors that actually influence the dog’s behavior. Dogs are social animals and, in their everyday life, may experience social deprivation due to lack of attention or closeness, which may manifest itself as nervousness when left alone. For many dogs, the reason may be in their defective skills in the routine of rest. The dog has not necessarily learned that when people leave, it is time to rest. In other words, when people prepare to leave, the reaction triggered in the dog’s nervous system should be one that prepares the dog for rest. The routine of rest is exactly what the words mean: knowing how to rest and routinely repeating the behavior. If the dog’s life only includes occasional periods of separation, some individuals may learn to be on their own only at certain times of day, or once a day. Dogs may also begin to show separation-related symptoms due to the lack of a routine, after the owner has been at home for several days, or when the owner has changed the way they leave home.
With regard to training, it is important to find out whether the reason for the problem behavior is a defect in the dog’s skills or in its welfare. It is possible that the dog does not know how to settle down to rest, or that the dog is unable to rest, for example, due to health reasons. It is also common that dogs do not have enough stimulating activities in their everyday life, or such activities are prohibited when the owner is present, so that the best possible moment to show frustration is when the owner is away. The dog’s life can also be too full of stimulation, making it difficult to calm down even though the dog is overfatigued.
Welfare problems and the dog’s skills of coping with separation are dealt with in more detail in the following chapters. Before that, let’s first take a look at two important groups: puppies and old dogs.
Separation-related problems at puppy age
When identifying the sphere of separation-related symptoms, it is good to bear in mind that even studies on the subject prefer to exclude puppies under the age of 6 months, because at puppy age, dogs’ skills related to the routine of being on their own are insufficient, they may chew on things because their gums are itchy, and their knowledge of objects suitable for chewing is still inadequate.
In most cases, puppies chewing on things in the home is not related to separation anxiety. The more likely reason is that when the puppy is on its own, it is possible to chew on things without anyone coming to say no. This is not a sign of the dog being devious, but caused by behavioral law: the dog learns to know the circumstances in which a certain behavior is acceptable and when it is not. Instead of prohibiting your puppy from chewing, you should teach them at a young age what is good to chew, by providing a lot of options that your puppy likes. This way, problems can be avoided when the puppy is on its own, as they focus on chewing things that are ok to chew. If you see your puppy chewing something that shouldn't be chewed, replace that item with something more interesting, such as a toy or a bone. When the dog comes to you to see what it is all about, you can give them the thing you have chosen. Things that the puppy has chewed on before can be protected or removed to make the training easier. Consistently repeating this pattern helps you establish a routine for your dog on what can be chewed, and they will learn to avoid other things naturally in the future.
You must slowly start leaving your puppy on its own. To choose a suitable training method, see the chapter High-quality separation training is based on relaxation at the end of this article. Read more about how to teach, train and socialize your puppy in our article Puppy socialization and separation training.
Even though it is not very common, puppies can show symptoms of separation anxiety from a young age. In addition to genetic factors, puppies learn while still with the breeder and may inadvertently have experienced situations that are unfavorable in terms of separation training already before moving to their new homes. If the puppy is prone to separation anxiety, separation training may be challenging from the start, and this case, it is easy to resort to unfavorable quick fixes in training, which will only enhance the puppy’s fear of separation. Nowadays it is well known that in all cases, it is best to refrain from applying puppy training advice that encourages you, for example, to leave a howling or barking puppy on its own, under the pretense that “the puppy will get used to it in the end”. Anxiety can never decrease if it is increased, so do protect your puppy from bad experiences already at a young age. It is also unheard of that separation-related symptoms could be alleviated spontaneously, with age, without careful training.
Senior dogs and separation-related problems
Owners of dogs over 10 years old often contact professional trainers because their dog has started to suffer from separation-related problems. Symptoms are caused in particular by Alzheimer’s (cognitive dysfunction) in senior dogs. This is due to many factors, including the dog forgetting skills learned previously in life. The good news is that if the changes in behavior are diagnosed by a veterinarian as being caused by cognitive dysfunction, medication can usually help in making the dog’s life easier.
In addition to changes in a senior dog’s brain due to aging, their health can deteriorate in many other ways. Many older dogs suffer from arthritis and dental issues, for example. If a senior dog starts to suffer from separation-related problems, an extensive health check is advisable to detect any underlying health-related reasons. When dogs suffer from health problems, they can show symptoms of separation-related problems but still be very playful, eat well, jump up carelessly and behave like a completely healthy dog in the owner’s opinion.
DO THIS: If you own an old dog that has started to show symptoms when left alone, have your dog thoroughly checked by a veterinarian.
Welfare factors and problem behavior
Dog behavior was long regarded to be a set of reactions that express individual dogs’ personal characteristics, and these were considered to be relatively unchanging. If the dog was timid or showed aggression, this could easily be interpreted, for example, as hunger for power or a bad structure of the nervous system. That is why changing such behavior by means of training was seen as difficult, and the methods used often involved things that undermined the dog’s welfare, such as a rattling can tied to a door handle to frighten the dog away when it jumped against the door. Luckily, modern research has provided us with more information about dogs’ personalities and factors that influence behavior. These days, altering dogs’ behavior focuses primarily on animal welfare and methods to influence that, and this has opened the door to high-quality training.
Dogs behave problematically because they attempt to adapt to an environment that is unsuitable for them. It may sound awful that your dog’s problem behavior may be related to welfare problems, but the issues in question here are not as simple as the basics: the dog must be fed, have drinking water available at all times, and be taken out for a walk three times a day. Most families with dogs take good care of these aspects. A more specific welfare issue that is more difficult to identify may, however, influence the dog’s problem behavior even if daily life is mostly in order. Some everyday solutions in the home may undermine an individual dog’s welfare but can be harmless or even pleasant for many other dogs. For example, an individual dog may enjoy playing ball and it may be a source of positive well-being effects in everyday life, while another dog may end up being overexcited and displaying problem behavior.
In addition to the dog’s breed and age, individual needs influence welfare. For example, a timid dog is afraid of passers-by. A timid dog may feel constantly worried about the day’s events, and its welfare can suffer, for example, due to the lack of a routine. Regular everyday life is not necessarily enough to establish a routine. Your dog may need more so-called supporting routines, invented by people, that make the environment more predictable and enhance the dog’s positive expectations from the environment. By adding regular, reward-based tasks to the dog’s daily routine, the dog may start to experience the environment as more manageable. This will make the dog’s attitude to the environment more optimistic. For instance, you can reward your dog every time you go for a walk, for example by having your dog jump on top of the same large rock or similar, and at the same locations every day. This will give your dog something positive to look forward to while out on a walk, and they will know better what is going to happen during the walk. For all individuals, regardless of the species, it is important to be able to influence their coping in the habitat. If there is absolutely no feeling of control, animals may feel insecure, and that can manifest itself in separation-related problems.
DO THIS: Can you think of any welfare factors that may influence your dog’s behavior? Does your dog have positive things to look forward to in everyday life, something that occurs consistently at the same time, or does your dog repeatedly experience exciting, surprising things?
When you manage to increase the amount of pleasure hormones in your dog’s body, and on the other hand, reduce stress levels, improved welfare is often reflected in the dog’s behavior when left alone, in the case of separation-related problems. Welfare factors may have a certain impact on separation anxiety and other fears, but they can never be the only way to alleviate the problem.
It is understandable if it sounds paradoxical at first that instead of the actual problem behavior, it is most important to focus on other welfare factors in all cases. Attention is paid to welfare factors because problem behavior is in most cases caused by other problems. Of course, training-related solutions are needed as well, but without a careful analysis of welfare and the required changes, training may prove fruitless. In order to succeed in training, it is important to find the underlying causes of problem behavior and treat them, and resolve them in a sensible order. This also makes it easier to monitor the training: if the dog’s welfare should be in order, but training proves challenging, you can take a closer look at the training and whether it is actually suitable for your dog. When welfare is failing, you have to consider, all at once, too many factors that affect training, and it is not possible to make the training easy and fluent.
Dogs’ welfare factors are reviewed in the following chapters. The key points of welfare are presented alongside concrete possibilities for resolving problems. The focal points of welfare presented in the chapters are considered to be necessary, for example, in DJ Mellor’s Five Domains model.
Survival: nutrition, environment and health
Food must be available and its quality and amounts must be appropriate, and the intake typical for the species. Good quality water must be available 24/7. Too high or low amounts of food, unsuitable food, excessive or too scarce availability of water, and force-feeding undermine welfare.
The easiest one to check among the welfare factors is to make sure that your dog eats high-quality food that is preferably cooked, or dried, to avoid the risk of diseases, and a suitable amount of food is available. For canines, it is important that they can search for food, dig the food out and chew it, so that the feeding takes time and provides stimulation.
Research results have shown that the neurotransmitter functions of a dog fed without mental stimulation can start to resemble the neurotransmitter functions of humans suffering from depression. This is natural, because in nature, canines spend most of their lives finding food, and that includes chewing, digging, tearing and separating edible and inedible foods from each other.
