I had this issue with a dog before I became a trainer because I had no idea to what I was doing. I was so concerned about my puppy upsetting the neighbours with its crying and barking at the backdoor that I inadvertently created a monster. I took him everywhere I could, but this came with a price. I discovered this when, not long after, I moved into a friend’s place, I was around 25yrs of age at the time. This dog would bark all night and all day. He would pull my housemates laundry off the clothes line and destroy it. He would dig holes all through the garden and generally made life living there hell. I remember one day I left him in the car for a short time and came back to all of seat belts being destroyed. The list could go on and on to demonstrate the mayhem and destruction this dog caused. All this mayhem because I had no idea to what I was doing and how to prevent it. On the upside of things, it was this dog that lead me to the dog trainers’ course, that completely changed my life forever and for the better.
Way too many dogs are dumped in shelters or even euthanised because so many symptoms of separation become so severe. Chronic escaping, self-mutilation (flank sucking), destruction(chewing), urinating and defecting in the house, excessive salivation, intense pacing, excessive howling and barking, coprophagy, depression, anxiety all due to a pup not learning to be ok with his own company. In a lot of instances dogs can and do injure themselves in the process of these behaviours especially when trying to escape. I have seen the results of a dog going through glass windows or destroying their teeth on steel fencing. The list goes on and on because the state of mind a dog with separation issues is so severely frenzied when the owner is either absent or the dog physically cannot reach the owner.
The reality is a lot of dog owners are held hostage by their dogs with separation issues. The symptoms become so severe that the owners world must revolve around their animal. In a lot of instances drastic measures are made such as surrendering the dog or placing the dog on mind altering pharmaceuticals. I have treated dogs that are in such a frenzied state that it is really sad to see. The owners obviously love these dogs yet because of constant maintenance the dog demands it can become unbearable. However, unfortunately, at the end of the day it is the owner creation, just as it was mine with the dog I mentioned in the beginning of this blog.
In my own research and experience there are breeds or breed types that are much more likely to become completely dependent on the constant company of its owner. Yet as in all good dog training it is about being pro-active rather than being reactive. Any dog can learn to enjoy its own company.
Step and measures than need to put in place to prevent any separation issues.
There are, in fact, numerous ways to stop your dog needing this constant companionship and to be happy with its own company for periods of time. As always starting with the dog as a puppy is always the place condition the dog to enjoy its own company. When I bring home a new puppy, for the first few nights he will sleep by my bed in his bed. This is a new world he is now experiencing, it can be very overwhelming. As with every part of my training with I will introduce everything incrementally. Remember less is always more. Expecting a puppy to be ok with being left in the laundry room on its first night and not to scream the house down is expecting way too much. For the first few nights the pup will sleep beside my bed and if the pup becomes upset I can reach down and sooth him. He will very quickly be comforted and reassured then go back to sleep. By doing this, if I hear him get up I will know more than likely he needs to go to the toilet. This is the perfect opportunity to begin toilet training. While I understand that the first few nights sleep is going to be interrupted, yet this is a small price to pay to ensure this whole process goes a lot easier.
In my opinion isolating a puppy on its few nights is the right way to go if you want to create a separation issue, however, no one wants this.
During the day sometimes, he will go out with me and sometimes he won’t. This gives me the perfect opportunity to start the separation process. When I arrive home, I do not go immediately to the pup but will rather ignore him until I can hear he is more settled. I will then let him out of his puppy pen, not making a huge fuss as he will be seeking my attention. At this point, again, I will wait until he calms down and then reach down and give him a quick scratch, pat and with a calm voice I will praise him. I will never give him attention when he is obviously trying to seek my attention as inadvertently or by accident I will be rewarding these behaviours. Over the next few days and weeks this desperate behaviour will begin weakening and overtime disappear, I am left with a much calmer, confident puppy. Other exercises I will also do while my pup is in his puppy pen or by the back door. I will go over to him while he is quiet and give him a very quick pat and or praise and walk away. This will ensure I am not creating a separation issue. He may carry on when I walk away but never will I turn back or say anything to him. He will earn over a very short period of time that is calm and sensible behaviour that will get my attention. Hence, I am rewarding, shaping behaviour that will lead to a dog that will be ok with his own company. As an adult dog he will not be stressed when I am absent or get so excited that I cannot control him when I am present. In dog training consistency is key to developing a balanced and structured relationship.
Prevention is always better than the cure but what needs to be done to help a dog that is suffering from a separation issue?
I have pointed out that dogs can and do suffer quite intensely from separation. It goes far beyond what we use to call “anxiety” as it was recognised a long time ago. When a dog is displaying these behaviours, he is well past a state of anxiety as he is now in a full blown state of overwhelming stress and absolute desperation. While I have seen vets prescribe all sorts of drugs to help counter the symptoms it has little to no effect on the long-term outcome. In a lot of instances these drugs are detrimental to the dogs physical and therefore mental health if used for a lengthy period of time.
The dogs mind or brain is neuroplastic just as ours is. This means it can be reorganized. Therefore, with time and relearning, we can change how the dog responds or does not respond to most circumstances or environments.
I have endeavoured over the years to find the most effective and long-lasting results in counter-conditioning the separation response. These methods have come under criticism yet before I go into the rehabilitation process I ask you to ask yourself this? What is worse euthanasia, dumping your dog at the shelter for someone else to do the dirty work for you, a life time of drugs to treat the symptoms or a short stressor rehabilitation process that will allow you to have a quality relationship with your best friend? I have in fact seen dogs that have been so medicated they spend most of the time sleeping or cannot walk in a straight line. This is the absolute truth.
As I have already stated the brain is neuroplastic hence we can and do change behaviour with every training session program we plan and execute. My goal is to raise the threshold for separation so when the dog returns to its home the dog can live in this environment very easily. As in much of my dog training I will make the training harder to make life easier for the dog in the real world. My mindset is always for the long-term, not the short-term.
So, the issue for the dog is isolation or at least that what it perceives as isolation, as I have already stated it is my goal to raise the threshold for separation.
When a client contacts me and begin to describe the issues and it is obviously a separation issue my recommendations are always that the dog go into board and train program with myself. My program is extremely structured and for the most part the dog is completely isolated. The dog will be trained, walked and fed every day. All contact with the dog is extremely consistent and structured. Take my word for it the dog doesn’t like being isolated at all but remember we are thinking long-term. As we can see improvement throughout the program the time I spend with the dog is extended and additional play time with other dogs is also included. Dogs that suffer from separation issues from their owner usually have no real interest or nor see any value in time spent with other dogs. I will choose dogs of my own that are extremely playful. In my opinion it is very advantageous for a dog to enjoy time with its own species. It helps with coping and adjusting as all mammals are capable of to one degree or another.
I have been 100% successful with this program and some dogs take longer than others but it is what it is. When I have told potential clients of this program some have balked and walked away. The ones who have committed to this have seen and live with the positive results. It may seem mean or cruel yet leaving this problem unresolved is far worse as I am comparing a few weeks to years of a dog being forced to live like this.
In a lot of instances making life harder to make the rest of it easier is the only way to go.