Article – 7th July 2020
Author – Karen Boyce, Owner of Beastly Thoughts Professional Dog Services
Dog behaviourist Karen Boyce of Beastly Thoughts Professional Dog Services (BTPDS) has helpful tips and advice on managing our dogs through the Covid-19 episode
We live in extraordinary times and our dogs have probably had more of our attention than usual over the last three months. Also, any new puppies know little of being left alone; they have had company practically their whole lives.
So as people start to drift back to work, and the school children are no longer always at home, how might our dogs be feeling?
Well, if they have had you almost as a constant in their lives for weeks some are really going to suffer. Yes, probably the majority may cope, but given that around 45% of dogs feel some sort of distress when their owner is away during normal times, I believe there could be a larger percentage of dogs suffering because of lockdown.
That suffering could range from a mild depression through to destruction of doors, furniture, carpets etc. They may even self-harm.
So what can be done?
Firstly, perhaps realise that your dog may not actually be suffering from separation anxiety; which is always the first thought owners have when a dog is vocalising or destructive during their absence. Dogs can suffer from other forms of distress when being left in the home; isolation distress being the most obvious. So this is not that the dog is heartbroken that the family are no longer in the house, but that it is stressed simply by being alone. It just does not feel safe.
A dog may also have developed hyper-attachment; e.g. that it misses one particular member of the household. And then there is also frustration distress, as once the owner or owners have left the dog no longer has the freedom of the house that it usually has.
If your dog has already a problem and you are not certain as to which of the above it is suffering from then you will need to seek professional help perhaps.
BUT LET’S DISCUSS WHAT CAN BE DONE TO HELP THE AVERAGE DOG COPE WITH BEING LEFT ALONE
Did you have a routine with your dog before you were starting to be at home so much?
If so, then you need to try and get back into that routine as soon as possible. That’s even if you are not back in work yet.
Can you remember the process you had in place before you left the house? The dog receiving clear signals as to what is going to happen next is key in it being able to cope, e.g. you put a uniform on or you put the kitchen bin up on the side.
Revisit these cues and then practice them either by going out for a short walk, or maybe into the garden (so long as your dog can’t see or hear you) or going and sitting somewhere else in the house quietly for a time. Start with small sessions and build to as long as you need as gradually as you can.
It is the dog understanding as to what is about to happen next that is key. Uncertainty is what leads to stress in dogs. Make sure you remind your dog that there are certain triggers that signal it is going to have to be without you. The dog should return to its old habits, even if the memories are buried quite deep.
If you have been paying a lot more attention during lockdown to your dog, e.g. increased cuddles and play, it might be best to start with a toning down of this over a week or so before starting the signal work.
But what if you have a new pup or dog so there is no process in place to warn the dog that he is about to be on his own?
Then you need to create one.
So firstly, have an idea of what the routine will be for your dog once you are back in work.
# How many days and hours will you and other family members be away from home?
# Who is taking responsibility for the dog’s routine once it must change? (Hint: It should be everyone!)
# What needs to be implemented/changed in terms of doors, crates, windows, heating, safety etc.
# How attached is the dog to each household member?
# Is there anyone it is particularly attached to?
Now, as advised above, give the dog a chance and advise the whole household to decrease the interactions with the dog, e.g. not touching the dog so much, chatting to it and playing with it. It’s not fair to be a major presence in your dog’s day and then to withdrawn attention suddenly. In psychological terms, it’s equivalent to punishment.
Then devise a “we’re leaving” memory bridge. This isn’t a cue like “bye”, though it will probably involve one last farewell. It’s a much longer, stronger signal for the dog to recognise it is being left on its own.
As an example, I will give you my routine for Evie the German Shepherd when she was a puppy.
First, I would make sure that I was ready to go! I’m wearing the right gear, I have my phone and purse and the car is packed with all I need.
Then I will start to put together a little buffet of favourite foods into her bowl, in view of her in the kitchen. I will tell her what I am doing so she is engaged with the idea. I will include a bone or long-lasting chew of some sort. Then I will take the bowl into the front room and put it on the side somewhere. She obviously follows and wants the contents! Then, I will put the TV on and standing right in front of it I will select a programme. (When she was a small pup this was actually also part of her sound desensitisation training e.g. Grand Tour.) Once the TV is running I will ask her to jump on her bed and put her meal down. As soon as I put it down I will walk away. I will say “ See you later” and leave.
This is a really long memory bridge and serves two purposes. It gives Evie plenty of time to get the idea I’m about to leave. It also gives me plenty of time to assess that she is in a coping mood and that my training is working, and that it is OK to leave.
Probably the most important aspect of my memory bridge is standing in front of the TV to pick a programme. It’s the only time anyone in the house does this; as we are always sitting down normally of course. It’s a big cue.
Now, note that this long routine has been gradually built up.
So how do you start?
Well, select a signal and start to create a routine, though perhaps at first don’t leave the house or maybe even the room.
Try this as an example:
# Get out an enrichment toy that the dog is only going to get for this process e.g. a Kong
# In full view of your dog and with plenty of chat go through the process of filling the Kong. (The more interested you are in the Kong the more the dog will want it.)
# Take the Kong to the place where your dog is going to be left (Big Tip – YOUR DOG HAS TO FEEL SAFE THERE. IT MUST BE COMFORTABLE. AND BE UNDISTURBED!)
# Ask your dog to get on his bed, rug, in his crate etc.
# Give him the Kong.
# Give a farewell and walk away.
# Now ignore him. No words, no eye contact and no touching. (You don’t need to leave the house. You might not be able to leave the house.)
# Practice a few seconds, minutes, whatever time you feel you need to start at.
# Return and pick up the Kong.
# Say hello to your dog and go about as normal.
# The Kong will now become the signal for removal of attention.
# Assess how your dog is coping when repeating this exercise again and again. And don’t worry if, at first, it doesn’t work. You are creating a memory from scratch. It’s a bit like putting a jigsaw together. It’s going to take time.
What can go wrong? Lot’s of things.
Here are a few examples:
# The dog is over-attached to all or one particular member of the household. So back off with the attention whilst trying to train. You don’t give yourself enough time to train so you will have to organise family, friends and/or a dog walker to cover when you’re not around.
# Your dog doesn’t feel safe so keep trying different places e.g. the favourite human’s bed can work quite well.
# Your neighbours, neighbour’s dog, neighbour’s children, the street is noisy so you will need to cover the sound and find the quietest place in the house.
# So finally, try to have a routine before leaving your new dog or pup. It’s much easier to put the training in place at the start, than having to help a dog already with anxiety.
Dog’s being distressed when left alone is a common problem but can be quite complex. Good observation and problem-solving skills are often needed.
Remember stress and anxiety can ruin your dog’s health. It can affect the human/dog relationship. It can dramatically affect how owners feel about their dogs. And it can be expensive!
This is a very simplistic and condensed explanation on how to help and train a dog to cope with being left alone. If you struggle seek expert help.
Karen Boyce is the owner of Beastly Thoughts Professional Dog Service (BTPDS), the largest pet dog training establishment in Wales. BTPDS specialise in puppy training and reactive dogs but offers a whole host of obedience training classes, lectures, webinars and online training hubs and groups. Karen was named Animal Star Awards Dog Trainer/Behaviourist of the Year in 2019.
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