Due to species-typical behavioral needs, food placed available in a bowl at all times is particularly ill-suited to dogs. If your dog is an irregular or picky eater, your dog probably has welfare concerns, and when these problems are fixed, the appetite can be balanced. If mentally stimulating feeding does not stimulate the dog’s appetite, a dog that is off its food must be checked over by a veterinarian to find out the reasons for the loss of appetite. Even if your dog doesn’t seem to have an appetite, mealtimes must be regular even if your dog skips a meal every now and then. Fluent mealtimes that are pleasant for the dog at all times when food is served can be used as a welfare indicator. To improve appetite, all other welfare factors mentioned in this chapter must be taken care of and changes made if necessary. However, these changes should not be too sudden: you should keep up a new routine for at least a week or two before trying anything new. Feeding your dog with treats is not a suitable solution.
Mental stimulation with food works for all dogs. For example, you can soak kibble in the refrigerator and stuff a Kong toy with the moist kibble, and then freeze the Kong. Various types of dog porridges are also ideal for stuffing the Kong toy with. Many dogs enjoy searching for food among shredded paper in a cardboard box, and for others, a bundled towel is a better option. Some dogs love to shred cardboard. For example, milk cartons and the tubes inside paper towel rolls are ideal (Note! Toilet paper roll tubes that dissolve in water are not suitable for dogs.) It is easy to offer your dog more challenging tasks by folding several pieces of cardboard inside each other. If your dog swallows the cardboard, you should use other types of stimulation. Constantly changing the type of stimulation is a fundamental part of the stimulation process.
Each individual meal should take at least 10 minutes. Particularly if your dog is a picky eater, all feeding should provide mental stimulation. If a domestic dog cannot fulfill its species-specific needs, its appetite may suffer. If the species-specific needs are not fulfilled when eating, this often creates problems in other parts of life. When the dog is fed only using mental stimulation with food, changes in behavior can become visible as soon as in two weeks. Stimulation after a walk is also an ideal way to offer your dog the possibility to recover and calm down naturally from the outdoor activities. This method should be used particularly with dogs who return from walks in an active mood. Feeding your dog only after walks is recommended for reasons of gastrointestinal health and in the case of large dogs, to avoid the risk of gastric torsion in particular.
DO THIS: Offer all food to your dog so that it provides the dog with mental stimulation. Arrange stimulating mealtimes for your dog by arranging a 10-minute activity after walks. Vary the stimulation methods.
Dogs need an environment that is suitable for them to live in, in terms of adequate space, light, smells and sounds. Too high indoor temperatures can significantly undermine the welfare of Arctic breed dogs. Whether to keep the dog outdoors in an enclosure must be considered on a case-by-case basis, depending on the dog’s social needs and their ability to withstand cold. If necessary, attention must also be paid to the dog’s individual sensitivity to environmental factors: is the dog so timid that the living environment exposes them continuously to frightening situations? If the dog’s environment continuously overburdens the dog, it is possible that the dog cannot withstand the separation training process, which requires even more flexibility from the dog’s system.
Sleep and a place to sleep
At home, the dog must get enough sleep, up to 12–16 hours per day. In addition to sleep at night, this means that the dog needs several naps during the day. Dogs must have a peaceful and quiet place to sleep in, and some dogs need a place with little light. Dogs must have a dark place to sleep in, at least at night, and have peace and quiet. If the dog’s sleep-wake pattern is disturbed so that the dog does not sleep at night or stays awake at all times when the owner is at home, the dog has welfare problems. Moving regularly from one place to another during sleep time is an inherent feature in the dog species’ natural behavior, and that is why dogs must have several suitable places around the home in which to sleep. These places should be at least a few steps apart. It is natural for dogs to change the place they sleep in at about one-hour intervals. As this is an important behavioral and species-specific need for dogs, the possibility to change the place to sleep in must be taken into account even when the dog is alone.
DO THIS: Check the welfare factors related to your dog’s sleep, such as the amount of sleep, the number of places to sleep in and their location.
In addition to the physical environment, you should also pay attention to the soundscape your dog lives in. Does it facilitate a balanced life or is it stressful for your dog? For many dogs, an urban environment can be too burdening and scary, and dogs do not necessarily have the potential to adapt to the environment provided. Not all dogs are able to get enough rest, for example, in the busy life of a family with children. If the dog is constantly scared, or feels tired or anxious all the time due to sounds in the environment it lives in, the environment must be changed. Some dogs living in families with children benefit from a place to rest in a separate room behind a dog gate. Dog gates are recommended because, for many dogs, closed doors do not enable them to rest.
You can also modify the soundscape when your dog is alone. For example, with the search words Through a Dog’s Ear, you can find music that has been scientifically optimized for dogs, and you can try it at no extra charge if you have a Spotify subscription. You can play this music for your dog first in other situations related to rest and then test whether it improves the dog’s capacity to rest when alone. Radio or television may also be beneficial for some dogs, but not for others, as they can keep some individuals awake. If your dog is particularly sensitive to environmental stimuli, you can test white noise tapes combined with music, as white noise masks background noise. Ready-made white noise tapes with classical music are also available.
DO THIS: Observe your dog to see whether its rest is often interrupted due to background noise. Provide your dog with other, more peaceful possibilities to rest as necessary.
Predictability and surprises
From the dog’s viewpoint, the environment should be sufficiently predictable. Dogs may feel stressed if they do not know what the things around them mean, or what is going to happen next. A dog that suffers from anxiety due to an unpredictable environment, unnoticed by people, may also suffer from separation-related problems, and that is why, at the beginning of training, the focus should be on planning everyday life. For example, it may be wise to remove the doorbell if children’s friends ring the doorbell many times a day and this makes the dog nervous. If you are prepared for a bit more effort, you can choose to train your dog to tolerate the sound of the doorbell and/or to welcome visitors calmly.
Many dogs detest routine care measures such as trimming the nails or brushing the coat, and if these appear suddenly in everyday life, the dog may be on alert at all times. Training helps with this type of anxiety, as well. Even though it may seem tolerable to you, from the human viewpoint, that, for example, trimming your dog’s nails takes two people holding the dog in place by force, from the dog’s viewpoint, such situations can be distressing and can cause constant mental harm for the dog and result in a loss of trust in you, the members of the dog’s family. The fear of being handled increases with every unpleasant experience and may also begin to manifest itself in care measures that have previously been unproblematic.
DO THIS: Think about the unpleasant and surprising things your dog experiences in its environment and how you can influence them.
Health-related factors have a major influence on dogs. When dogs feel well, they feel healthy and strong, and able to defend themselves when faced with potential danger. If you have no specific knowledge of your dog’s state of health, you should consider health issues critically. Very many dogs play, eat well, run hard and jump lightly even if they are not healthy. Health problems may also be challenging for owners to identify because the behavior of your own dog becomes the standard for you. Health concerns can be insidious and affect dogs’ behavior in unpredictable ways. There is reason to suspect that something is wrong with your dog’s health if the problem behavior related to separation is either very intense, or varies from separation to separation, or your dog behaves problematically in other areas of life, as well. Aggressive behavior, in particular, definitely indicates that you need to have your dog examined by a veterinarian.
The most common symptoms of health problems in dogs:
- Changes in appetite, or continuous loss of appetite
- Frequent panting not connected to physical exercise
- Continuous licking of lips or licking of air
- Repeated shaking, for example after a certain movement of the body
- Dilated eyes or intense squinting
- Labored breathing, increased heart rate
- Changes in the dog’s posture and movements (e.g., pacing in small dogs, also called the camel walk)
- Excessive drinking
- Licking, biting or continuous cleaning of paws
- Stopping while walking or running
- The dog does not stretch or stretches more than before
- Aggressive behavior
- Keeping close to the owner intensely (in many cases, this behavior begins simultaneously with separation-related problems)
- Limping, kicking the air with one leg, or skipping a step in motion or, for example, after jumping
- Pulling forward on walks. The dog may pull hard on the leash or, when released from the leash, may start to run as fast as possible. This is often associated with the dog being uncontrollable, which, in turn, is associated with the intense hormone rush to alleviate the dog’s pain. For example, adrenaline alleviates pain.
- Excessive fatigue or hyperactivity
- Changes in movements. For example, the dog cannot turn its head to the side properly, the dog’s posture is not straight, the dog no longer displays familiar postures or sleeps in the usual places, the dog does not like to sit or lie down or do something else that it has done with ease before.
- Retiring to sleep in a corner or hideaway
- Unwillingness to jump or a desire to jump at high speed
- The dog is unable to walk on stairs or finds it difficult at a slow pace
- Problems with training related to hobbies or everyday life – it is difficult for the dog to concentrate
- Defecating several times on walks or, for example, squatting down to urinate but getting up without doing it
- Problems with house training
- Constant scratching of skin
- Turning the muzzle toward the stomach constantly
- Problematic behavior. A health examination comes first, before training can start, no matter what the problem is: separation-related problems, pulling on the leash, more barking or other unwanted behavior.
Illnesses may also undermine the dog’s welfare due to recurrent appointments with the vet, which the dog may find unpleasant. If your dog must see the vet repeatedly and begins to get anxious due to the appointments, you can ask the vet clinic whether you can visit so that no procedures are conducted.
DO THIS: If your dog has not been thoroughly examined, do not assume that your dog is healthy. Instead, make an appointment for a comprehensive veterinary examination. Ask the vet to check joint movement carefully and take standard blood tests.
