3 years ago I got my first dog. We didn’t exactly plan this, but we met our girl and she was perfect. Unable to resist, we took her home the same day. I had never had a dog before, and had no idea what to do. As a new mother, I bought every toy, fluffy bed, food bowl, and treat I could find. However, I was still completely unprepared for the biggest hurdle yet, her separation anxiety.
I remember the first time we actually left her alone in our tiny apartment. She SCREAMED. I couldn’t get down the hall without breaking down and turning back. I mean, we didn’t just have her to worry about, we had neighbors on all sides. I was suddenly under house arrest.
We googled absolutely everything. We called the shelter where we adopted her. We tried to find an in-home trainer (that we could afford). Nothing seemed possible.
Finally, I spoke with a family friend who considered herself a dog expert. I was desperate. By this point, our landlord had contacted us about the noise, and neighbors were coming to us concerned about our new dog. We told our friend about our struggles, and she commiserated. Breaking this was not going to be an easy task, but she gave us some pointers that totally changed our lives (and our dog’s life).
The idea here is to start slow. Be prepared (and patient enough) to spend a solid amount of time on training this out of your pup.
Put on some music, check out the “Dog Calming Music” station on Spotify, its magical. One of the senses dogs rely on most is hearing, so almost anything is better than complete silence for an anxious pup. When the house is silent while you are away, the anxious dog will interpret any small noise as their person returning home or a potential threat. Dogs also really like classical music, and even reggae.
Before leaving, walk away from your dog and ignore them for about 5 minutes. Then, just walk out the door, no “be good!” or even eye contact. It’s very important to NOT acknowledge your dog in the first 5 minutes you come home and the 5 minutes before you leave. This teaches the dog that your coming and going is no big deal.
Leave and sit outside for one minute, then ‘come home’ again, following your strict 5 minute rule. Once outside, your dog is going to howl. Come back in, get a glass of water, walk around ignoring your dog, and a few minutes later, give them a big hug and a treat.
Now repeat, slowly increasing your time “away”, go from 1 minute to 2 minutes to 5, 10, 20, and so on, following the 5 minute rule each time you return. Do this for several weeks and you WILL see an increase in the amount of time you can leave without the howling commencing. Ideally, after some practice, you will hear your dog howling initially then tapering off, which is a sure-fire sign that they are becoming more comfortable with your absence.
Another addition that will calm most dogs its the treat puzzle. Put your dog’s favorite smelly treat in a treat puzzle, and leave them to figure it out. This would help to distract our dog mentally while we were away. This is the most important factor, playing fetch or a long walk would exhaust her physically, but not until she was required to think and solve problems would she become mentally exhausted and able to relax.
We would also confine her to one, small room, which worked wonders. While you are away, the dog becomes the main protector of the household (in their mind). When a dog feels the need to watch the entire home, this can become very overwhelming. Limiting your dog to one, small space, will allow them to relax and take a snoozle.
We spoke with our vet about anti-anxiety medication as well. This is a controversial one, because there is no solid proof that this actually works. Studies have shown that most of these medications really do nothing for your dog. Instead, I would try a calming CBD treat, which you can buy at most pet stores (in California, at least), or on Amazon. I have personally seen these work on several dogs- they are a dream! If you aren’t familiar with CBD, this is not in any way, shape, or form, marijuana. CBD is a calming and healing, all natural remedy, and totally healthy for your furry friend (cat, dog, squirrel, whatever!).
As always, consult your veterinarian before trying any new supplements or medications, and make sure to watch closely for allergic reactions after starting new treats and medications.
Questions about how to combat this tough situation? Let me know and I’ll help where I can. Good luck!