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The Listen Dog Blog

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I'll be keeping it up-to-date with regular catch-ups on what I've been up to, plenty of original articles on obedience training and behavioural best practice, plus top tips and ideas you can work on at home with your own four-legged friend!


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Basic Tips On Dealing With Separation Anxiety

By listendogtraining, Jan 5 2017 08:00AM

When it comes to dealing with separation anxiety, an owner must first of all ensure the dog’s needs are being met at the most basic levels. Ensure the dog is adequately exercised, and in the case of a dog with separation anxiety, I would recommend a good bout of physical activity (a long walk, a game of fetch at the park, etc.) before the owner is due to leave the dog home alone. Of course different breeds have different requirements depending upon their physicality and intelligence levels - a pug will not require the same amount of exercise as a Labrador Retriever for example - but all require daily mental and physical exertion in order to spend excess energy. It is worth noting that instinctual drives are a lot stronger in some breeds also (the prey drive for example) and if left unfulfilled in this area, some breeds will show real signs of anxiety and frustration. Border Collies are an incredibly intelligent breed, bred to herd – if they are bought as family pets and given little to do all day, they can become anxious and frustrated. Similarly, Labradors are also working dogs, bred to retrieve – a great idea to help a Labrador fulfil these urges and alleviate frustration would be to enrol them in a flyball class, or play retrieval games of your own; throwing a tennis ball for a good old-fashioned game of fetch is a great example. Excess energy and frustration only adds fuel to the fire when it comes to anxiety and the resultant destructive behaviour, so first and foremost, ensure this box is ticked, and excess energy is well and truly spent.

As an owner, it is important to remember not to scold the dog for chewing up furniture or destroying your belongings when you return home to find carnage – the dog probably did this hours before your return, and so won’t link any punishment you dish out to the act of chewing up your home.

As John Fisher notes, punishing the dog upon your return will in fact only serve to intensify the tension and anxiety; not only is the dog concerned about being left, but it now has the added concern over what bad thing will happen when the owner returns.

Always keep hellos and goodbyes calm and neutral; do not over-excite your dog and increase his levels of excitement and anticipation at this critical time. Some owners will bend and lavish their dog with attention the minute they step through the door after a day at work, squealing sweet nothings in a high pitched voice, which only serves to whip the dog up into a frenzied and completely unbalanced state.

Owners must also remember that it is not the moment that they step out of the house that the dog becomes anxious... it begins minutes and even hours before. Just like Pavlov’s dogs, the pet dog will have come to recognise a sequence of behaviours, or even individual behaviours as indicators that they are going to be left alone, through repeated association. Because Pavlov repeatedly served food after he rang the bell, the dogs were classically conditioned to respond to the bell alone. In just the same way, owners classically condition their dogs in the home, by repeatedly leaving the house every time they put their shoes and coat on, for example. Where the owner’s act of putting on his coat was once a neutral stimulus, because it has been repeatedly paired with the owner leaving, it becomes a conditioned stimulus. The dog has been classically conditioned to feel anxious, before the owner has even left the home, so it’s a good idea to break this cycle, by breaking this association. The owner can do this by repeatedly performing these actions that previously caused anxiety in the dog, without leaving the home. So an owner might put on their shoes and coat, then sit and read the paper, before putting the shoes and coat away again; or pick up their house keys and handbag, then take them into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. You could even re-condition these stimuli with a new, positive association – put on your shoes and coat, then take your dog into the garden for a 10-minute game of tug or fetch.

Instigating a good program of separation training is also key to success in this area. John Fisher highlights the importance of first getting the dog to accept separation whilst the owner is still in the house; if the dog follows his/her owner throughout the house constantly, then he will never cope with being home alone. Remedy this by gradually introducing some distance. All the key elements of desensitisation are to be remembered here; do this slowly, over a period of time, and taking small steps that the dog is comfortable with. For example, begin by leaving the dog alone in a room, just for a moment, with you on the other side of the door. Then increase the amount of time you are out of the room for. Next, take yourself into the garden, just for a moment. Again, begin to progressively increase each interval of your absence. Keep working to increase the amount of time you are absent, and the distance between you and your dog, but keep it gradual. Eventually you can reintroduce the anxiety triggers, previously mentioned.

Work slowly and patiently – successful desensitisation is not a quick process, but if carried out in the correct manner with patience and perseverance, the results can be life-changing! As always, if in doubt, always seek the advice of a professional and allow your dog to be individually assessed.

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