Equipment and muscular strength
All equipment must be suitable for your dog, because unsuitable equipment and muscular tension may make the dog nervous. For example, if the dog pulls on the leash while wearing a collar, it is harmful for physical health and probably also for mental health, even if the owner does not feel that way at first glance. On walks, dogs must wear equipment that is not too tight but of the right size, so that they can exercise in a relaxed way with nothing on the body that causes tension. For example, a Flexi leash should not be used with a collar because that combination puts pressure on the dog’s neck. A choke collar is not usually suitable for walks, because when the dog pulls, the collar tightens, and whenever the dog makes a sudden movement toward something interesting, the collar may get so tight that the dog cannot breathe. All kinds of collars damage the dog’s cervical spine when the dog yanks on the leash. The best option recommended for walking your dog includes a harness of a suitable size, and a 2–3 meter non-flexible leash. If the equipment is not of the right size, it may affect the dog’s movements and cause muscular problems, particularly if the dog pulls on the leash. If the dog pulls on the leash, you should consider the reasons for this behavior in terms of the dog’s welfare needs, such as exercise and stimulation, and if necessary, get help to train the dog to pull less on the leash.
Dogs’ muscles must be taken care of, in the same way as people’s. You can massage your dog lightly (not in the neck area) if your dog seems to find the massage pleasant. You should also make sure that your dog does not start running while the muscles are cold and that each outing ends with a walk to help recovery.
DO THIS: Check that your dog’s equipment is suitable for the purpose. Prevent pressure caused by pulling, not only by choosing suitable equipment but also by way of enhancing welfare and training.
Behavioral possibilities: exercise and outdoor activities, sexual needs, social relationships
Exercise and outdoor activities
Most dogs like to have the possibility to go on adventures in new environments and to move freely every day in a safe way. In addition to an empty dog park enclosure, many dogs benefit from exercise off leash in forests, when that is allowed. If your dog is brave, the walks should include the possibility for adventures in both familiar and new environments. If your dog is timid, it is best to restrict exercise in exciting new environments. All dogs, regardless of the environment, need diverse and regular exercise.
A high-quality walk can include a calm start, a high-pace mid section and a calm finish. During a good walk, the dog should have the chance to sniff, climb, move at a high pace and more slowly, and play training games. A walk that comprises walking and sniffing only is not sufficient to fulfil the species- and breed-specific needs of most dogs. You can make the walks more diverse by encouraging your dog to climb on rocks and tree stumps, training your dog to go around trees or encouraging your dog to dig holes in the ground. Many dogs are inspired to dig if you start pawing the ground yourself. Dogs usually enjoy searching for treats in challenging forest terrain, and that is a form of calm movement that supports deep muscles.
One rule of thumb that applies to the amount of exercise is that if your dog is repeatedly very agitated when going out, your dog is probably getting too little exercise or the quality of the exercise is unsuitable for your dog. Excessive outdoor exercise or stimulation during the exercise can be tiring for the dog, and such fatigue may turn into overstimulation.
Some types of high-pace exercise can also overstimulate the dog. One of the most common causes of overstimulation is playing fetch with a ball or a stick. Playing fetch increases activity in the dog’s system, and the physiological reactions may even be similar to the over-excitement the dog experiences when alone. In such cases, hyperactivity in the body may become more common. Instead of repeatedly playing fetch, you can try pulling games that are tiring for dogs. If your dog does not seem to be eager to play this, there are many ways to inspire your dog. You can swing the toy from side to side slowly, pull it on the ground away from your dog or run away holding the toy. It is recommended that you interrupt the play at times and ask your dog to sit or lie down and calm down for a short while, and when that is accomplished, the play continues with the toy. This way, you can include calm elements in the play sessions.
Dogs’ exercise should be evenly distributed during the time the dog is awake. If the dog’s exercise only focuses on one time every day, or the intervals between walks are too long, or if the morning walk is very short, it is likely that the lack of exercise affects welfare. It is recommended that exercise takes place three or at most four times a day, and the duration is the same, or only one of the walks is longer. Staying outside the home in the yard does not usually provide enough exercise for pet dogs, and they need to be taken for a walk in the surroundings of the home at least. A good rule of thumb is to take your dog for a walk three times a day and, for healthy adult dogs, even the shortest walk should be at least half an hour long.
DO THIS: Check the amount and content of exercise your dog gets. Is the amount of exercise suitable and is the content meaningful?
Hypersexuality can also be a stress factor for dogs. The amount and type of sniffing usually tells a lot about your dog’s welfare: when your dog’s welfare is in order, the dog is calm enough to sniff during walks, but not obsessed with the smells. Obsessive sniffing is often associated with the hormonal functions of male dogs, and if the dog licks the urine of other dogs while sniffing, or is frothing at the mouth, it is sensible to consider neutering. The needs of an unneutered dog remain unfulfilled and the dog experiences the environment as restrictive. Because you cannot let your dog fulfill its needs without restrictions, neutering is recommended for health reasons, physical and mental health alike, unless you intend to use your dog at stud. However, you should know that neutering a male dog fearful of a variety of things may increase the unwanted behavior related to fear and uncertainty. This is a consequence of changes in hormonal activity, which is why you should consult a professional before neutering a challenging or insecure dog. If your dog is balanced in other respects and you can assume that sudden hormonal variations will not affect your dog negatively, you can test a hormone implant before the final decision to neuter.
Not all behavior interpreted as sexual is related to sexual behavior. For example jumping on the back of other dogs (so-called humping) is often interpreted incorrectly. You hear all sorts of interpretations ranging from attempts to dominate to attempts to mate, but in most cases, this behavior is caused by stress. If your dog jumps on other dogs or people in certain situations, it most likely finds the situation stressful and the bodily reaction to it causes this behavior. If your dog behaves like this in the dog park, with unknown visitors at home, or with other dogs in the family, you should find out what it is that makes the dog nervous in those particular situations and how to reduce stress. In most cases, the first thing to do is not to let your dog get into such stressful situations, but to allow your dog some distance, for example behind a dog gate.
DO THIS: In everyday life, observe your dog to see whether your dog behaves in a hypersexual way or shows unwanted behavior due to stress, which could indicate welfare problems.
Social interaction with other dogs
For many dogs, the possibility to engage in social interaction with other dogs is a critical welfare factor. With some dogs, barking at other dogs on leash starts from frustration caused by play being prevented, which can later turn into behavior that seems aggressive. In these cases, owners very easily start to isolate their dogs more, because they think their dog has started to show aggression to other dogs.
It would be good to establish social relations for your dog with other adult dogs that you know. If your dog’s behavior gives cause for concern, you can ask to meet a social and fearless, familiar dog friend in a dog park divided with a fence, so that both dogs are allowed to go off-leash separated by the fence. This way, you can observe how your dog starts to communicate with the other dog. If the communication includes social gestures, such as play-bows and relaxed body language, the two dogs can most likely be allowed to meet on the same side of the fence. If your dog is visibly tense, has hair raised, growls or barks several times when the dogs meet, it is obvious that your dog does not have the courage, or will, to meet this way. A professional trainer can help you with your dog’s insecurities.
If you take your dog to a dog park to meet other dogs, make sure at all times that your dog does not bully others and is not bullied by others. Most dogs find meeting many dogs at the same time too stressful, but this may go unnoticed by the owner. A dog that ends up fighting, repeatedly jumps on other dogs’ back, behaves dominantly or hides constantly behind the owner’s legs, should not be taken to a dog park.
DO THIS: Organize more social interaction with other dogs for your dog, if there has not been much of that before. In these situations, pay attention to safety and make sure that the occasion is pleasant for everyone.
Interaction with people
For many dogs, social interaction with people is the most important mainstay of life. Dogs that are domesticated pets love attention. It may be challenging for owners to know how much attention is enough for dogs, particularly as you still hear a lot of old-fashioned dog training advice, including that dogs should not be allowed on the bed or sofa, or that dogs should not go out of the door before people. Luckily, modern science has proven that such advice can be forgotten. However, you should bear in mind that if your dog is attached to people at all times, separation may become difficult. If your dog suffers from separation-related anxiety, forced, distressing separation should never be used as a training method for your dog.
It is particularly important for many dogs to be able to sleep in a tight pack with people and other dogs in the family. For this purpose, watching television on the sofa together in the evenings is highly suitable. If your dog suffers from a lack of tenderness and closeness, it is very likely to be reflected in the dog’s alone time. It is very regrettable that there is still advice going round that you should deprive your dog of attention, so that a dog suffering from separation anxiety should be kept away from people in the hope that this will make the dog more independent. Such dejection and ignoring will most likely make the dog depressed and evasive, which is very dangerous for the dog’s mental and physical welfare. This, in turn, will increase the risk of various types of problematic behaviors in the long term. There are no quick fixes for the treatment of separation anxiety and problems with separation.
So, your dog’s life should include a suitable ratio of both interaction and closeness with people, and training in being left alone with a proper routine. A happy dog is encountered genuinely in everyday life and people spend time with the dog in a relaxed manner, giving cuddles to the dog every day of the year. Most dogs need a lot of closeness and they easily feel anxious if people do not spend time with them, are often indifferent to the dog, or only engage in activities with the dog. You should spend time passively with your dog, like reading a book, watching television or sitting outside watching the world go by. At home, you should also allow your dog to learn that undivided attention is not always available, so that occasionally, you can ignore your dog’s attempts to, for example, sit on your lap. When your dog gives up and moves away, you can call the dog to you for a cuddle soon after the dog has settled down. This way, dogs can learn how to give up social interaction, learn an independent routine for rest, and get the attention they need. However, in terms of the dog’s welfare, it must be taken into account that dogs must have the possibility to influence their environment and get attention frequently at their own initiative.
