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Tips to Ease Separation

by Angie Dunn

You’re home, alone. Nothing to read. Nothing to watch. Nothing to eat, and no way to go out and get anything. Wait, what was that noise? And THAT noise?? Oh FINALLY someone is home!!

This might sound eerily familiar to some of us, right now. With the ongoing stay-at-home orders around the country, many of us are newly experiencing situations not too far off from the typical pup’s time being left home alone. Being stuck at home with our pups is a great opportunity to help prepare our pups to be home alone in the future when we all return to our lives.

Dogs are family oriented creatures like us. They don’t like being alone! Many of us have used this unexpected time at home to bring home a new family member for this exact reason. It’s our responsibility to very slowly help them tolerate being by themselves. The more they succeed, the more we can expand how much of the house is open to them. We generally start this process with management tools like crate training. You can read our starting tips on crate training for puppies here.

Here we’ll cover tips that may help your dog become more comfortable being left alone. Be sure to start small, and seek the help of a professional for your pup’s specific needs. Especially if you suspect your pup may be experiencing severe separation anxiety.

[A very important disclaimer: If your dog is excessively peeing or defecating after you leave, howling, or tearing furniture apart, we at Adventure Pups Cooperative highly recommend to seek your veterinarian’s council and see if connecting to an Applied Clinical Animal Behaviorist (not “Behavioralist”) may be an option for you. Severe separation anxiety is rooted in deep anxiety rather than learned behaviors. Even outside of this pandemic situation many Behaviorists are used to working remotely, so we’ll help you find someone who’s able to help you wherever you are.]

Helping your puppy be comfortable staying home alone is best done as slowly and low-pressure as possible. Starting small with just going to get the mail, doing a grocery run, or even cooking dinner can all be opportunities to help your pup prepare for those times you’re not going to be able to pay attention to or physically be with them.

Managing your pup’s space when being left alone is essential. Just as important: having a routine for your pup will help them know feel secure in knowing when they will be taken care of, and when they will be taken outside to relieve themselves.

The main reason why we want to manage a pup's space is so that the pup knows exactly what parts of the house is their "home," which is where they're not allowed to go to the bathroom. Dogs typically don’t like to relieve themselves near their food or where they “live”. You want to slowly expand this space, because we want them to learn the entirety of the house is not where to go to the bathroom. By slowly expanding how much of the house they have access to, you can see where your dog might have "problem areas" (i.e. where they think it's OK to go to the bathroom, or where they might be able to get into things they aren't supposed to). Giving your pup full access to the house before this can lead to them snooping around and being more curious about what's around them than the toys you may have left out for them, and thereby getting into things that aren't appropriate for pups.

If they’re not crate-trained, you can use baby-gates to keep them contained in a room of the house that is easy to clear of dangerous objects. I see a lot of people using their kitchen, since most are made with vinyl or non-porous flooring (this definitely makes for an easier clean up!). Baby-proof locks for your cabinets and fridge will become your new best friend for a while, if you go this route! They are very effective for any containers and cupboards you want to keep your pup out of.

Making sure your pup is getting a decent amount of physical and mental exercise before being at home for a few hours helps them relax. Being left alone with excess energy could mean they decide that tearing up their bed to release the stuffing inside, or their squeaky toy to release the squeaker is how they try to burn off that energy. Giving them a good 30 minute walk in the morning and having a dog walker come in the middle of the day to give them something to break up the monotony of the day can help greatly. Having a walker come during the day can also give your dog more opportunities to relieve themselves outside, before they decide they can’t hold their bladder any longer.

Boredom can be a big reason your dog gets into trouble when you’re not around. A great way to help curb that boredom is by using their natural instinct to seek out snacks and follow interesting smells. I love using kibble and treat-dispensing balls for this. My favorites are adjustable, meaning you can decide how many treats can fit through the opening at any one time. Mix their dry kibble in with some similarly sized treats, and voila! You have a new great way to curb that boredom! If your pup is used to their kibble being in a bowl you may think that they don’t quite “get it” when they’re first introduced to this toy. Give them some time with it, and maybe make it easier for kibble to fall out of it at first, so they don’t get frustrated. They may be thinking that if they just wait they’ll get the food from their bowl again. Using this kibble ball both helps curb their boredom because they’re using their mental energy to figure out how to get the food out, and also helps make their kibble rewarding again because when they’re hungry they’ll begin to figure out how to release that food.

Playing a white-noise machine, or some nice calm music can help muffle the outside noises, making them less startling to the stark contrast of a super quiet house. We know our dogs have very good hearing, yet we underestimate how loud and startling these sounds may be when they’re left alone and waiting for us to return. They may decide that any sound they don’t recognize is something that needs to go away, and their first instinct is to bark to make that happen.

Combining the noise machine with visual blockers can be incredibly helpful in curbing your dog’s barking at people and creatures walking past the house. For many dogs this can be as simple as using the vinyl “stick-on” window coverings that allow light, but give your windows a “frosted” surface. You don’t even have to cover your entire window. These aren’t a true adhesive - just using water to help the vinyl stick - so they’re very easily adjusted and many have patterns and designs to make adding them to the window more seamless. I found some really nice ones at my local hardware store, but there are some online companies making some really gorgeous ones. Have fun with it!

It’s very important to help your dog become used to this as slowly as possible. Admittedly when I adopted my 9-year-old dog I did a terrible and rushed job of helping him adjust. I wish I knew then what I know now: Setting us both up to succeed by setting aside time off work to practice effectively, getting the help of a trainer, a dog walker, or a daycare before I brought him home.

(This has nothing to do with this post, it's just extremely cute)

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