DO THIS: Think about your dog’s social interaction with people. Does your dog have enough calming cuddle time and shared activities?
Today we know that animals have emotions and that even fish can feel pain. Studies of dogs’ emotions have shown that dogs experience all of the basic emotions that we do, including
- aggressive behavior
- sexual desire
Dogs cannot demonstrate emotions
Unlike people often think, dogs do not feel guilty or vindictive, or demonstrate emotions to people. Instead, dogs are skillful in interpreting situations, as they can, for example, smell the hormones on a person’s skin and respond to negative emotions in people. So, this is a question of learning. Dogs do not know right or wrong or social norms, but they learn which responses from people result in problems. That is why people think that dogs may “look guilty” or behave submissively or fawn on somebody.
For example, dogs learn that when they are alone, they can eat food taken from a tabletop and nobody comes to say no, but they do not feel that they are doing something wrong. However, dogs know that when people are present, the same behavior may cause problems. Unlike humans, dogs do not have an advanced cerebral cortex, and that is why dogs’ ability to knowingly evoke emotions in another individual or think what others think about them can be excluded. Dog owners’ incorrect conclusions about their dogs’ aims of gaining power, demonstrating emotions or gaining revenge, often result in the use of harmful training methods and increase problem behavior in dogs.
Fair allocation of resources
Dogs’ jealousy is still debated in the research sector, but for the time being, the best way to interpret the issue is rather behavior that is unequivocally associated with resources and the need for them. In this context, resources refer to everything that is important for dogs, such as a place to sleep, the company of humans, and food. For example, one dog may be particular about being cuddled as well whenever another dog in the family is cuddled. Due to the lack of research results, jealousy cannot be included as one of dogs’ basic emotions.
However, research has indicated that dogs can, to a certain extent, identify unequal treatment between themselves and another dog. Dogs notice if another dog is offered food for performing an assignment, and they are not treated the same way. Continuous competition over resources is stressful and may contribute to undermining the dog’s welfare. Whenever there are several dogs in the house, you should pay attention to the sufficient availability of resources and ensure at least that there is no deficiency. Here, resources mean, for example, social interaction with people, places to sleep, food, toys and bones. Even if dogs in the same family do not seem to argue about resources, you should make the resource-related situations of dogs as unambiguous as possible. For example, it is wise to feed two dogs on different sides of a gate so that they do not feel the pressure to eat as quickly as possible, unnoticed by their owner.
Joys and disappointments
Your dog’s emotions may inadvertently go unnoticed, unless you pay particular attention to them. The recommended routine is to keep a journal for two weeks of the situations when you see your dog become overjoyed about something, and when you see your dog get disappointed. This way, you can gain knowledge of how much your dog’s life includes uncertainty, amazement, joy and disappointment. If some points are left blank on certain days, you can be certain that you have not noticed the events.
What can be a disappointing moment for your dog? One of the most common such moments is when the owner gets dressed to go out, but your dog cannot come along even if they have thought they could. For this reason, it is advisable to teach your dog when they can come along. For example, you can put your dog’s harness on before you start getting dressed, at times when your dog can come along. This will give your dog less chance to anticipate or be disappointed in the situation. You can also teach your dog by repeating a certain phrase whenever you leave home without the dog, for example “you cannot come” or “I’m going shopping”. If your dog is genuinely afraid of separation, no words can help and, in such cases, you must stop leaving your dog on its own and teach the whole process carefully from the beginning.
A dog’s life should include lots of things to be happy and excited about. Nobody’s life is just fun and games, but as dog owners, we are responsible for the dog’s welfare and the emotions its days mainly include. Dogs can be trained to find almost everything pleasant, or at least predictable. The most important thing is that your dog experiences much more moments of joy than moments when we see the dog get upset. Fun exercises outdoors, predictable cuddles or play at the same time of day, or a new toy or bone can be significant for your dog’s emotions in everyday life. In many cases, cheerful visits with familiar people and dogs also cheer up a dog’s everyday life.
DO THIS: Keep a journal of your dog’s joys and disappointments. Can you spot more of one or the other, and can you influence your dog’s welfare by offering less of the negative and more of the positive emotions?
Another meaningful journal assignment is to study the selections and suggestions your dog gets to make in life. Can your dog suggest things in everyday life and how often is the response positive? Dogs’ typical suggestions include eating, cuddles, outdoor exercise and play. The intention is not to bring about a situation where your dog always gets the treats it wants by begging, or can always go into the back yard, as there are a huge number of other situations in which your dog can be allowed to suggest, such as letting your dog occasionally decide which way to go on walks. You can also respond positively more often when your dog invites you to play. In most cases, your dog’s suggestions show the state of welfare and what your dog needs most at that point in time. The suggestions should be taken as useful information about your dog’s welfare needs.
DO THIS: Find out how much your dog can influence daily life by making the required welfare factors happen. Can you increase the number of positive responses to your dog’s suggestions?
Be positive and beware of false interpretations
In the comprehensive management of dogs’ problem behavior it is crucial that, instead of false interpretations and treating your dog as a human, or inducing guilt, the owner takes a positive approach to the dog and strives to help. Dogs that display problem behavior are trying to adapt to an environment that is too challenging for them, which means that their behavior should primarily be interpreted as a call for help.
DO THIS: Consider your dog’s daily routine in detail. Write down what happens in your dog’s life and the times of day. Write down meticulously the contents of each routine and compare them with the welfare tips provided in this text, for example regarding good exercise. Consider what you should change and stick to the plan for at least 3 weeks before making any further changes, unless your dog’s behavior starts to get dramatically worse. Keep in mind, however, that changes to welfare always change behavior, and hyperactivity on one day does not mean that the changes you have made would not be good.
Fear is a harmful, intense experience for your dog
Fear is an unpleasant feeling of a threat being present, registered in your dog’s amygdala. Fear is not only an emotion but also a neurobiological and physiological phenomenon. For dogs, fear is a primal emotion that has helped the species survive. In nature, natural selection has eliminated the most daring individuals, but living among people has given even the most fearless individuals the chance to survive. Exposure to fear may be harmful even as a single experience, but recurring experiences of fear may, in the long term, cause permanent harm to your dog’s mental and physical health. Therefore, and in order to facilitate training, it is crucial that a dog suffering from fear of separation is not exposed to experiences of such fear.
The intensity of the fear response is context dependent and individual. During the fear response, more sugar may be released into the dog’s blood, its heart rate may increase, and blood may be transferred to the heart, brain and muscles, in particular. Adrenaline and other stress-related hormones may be released in the dog’s system. The dog becomes alert and ready for flight or fight. Fear, and panic in particular, is an extreme ordeal for the dog’s body.
The neurobiological and physiological factors associated with fear may also affect the dog’s other behavior patterns. Panskepp and colleagues (1984) studied the topic and found that when fear is activated in a certain part of the brain, the dog’s possibilities to engage in play suffer. A recurring fear response often also reduces activity in the parts of the brain that inspire play. This means that a dog recurrently exposed to the fear of separation is under the threat of falling ill due to the stress and of becoming less playful and overall more anxious.
The dog’s nervous system strives to maintain stability, a phenomenon known as homeostasis. If the impacts of fear are long-term and the body does not have the possibility to maintain homeostasis, functions related to both emotions and physiology may change. In the long term, the dog may develop chronic stress. Illnesses caused by fear-induced stress may include impairment of various glandular functions, weaker immunity or gastric ulcers. Stress is caused by the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system, and stress is needed for all everyday activities. However, excessive stress is harmful for both body and mind.
Studies have shown that various fear-related situations of separation increase the stress hormone levels in dogs. Of the various stress hormones, cortisol in particular can have an agitating effect on dogs for up to one week after a single incident. In addition, it has been found that when dogs get to greet their owners when they come home, their system produces more endorphin than usual. Endorphin is a neurotransmitter associated with the feeling of happiness, to which dogs can become addicted, combined with the relief caused by the owner returning home. Hysteria in dogs suffering from separation anxiety can also be enhanced by histamine being released into the system due to other physiological impacts of separation anxiety, activated by the exceptional levels of endorphin. Histamine can cause itchiness and, consequently, restlessness. So, in combination, the physiological symptoms related to separation anxiety may make the dog’s behavior obsessive, as the dog strives by all means not only to get rid of the cause of fear but also to get the endorphin fix when the owner returns. Such addictive behavior sounds far-fetched, but it aptly describes the situation, since in humans, research has proven that similar addiction to endorphin is associated with addiction to intoxicants. For the aforementioned reasons, intense neurotransmitter activity in the body may, if it recurs, aggravate the separation-related problems, even if the dog shows mild or moderate nervousness in the beginning.
Fear has a negative impact on the dog’s emotions and is harmful for separation training. Such training should take place in situations and environments in which the dog does not experience fear or anxiety. The old-fashioned guidelines of leaving the dog on its own and not coming in if the dog is barking are harmful for dogs. The dog’s problem-solving ability suffers when the dog tries to cope with a distressing situation. In that case, the dog is unable to receive feedback on barking and, while the owner waits outside for the barking to subside, the dog is more and more exposed to fear. Training should therefore focus on how to be alone without making the dog bark or feel even silent anxiety due to separation.
If the dog suffers from various types of fear, obsessive-compulsive disorders or general anxiety, medication to support the training should be considered. Medication may also be necessary to treat severe separation anxiety. It is important to consult a veterinarian specialized in the subject, to get suitable medication and to remember that antidepressants are not intended to be used without behavioral therapy. Incorrectly selected antidepressant medication, in most cases administered on the basis of too weak evidence, may cause more difficult and prolonged behavioral problems. When medication is prescribed, it must be ascertained that the problems are caused by separation anxiety and that considerable effort has been dedicated to the dog’s welfare factors.
DO THIS: Based on the description of symptoms in this article, and monitoring of your dog’s separation, establish whether your dog suffers from fear and whether it is possible for your dog to learn to be alone without stopping the unavoidable too long periods of separation in everyday life. If your dog is exposed to fear, stop leaving the dog on its own. If you can, consult a professional.
A dog’s behavior indicates the nature of the problem
Even though it is not essential to distinguish whether the reason for the dog’s behavior is separation anxiety as a syndrome or another type of separation-related problem, it is still important to understand the learning history related to the behavior and current emotions. Your dog’s background and behavior, and the reasons behind it, must be taken into account when selecting the methods for training and changing welfare factors. Any guidelines retrieved from online forums are most likely shots in the dark, and when you try “a bit of everything,” you undermine your dog’s routines, predictability and, in that way, welfare even more. Individual dogs' situations are so different that advice that suits one dog may aggravate another dog’s anxiety.
In the case of separation-related problems, a certain symptom does not unequivocally indicate a certain problem, but rough classification is possible. The following chapters discuss the most common symptoms and what can possibly be deduced on their basis.
Urinating indoors is usually associated with intense separation anxiety (fear and anxiety). If your dog urinates already when the owner is preparing to leave, or immediately when left on its own, the situation is alarming. Even if a male dog urinates against a wall, as if it were marking its territory, the behavior is most likely associated with anxiety or a similar emotional state that accelerates the metabolic rate in the body.
Sometimes urinating indoors is a symptom of health problems. The minimum requirement before starting training is to have a urine sample analyzed. Some rescue dogs urinate on the owner’s smell or in the dog’s own bed, which is most likely associated with keeping close to the smells regardless of anxiety. If the dog’s history includes living in cramped kennel conditions, the urinating may be a habit.
Defecating is also associated with acceleration of the metabolic rate due to anxiety. It is important that the condition of a dog that urinates or defecates indoors is checked by a professional, because monitoring on your own at home, and minor changes, will most likely not be sufficient to resolve the problem. Moreover, the dog’s suffering may intensify and be prolonged while you try to manage the problem on your own.
DO THIS: If your dog urinates indoors, find out whether there is an underlying health problem. If the dog continues to urinate due to fear of separation, stop leaving the dog on its own while the training continues.
Destruction of exit points
Destruction of exit points is a sign of anxiety and, in many cases, intense fear. The dog tries to follow the owner through the door or window. If the degree of nervousness is lower, it may end when the dog realizes that scratching the door will not result in getting out. However, you should not train the dog by leaving it to tear something as a stimulating activity. When the separation anxiety is intense, the dog may go into such intense state of panic when trying to get out that the dog harms itself. It is not unheard of that veterinarians find dogs suffering from separation anxiety having broken their nails or jaws.
DO THIS: If your dog destroys exit points, the fear is too intense for training the dog while it is on its own. It is very important to stop leaving the dog alone in order to ensure the dog’s welfare and security.
Destroying or carrying property may be caused by a variety of reasons. If your dog does not have anything sensible to do, the dog may try to find an outlet for frustration by chewing on things, and in many cases, moving the objects to a place that the dog finds suitable for chewing. If your dog carries things or the owner’s clothes but does not destroy them, and rather puts them in a pile or just carries them around, it is most likely a coping method for the dog to alleviate anxiety with the owner’s smell. In this case, the items carried are usually the ones easiest to carry, or the ones that bear the most intense smell of the owner. If the dog likes to carry smells around, you should leave such items out on purpose for your dog to carry, to make separation as easy as possible. For example, small items of clothing recently worn by the owner are suitable for the purpose. However, dogs suffering from intense fear of separation do not usually benefit from such smells.
DO THIS: Leave your own smell for your dog to lie on or carry, if this alleviates your dog’s nervousness during separation.
Barking and howling
Vocalization is a common separation-related problem. Dogs are known to have a separation-related distress call (the distress call mentioned above), intended to make the subject of affection return. However, very little can be deduced on the basis of vocalization. Of course, dogs may bark to make the owner return home. They may also bark due to frustrated agitation that may be caused by the owner leaving, health problems or the lack of stimulating activity. Noise coming from outside the home may also cause the dog to bark due to its watching instinct, or to react to sounds with anxiety, the outlet for that being barking. The dog may also whine and cry in a low voice, which in most cases is related to either the dog’s anxiety due to separation, or an insufficient routine of rest. The dog does not know how to settle down and rest when the owner has left, and vocalizes in a low voice. The dog’s physique and purpose in vocalizing also influence how the vocalization sounds. Only intense howling that lasts a long time can fairly certainly be taken as a sign of the dog’s anxiety or fear. On the other hand, howling that lasts a long time is typical, for example, of Beagles, and that is not necessarily associated with intense fear. However, all types of continuous urge to vocalize should be investigated in detail, in case they are caused by anxiety.
Some dogs watch and react to sounds from the surroundings. Many small spitz dogs are bred as watchdogs and for some, alerting a larger watchdog to the scene has been part of their job. For dogs themselves, watch barking may only be a behavior pattern typical for the species and breed, and may not indicate excessive stress, but the dog’s behavior may be irritating for the neighbors and the owner. If the dog calms down well when urged to do so by the owner when the owner is at home, the owner’s voice feedback played by the Digital Dogsitter may also be beneficial for the dog.
DO THIS: If your dog howls intensely and for a long time when left on its own, the dog is very anxious. Arrange care for your dog or stop leaving the dog on its own during the training.
Panting and sweating
Panting and sweaty paws are extreme symptoms of stress related to the accelerated functioning of the dog’s system. With separation-related problems, they are typically associated with anxiety and/or fear. Sweaty paws may leave dry pawprints on the floor.
The dog may move around the apartment in many different ways. If the dog changes places from one exit point to another, such as from the exit door to the windows, the dog is most likely anxious and trying to follow the owner. The dog may also move around in the apartment and look like it is clearly looking for something to do. This is usually related to overstimulation if the dog does not have enough meaningful activity in the everyday life, or lacks a routine of rest. If the dog is unable to settle down to rest when the owner has left, it may pace around the apartment in a nervous way. Over time, the pacing itself may begin to cause anxiety for the dog, and may eventually develop into fear of separation. In rare cases, the dog may also stay completely still and silent in the apartment, but still be fearful. If the dog hardly moves when on its own, but pants and seems to be unable to move, the dog is extremely anxious and should not be left alone on its own. Normally, dogs move from one place to another when resting, at intervals of half an hour to one hour.
Greeting when returning home
The way the dog greets the owner when they return home may serve as an indication of the nature of the dog’s problems related to separation. If the dog is hyperactive when seeing people, if it is difficult for the dog to calm down, or if the dog falls immediately into deep sleep, the time the dog spends alone should be recorded on video (if possible without causing intense fear for the dog), or the owner should stop leaving the dog alone right away as long as the training lasts. A dog with a good routine for being alone is happy or passive when the owner returns, and will not become overexcited. Rarely, but occasionally, dogs may even become aggressive when the owner returns, as research results show that recurring anxiety will also become associated with consequent events and factors. Sooner or later, the dog’s anxiety and frustration may be targeted at the owner when the owner returns. However, this is a rare symptom.
Even dogs who are antisocial and keep to themselves may feel anxious when alone at home. These dogs find comfort and security in the owner’s presence, even if they do not approach their owners that often. The problem may be difficult to identify if the dog does not usually greet the owner enthusiastically. A dog that is more antisocial will, more easily than a social dog, become increasingly antisocial toward the owner due to feeling anxious about the owner’s recurring absences.
Responding to signals of the owner leaving
A dog that becomes overexcited about the owner leaving is most likely anxious about being left on its own. If your dog starts to show symptoms of anxiety (including pacing around, panting, nipping at the owner or vocalizing) already when the owner is preparing to leave, the dog is most likely suffering from more challenging separation-related problems or separation anxiety. Some dogs may also behave aggressively toward the owner when they prepare to leave, while others do not seem to react in any way to the owner leaving, but problem behavior occurs during separation.
DO THIS: Consider what you can conclude based on your dog’s reactions to everyday situations of leaving and returning home. Is there reason to suspect that your dog is anxious and to stop leaving the dog on its own before you can obtain further information?
The dog’s variable behavior may indicate separation-related problems. Sometimes separation goes without symptoms, sometimes not. The behavior also varies when the symptoms vary from mild to more intense. If it is difficult to predict your dog’s reactions to separation, it is likely that the dog’s welfare is deficient. Keeping a journal helps with this, because the reasons can probably be found in the events of the preceding 12 hours. In many cases, health problems also cause varying behavior that is difficult to predict.
DO THIS: If your dog’s behavior when alone varies on a wide spectrum, consider whether you should have your dog’s health examined.
Confinement in separation training
For some dogs, confinement is a calming factor during separation, even if the dog’s skills have not been influenced by training. Usually, the dog in question is one that is not intensely anxious to start with and the confinement is enough to interrupt the dog’s problem behavior, because the physiological reaction in the body caused by pacing around the apartment can make the dog anxious. Confinement should, however, be regarded critically because it is not a training method, and research results indicate that it is not beneficial in treating separation anxiety. If the confinement is interrupted or other surprising factors appear, the dog’s anxiety may suddenly continue. Some dogs are still anxious in the space but are quiet or do not destroy anything because the confinement stops them from moving around. Confinement can be tested if the dog is not intensely anxious and the owner does not have the possibility to make the effort of training the dog at present. However, any solutions related to confinement must be carefully recorded on video, and you must make sure that the dog does not feel anxious or it is not just a question of the dog becoming depressed and passive due to the confinement.
The key factor in the planning of separation anxiety training is designing a routine for rest: how to train the dog to rest when alone. When resting is successful on a regular basis, you can start to sensitize the dog to pre-departure signs while the dog is resting.
High-quality separation training is based on relaxation
It is impossible to prepare guidelines for dog training and changing the dog’s behavior that would work for all dogs. All dogs behave in individual ways, and that is why there are as many training solutions as there are dogs. This section includes guidelines and ideas for meaningful training of your dog. If your dog’s situation is so severe that your dog suffers from intense fear and/or is in danger of self-harming, stop leaving the dog on its own and consult a professional dog trainer.
Of the wide range of training methods developed for separation training, desensitization is globally most often used. In the case of reward-based training, the most natural way would often be to train the dog using exercises that focus of activities, such as rewarding the dog with a treat or using various activating exercises near the exit door. According to current knowledge, the training should preferably be more simple and focus on gradual exposure of the nervous system until the dog starts to find separation natural. Desensitization is recommended because if we link a high number of stimuli and rewards to the training, we add activities exactly where we want the dog to rest instead of being active. So, the most important goal of training is to train the dog to rest while alone at home. Relaxation is a behavior that intensifies and increases spontaneously when allowed to happen, so the primary focus of the training process is to enable rest in the first place.
The aforementioned reward-based exercises can be combined with the training as additional exercises, particularly with dogs who are unable to be with a stranger even on leash, or to be left in the care of a stranger, or who lose all control when the owner, for example, goes to the bathroom alone without the dog, or who react very intensively to pre-departure signals. For these dogs, supporting exercises may be needed before the treats are left out, as that is the primary goal in any case. For some dogs, additional exercises include training protocols related to desensitization to noises or to settling down.
The routine of rest is based on emotional conditioning, that is, combining rest with certain easily identifiable stimuli for the dog, including music, moving to the training area, clothing with the owner’s smell, moving the dog’s water bowl into the training area and/or the owner sitting in a certain place within the dog’s rest area. These selected stimuli are called the training framework, based on which the dog should realize that the exercise has started. The training can take place either in a separate training area fenced in with a gate, or in the whole apartment.
A skillfully designed routine of rest is based on knowing when your dog is relaxed and recovered. For example, after a surprising event outdoors, it is useful to watch for and learn to spot the following signs in the dog’s behavior that may indicate recovery:
- lying down and finding a place to rest
- rolling on the back
- play that includes chewing or tearing and ends with settling down
- relaxed body language, in many breeds that involves the ears and tail relaxing
- sharp movements slowing down
- scratching or yawning while the dog sits or is lying down to prepare for rest, but if they are repeated frequently, they may indicate nervousness
Recognizing the signs of relaxation is utilized in separation training, so you should take time to identify them by monitoring your dog’s behavior after exercise and other activities. In the following chapters, separation training is divided into sub-goals. When you can identify the signs of relaxation, you can watch for them during each sub-goal of separation training. This way, you can make sure that rest and recovery, which are important, are not omitted from the training process. If you are not certain during the exercise whether your dog is relaxed, you are probably right. Repeat the exercises at the same and a slightly easier level of difficulty until you are both relaxed and the outcome is successful at all times.
The key pillars of separation training include
- Routine of rest. Regular periods of rest triggered by recognizable training frameworks that last at least 15 minutes.
- Desensitization. Activities indicating departure are systematically repeated while the dog keeps on resting.
- Additional exercises that may include food treats. Additional exercises are usually used, for example, to train for such departure situations in which the dog finds it challenging to stay at home with other family members when one of them leaves, or the dog needs skills to stay lying down on its own bed when separated from the owner, or when counter conditioning is used by rewarding with treats, for example, when training desensitization to departure signals, such as with the rattling of keys.
Several successes indicate progress
Even though it is easy to get excited when exercises are successful, patience is key in all separation training. Separation training is primarily about routines and the dog’s skills, so that individual successes are not enough to make the level of exercises more difficult. You must wait until you have achieved at least four successful days of training for each exercise before you make the exercise more difficult. On average, separation training takes 12 to 18 months, so taking long strides with exercises, even successful ones, does not bring good results in the long term, and you hit a wall at some point later on. Today’s successes are always important, but training must focus primarily on successes over a long period of time.
Time is not the key indicator of success
The key indicator of success in a dog’s separation training is that the dog stays calm and relaxed. It is common in separation training, as in other desensitization processes, that the dog is periodically able to train for a longer time, while at other times, the exercises must be shorter. It is typical that the dog’s alone time does not increase constantly, but the tolerance for separation repeatedly varies. The time of separation in the training should never increase exponentially. Instead, the schedule is planned on the dog’s present ability, varying between easy and challenging exercises. Every week, the exercise routine must include very easy exercises, repeated easy wins, repeated medium level exercises, and only one or two more challenging sessions. The majority of training takes place at the easy and medium level, and the duration is lengthened occasionally only. So the majority of separation training is about the dog getting used to separation, when the duration is repeatedly easy and regular. Desensitization, that is, gradually exposing the nervous system to stimuli, is included in some repeated, more challenging exercises. The easy level should always be repeated for at least two days in a row, and should never move to a more challenging level directly after a day off. With the training, attention should be primarily paid to long-term successes, not today’s successful separation period. Being able to repeat the same period of separation is key as well: is the dog able to stay alone for two hours once a week or on five days a week? A single success with a longer exercise may be a random event that may destroy even the easy exercises on the following days if tried for too long. So, the goal must be even success with exercises.
EXERCISE LEVEL 0: for dogs unable to tolerate separation
As long as the training methods are not harmful for the dog, there is no absolute YES or NO in modifying a dog’s behavior. The dog’s living conditions and individual needs indicate how the dog should be trained. It is possible, though unlikely, that the dog is not capable of relaxation-based training if it first needs long-term veterinary care. In this case, it may be necessary to combine a food reward with everyday separation from the owner soon, in order to get the training started, and so that bad experiences are not repeated time after time. The dog will be trained to get rid of the treats at a later date. Food rewards and desensitization differ clearly in terms of learning psychology, and desensitization should only be used with dogs who are already able to rest.
It is natural for some dogs to follow the owner around in the apartment, and research has not fully succeeded in linking this shadowing behavior with separation anxiety. However, if the dog gets anxious when prevented from shadowing, it is obvious that training is needed. The training may include desensitization, that is, leaving the dog several times at one minute or two minute intervals, and returning before the dog gets nervous. This pattern of leaving the dog is usually repeated five to eight times, and the level of challenge varies. The exercise does not get more difficult all the time, but one or two more challenging times are interspersed with easy and medium-level sessions.
If your dog is extremely anxious, exercises with the owner moving further away from a dog lying down, and returning to reward the dog for staying put, may be useful. This way, you can plant the seed of preferred behavior in an exercise that would otherwise not be possible. In the most simple form of the exercise, food rewards are not used, but the owner leaves the dog and comes back before the dog gets nervous. A reward-based exercise may run as follows: you ask the dog to lay down, you take one step away from the dog while saying “good!” or giving another rewarding signal, and then return to the dog to give a treat on the ground between the dog’s front paws. The reward is placed on the ground so that it does not come from your direction but affirms in the dog the idea of lying down on the ground. When the exercise is successful, the second task may involve, for example, a stranger holding the dog on a leash, while the owner steps away and says the reward word “good!” and the stranger gives the reward to the dog. It is important to use the same reward word with the exercises at all times: a neutral word that the dog does not find very exciting. The purpose of this word is to let the dog know that the reward has been earned at this very moment and it will be given soon. The reward is given at the exact moment when the owner is farthest away from the dog. Immediately after the reward word, the owner returns to the dog without responding with much praise, but you do not need to be particularly indifferent towards the dog.
For example, Dr. Karen L. Overall’s Protocol for Relaxation can be useful when training a dog that gets excessively nervous due to separation.
Say no to return-leave exercises
Studies have shown that problems may increase if the owner repeatedly leaves and returns, in case the dog finds the situation even slightly distressing. This means that exercises that involve the owner leaving do not make separation easier if the dog feels even slightly anxious, unnoticed by the owner. For example, according to both Richard Solomon’s Opponent-process theory and B.F. Skinner’s Behavioral momentum theory, the owner repeatedly leaving and returning results in negative changes in the dog’s emotions. The anxious state of mind related to separation begins to overshadow the more pleasant state of mind (the owner returning), and the dog may start to link anxious emotional experiences also with the owner and the owner returning. Instead of exercises that involve the owner repeatedly leaving and returning, carefully arranged, individual separations are more important, because the previous unwanted emotional conditioning is more likely to be enhanced due to too frequently repeated incidents. The training may include several instances of the owner leaving, but they must be interspersed with systematically planned rest for a couple of minutes, and the dog must remain fully relaxed and be able to rest throughout. As soon as the separation periods become longer and last even a few minutes, there can be only one period of separation.
DO THIS: Use the aforementioned welfare factors and ensure that your dog’s everyday life is in order, and stick to changes for at least two weeks. Then select a level for the exercise and record on video individual instances of separation that are arranged to be calm. What does the behavior look like after the changes?
The dog’s ability to keep calm when they see the owner preparing to leave lies at the core of high-quality separation training. The skills are trained first with the owner present, as the basic precondition is that the dog is able to relax when the owner is present. It is important for the owner to be aware of the dog’s welfare needs and to know what kind of everyday life is needed for the dog to remain balanced in order to enable calming down. If the dog has been anxious for a long time, or has suffered from obsessive-compulsive behavior or health problems, the dog is not necessarily ready for separation training. The dog’s life must be balanced before training starts. Only when the dog is able to relax with the owner present, can you consider how to make it relax when alone.
EXERCISE LEVEL 1: You can be separate but still together
When creating a routine for rest, it is important to observe the dog’s current skill level. If the dog does not understand that the owner’s presence does not always mean actively being together, and the dog follows the owner nervously even indoors, you can practice with the dog how to relax first next to the owner and then when the owner gets up next to the dog. The aim is for the dog not to feel the need to constantly follow the owner’s movements. One exercise option is that when the dog is relaxed by the owner’s side, for example on the sofa, the owner can either get up or look like they are getting up, depending on the level of difficulty needed by the dog for the exercise. The aim is to return to the dog before the dog visibly responds to the owner getting up. If the dog reacts to the owner moving away, you must return immediately and wait several minutes for the dog to relax again, and only then continue with the training at an easier level than before. You do not pay particular attention to the dog during training and you do not praise the dog or reward with treats. Everything is based on keeping the situation calm and seemingly neutral for the dog. You, the owner, should also be relaxed and aware of what you are doing in the situation, to avoid seeming indifferent or tense to the dog. If the dog makes contact with you, you can interact calmly in a friendly manner so that the dog does not find you evasive and become nervous.
It is essential in all training that you move in a relaxed manner as if preparing to do something ordinary or carrying on as usual. If the owner starts to behave nervously, the movements may resemble previously learned nervousness visible a moment before separation. Correspondingly, unnatural movements are not necessarily associated as an identifiable tip in the situation, and the dog may react differently during genuine separation. In fact, being aware of your own behavior is as essential in training as being aware of the dog’s behavior, because the owner’s behavior becomes a trigger for behavior similar to, for example, grabbing the keys or putting on a jacket. If the training makes you repeatedly nervous, it is advisable to find an easier level of training that does not make you nervous. Because owners of dogs suffering from separation anxiety almost invariably have bad experiences of departing, in separation anxiety training, in most cases both the owner and the dog practice how to relax.
DO THIS: Train your dog to keep calm when you get up next to the dog. Return to your dog while it is calm.
EXERCISE LEVEL 2: Separated by a gate
There are many reasons for using a gate in the training. A fully closed door you cannot see through causes some degree of nervousness for many dogs, but it is convenient for everyday life and the training that the owner can teach separation to the dog first by staying comfortably in the home. In the first stages of training, a gate enables the dog to feel present in the whole space and to see the surroundings while training in separation, because the owner is not accessible immediately even if they are in the same space with the dog. At a later stage of the training, the gate is easy to cover up if you want it to simulate a door. On the other hand, you can also keep the gate open, and the gate is easy to move from one apartment or a friend’s house to another, if necessary. When the dog learns that being behind a gate means a certain routine that enables rest, it is easier to get the dog to rest anywhere if you can take the gate along.
For many of the dogs who do not follow their owners around nervously indoors, it is too difficult to start training with the exit door. These dogs benefit from training with a gate, and the dog learns to rest behind the gate. The training involves repeating a situation in which the owner and dog go behind the gate together on four or five days a week. When nothing happens behind the gate, the dog goes to rest sooner or later. The rest will continue for at least 5 to 10 minutes at a time. When the routine of rest is successful with the owner very soon after going behind the gate, the owner does the same as in the previous exercise that did not involve a gate: they get up and return to the dog before the dog feels the need to react. This is usually repeated at least five times, eight times on average, and no more than ten times, depending on the dog and the owner’s ability. One to two minutes of complete rest, with the head down as well, must occur between each repetition. Each repetition is slightly different from the previous one, and the repetitions do not get constantly more difficult. More challenging repetitions, usually one or two, are interspersed with easy and medium-level repetitions. At a later stage of the exercise process, the owner goes to the gate to touch it, and some repetitions may include the owner exiting through the gate for a short while, visible to the dog. In the training, nothing is more important than patience. If the dog is not relaxed and the exercise proceeds too fast, the exercise may teach the dog to watch the owner’s movements or to follow the owner, which is the pattern that the training is designed to change.
When you reach the stage in the exercise when the owner exits through the gate and goes around the corner, not visible to the dog any more, the cue words for departure mentioned before in this article, such as “you cannot come” or “I’m going shopping,” can be included in the exercise. The cue words must be said in a neutral voice every time you leave. At a later stage, you choose whether you continue training with the gate or stop using the gate. This stage is described in more detail at exercise level 4. Using the cue word is not obligatory, but in most cases owners prefer to use it. A well-designed training framework and carefully established routine of rest are more efficient than words.
DO THIS: Train your dog to stay behind a gate and keep calm. Combine the cue word with you leaving through the gate, and return when your dog is resting.
EXERCISE LEVEL 3: Departure signals become insignificant
If your dog reacts to signals of the owner leaving, such as keys, shoes or jacket, training must be associated with them, as well. This is familiar to many: you grab your keys many times a day unnecessarily. However, you should remember that if your dog reacts anxiously to the departure signal, you should not expose the dog to too intense stimuli. It may be wiser to first repeat the exercise with the keys so that they only make a sound and you do not grab them. If the dog is repeatedly exposed to anxiety, the result of the training is the opposite, and the dog’s emotions and behavior become stronger. This is how the original problem behavior started. With a dog that becomes anxious easily, you must start at the easiest possible level, such as only picking up your shoe. If your dog is moderately relaxed during the training and does not react intensely to the stimulus, desensitization occurs. When one departure signal works well in all situations, you can start practicing with another signal. You should not combine the signals before each of them is completely insignificant for your dog. Insignificant signals can be combined with the gate training so that the owner can put their shoes on before leaving from behind the gate, or if preferred, put their shoes on when on the other side of the gate. This way, you can see that the leaving and the signal combined do not make the dog react. If the number of departure signals is suddenly too high, it is possible that old memories of departures return suddenly regardless of the training, and it may be difficult to ascertain which departure signal or combination evoked the reaction. In most cases, it is a question of total burden. If your dog starts to react nervously or show excessive interest, the exercise level must be lowered immediately. Departure signals are usually trained twice a day, for example seven to ten repetitions at a time, at one or two minute intervals. The total number of repetitions during the day should be around 15–20.
The most common departure signals include:
- putting on shoes
- putting on a jacket
- grabbing a bag
- putting on makeup/making yourself ready/brushing your teeth
- taking snacks from the fridge
- opening the exit door
DO THIS: Desensitize your dog to departure signals by repeating them one by one without actually leaving. Make sure that the signals do not make your dog anxious.
Video and sound recording data help with training
Before training, you must observe your dog when it is alone. If your dog is relaxed at home even if people are moving around, you can leave your dog alone for ten minutes, for example, and record a video to see how your dog behaves. You cannot do this if there is reason to suspect that your dog feels very anxious during that time or may hurt itself. In that case, monitoring indoors and experiences of previous separations are enough to select an exercise. The video recording must always end as soon as the dog shows the first signs of nervousness, to prevent the dog from learning more unfavorable things.
If you have a video, check what your dog does when alone and what kinds of skills it has at present. For example, does your dog try to settle down to rest? If so, where? Can the place selected by your dog be used in the training by placing the dog’s bed on that exact spot? Does your dog seek out the owner’s smells when alone? If so, can you leave out for your dog covers or clothes that bear your smell on those exact spots? Videos are used throughout the training process because videos can show things that go unnoticed by us. The videos can also be checked afterwards to resolve a problem. When your dog starts to be left on its own, the live feature becomes useful to enable the trainee, for example, to return indoors if necessary. High-quality separation training for dogs without real-time visibility of the dog is extremely difficult or even impossible.
EXERCISE LEVEL 4: Time to be alone
If your dog does not follow people around at home or react to departure signals, and is able to stay alone behind a gate and the separations do not undermine the dog’s welfare, you can try to pay attention to welfare factors carefully and then test an individual separation so that your dog is given more beds in places where it starts to get nervous, and further support this by leaving the owner’s smells in the same areas. This way, you have reached the stage where you actually train your dog in separation. By this stage, you must have made sure that your dog does not react to the front door being opened.
If you wish to leave your dog alone behind a gate and the gate is not taken down and changed for front door training before this stage, your dog must be able to see toward the front door from behind the gate and be fully relaxed in relation to the owner moving about. The proposed covering up of the gate to simulate a door (in Chapter 2) does not need to be used at this stage if the intention is to continue using the gate. If there is reason to suspect that it is repeatedly distressing for the dog to hear movement and realize that the owner will soon vanish, it may be sensible to remove the gate or move it close to the front door. Without careful intermediate stages, it is possible, however, that you will lose a well-trained routine of rest behind a gate because the dog will not automatically associate the gate or its former location with the front door without separate training.
You can replace the gate with the front door by first starting to cover the gate with a towel or quilt more and more, and then by removing the gate so that the owner can leave behind the gate and through the front door without the dog getting nervous. Exiting through the front door can be trained without covering the gate by giving your dog direct visual contact with the front door, because some dogs get nervous if the gate is covered and there is no visibility to the front door.
Many dogs have distressing experiences of waiting by the front door, and that is why it may be good to put a gate in to avoid the dog getting into such familiar situation too easily. The gate was originally used because it is important for the dog to see the owner in the early stages of training, but later on it must learn to relax even when the person goes out of sight. It is up to you whether you use a gate or the front door. However, at this stage, an exercise that worked before may end up badly if the gate, without training related to covering the gate, is replaced by the front door and no separate training focusing on the front door has been given. In addition to the front door, other doors can be used in the everyday exercises in the home, because if a door inside the home proves to be distressing for the dog, the same will certainly apply to the front door, as well. The key in all training related to departure and returning is that the departure is not made into a special situation by paying attention to the dog. You should also make the situation of returning calm. However, you should not ignore the dog completely, because studies have shown that ignoring makes many dogs anxious.
If your dog still does not have a routine of rest, you should monitor your dog using the videoing instructions in this article to see how long it takes for the dog to appear anxious. Based on this period of time, you know the dog’s current skill level. The behavior patterns based on which you can tell that your dog is anxious include panting, licking of lips, constantly changing position or pacing around in the home. The length of the video clip should always be selected in relation to how the dog is doing and what it is that you want to monitor on the video. All behavior of your dog on the video gives you information. If you video long stretches of separation, there is usually a huge amount of information that can be difficult to review. That is why it is recommended to occasionally record the training session in full on video, and otherwise use sound recording and live monitoring. It is easier to use the sound graph to see whether the amount of vocalization decreases and also to use occasional checks via the live link rather than browse through the whole video repeatedly.
Pay attention to the fact that it is preferable for the separation to occur at the same time of day in the beginning, choosing the time when your dog is most calm. If the day includes exceptional events or your dog is, for some other reason, prone to get nervous, skip the training for that day or carry out a short and easy version of the standard training session. However, if you skip the training session for several days, the dog’s routine starts to fade and the benefits of separation training are lost.
DO THIS: Prepare a training plan for your dog. Find out which of your movements cause your dog to react and start there. Keep a journal of the training and your dog’s welfare at the same time. If you write down welfare factors and training sessions, you will be able to see, over time, what amount of training combined with which welfare factors gives the best results. If you decide to use a professional trainer later on, the journals will be useful.
Learning outcomes in a nutshell
- Your dog’s welfare factors are in order, and your dog knows how to settle down in everyday life to take a nap during the day and to sleep at night. Your dog is able to settle down next to you or another family member and recover within a reasonable time from exciting everyday experiences.
- Your dog knows how to rest/settle down without nervously following people around in the home, even if the dog can get up and follow if they want to do so.
- The abovementioned, even if the owner grabs keys or puts on shoes (plus other departure signals).
- Your dog knows how to rest/settle down without following people around in the home, even if a gate or other obstacle prevents the dog from following.
- The abovementioned, even if the owner grabs keys or puts on shoes (plus other departure signals).
- Your dog knows how to rest/settle down without following people around in the home, even the person is out of sight around a corner and a gate prevents the dog from following.
- The abovementioned, even if the owner grabs keys or puts on shoes (plus other departure signals).
- The abovementioned, even if the gate is more and more covered with a towel, clothing that bears the owner’s smell, or other such fabric, so that in the end, you cannot see through the gate.
- Your dog knows how to rest/settle down without following people around in the home, even if the owner goes behind the door to the room/out of sight.
- The abovementioned, even if the owner grabs keys or puts on shoes (plus other departure signals).
- Your dog knows how to rest/settle down without following people around in the home, even if the owner goes out through the front door.
- Your dog knows how to rest/settle down even if the owner has left the room and nothing special happens.
In addition to these sub-goals, you can consider whether, after successful training, there is reason to begin making noises by the front door or to desensitize your dog to certain noises that the dog can hear during separation, in case your dog is in the habit of reacting strongly to noise. With many dogs, leaving the house in a car requires separate training.
For each sub-goal, the focus is particularly on that the dog is seen to attempt to settle down to rest from the beginning of the training session. This goal is the golden thread running through the entire training process, beginning from the first training sessions.
Problematic situations in training
Your dog’s training may be disturbed by various factors related to the dog itself, or by external factors. Internal factors related to the dog include welfare factors like bitches being in heat or health problems. Internal factors like pain or stress may also affect the dog’s stress resilience regarding external stimuli such as background noise.
For example, the following may cause problems
- known or unknown health problems
- in bitches, reactions to heat; or in male dogs, reactions to bitches in heat in the vicinity
- a hectic pace of life, overtiredness, lack of stimuli, too little exercise and other welfare problems
- too short rest periods between training sessions
- too high level of difficulty or defectively planned exercises
- too rapid pace of training after a break
- hasty choices of exercises after an unsuccessful training session, repeated failures
If training that has gone well becomes challenging, the first thing to do is to introduce pauses between training sessions. Even after one unsuccessful exercise, you should give your dog one or two days off from training to allow time to recover from the situation. Bear in mind that for many dogs, days when the owner is working and the dog is in daycare do not count as days off.
The training does not involve situations in which the most recent exercise should succeed as soon as possible. Instead, you must reserve time for recovery. Whenever an exercise is unsuccessful, you must react immediately and take a break, as creative experiments may result in the training possibly becoming challenging in the long term. Situations that have genuinely frightened the dog may require several days for recovery before you can start training again in moderation.
However, in the case of changes, you should need to go back to the beginning only temporarily. A part of the achieved level of skills is always maintained, and previously successful training is evident in that you can fast-track the training sessions to more challenging repetitions quickly after momentarily making the exercises easier. If the training goes back to the beginning completely, the usual reason is a significant change in the dog’s welfare factors from the dog’s viewpoint, or major mistakes that have been made in the training protocol.
An irregular training schedule or the dog owner’s long periods of absence, treatment periods or holiday trips, even together, can make the training more difficult. The longer the owner has been away, the longer you must allow your dog to return to familiar everyday routines before the training starts again. For example, over a week’s time, the dog should have two or three days off completely to get used to the home routine again. Some dogs are unable to train if the owner has been away from home for an 8-hour workday and the dog has been in care. The situation may be difficult if the dog’s total burden can easily become too high but the owner must go to work on a daily basis. Despite attempts, some dogs cannot adapt to the owner’s life situation so that training could be successful. If the training gets difficult repeatedly after the owner has been away from home, you should discuss the issue with a professional.
If training becomes challenging, the key is to interrupt training and assess the situation moderately before training continues. The total burden for your dog is immensely important for the training to succeed, so that attention must be paid not only to the dog’s health and training arrangements, but also to everything that happens in the dog’s everyday life that may have an impact on the dog’s recovery. For example, you should always take a day off from training after visits to the trimmer or veterinarian.
A wide variety of symptoms relate to separation anxiety and other separation-related problems, and the underlying reasons are diverse. Because all dogs are individuals and their life situations vary, the forms of treatment and training plans differ. The dog’s behavior indicates the nature of the problem, and you cannot compare one dog with another. Repeated testing of various things always makes training more challenging.
The most important aspects of training include ensuring the dog’s welfare, preventing bad experiences with separation, learning a routine of rest, desensitization for separation, successfully implemented training in moderation, a sufficient number of days off from training, and regularity. When circumstances change constantly, it is not possible for the dog to have a routine, and that is why it is important that the owner plans what they intend to do next and sticks to the decision for at least a couple of weeks (unless the behavior starts to degenerate rapidly). Keeping a journal of the current welfare factors in the dog’s everyday life, and changes to them, is a good start. This enables you to detect the impacts of changes. In the best case scenario, separation training is simple. It involves high-quality everyday life, sufficient rest and quality time spent together, and many minor successes that start to multiply as result of long-term training.
In the end, if your dog’s behavior does not change despite the owner’s best attempts, you should have your dog examined by a veterinarian and contact a professional trainer familiar with separation training. If the dog’s welfare deteriorates in the long term due to fear of separation, new behavior problems may follow and, worst of all, cause unnecessary stress in the lives of the dog and owner. The stress caused by a prolonged problem may also make the dog ill.
Treatment of problems, and training, are not impossible at all – on the contrary! Patience, a positive approach, focus on the dog’s welfare and identifying the essentials are, however, required. The best way to succeed with training is to focus on the dog’s present skills regarding the problem, and how these skills can be enhanced and deepened.