Of course the first thing people will always say is “hire a dog trainer!” and that is usually the best idea because they have the ability to come in, meet your dog, assess the situation and set out a plan/goals for you and your dog to reach to overcome your specific hurdles.
Many times, however, there are signs of separation anxiety that go missed, or aren’t noticed until you’re in a situation where you need to leave your dog and cannot because of these issues. OR you may just not have the money for a trainer at the moment.
First is recognizing it. A lot of the times some of the behaviours that dogs will exhibit can be confused for positive behaviours – such as love. I hear this one all the time: “My dog follows me around everywhere – he/she loves me so much – I can’t even go to the bathroom without them!” While it can be nice to have your dog with you all the time while you are at home there is a line between love and obsession. If your dog is interested in what you are doing, or you’re cooking amazing smelling food, or your lying on the couch at regular cuddle time, it’s normal for your dog to want to be with you. If you’re just going from one room to another and your dog is on your heels desperately following you around from here to there for no reason whatsoever then you should start paying attention to that. You can unwittingly create an issue and not even mean to.
This happens a lot with but IS NOT limited to people who work from home. They wake up, take doggy out for walk, get home, get situated to work, doggy sits by feet, they take a break, walk doggy, come home, keep working, doggy sits by feet, they prepare dinner (alone or with others) and doggy is there, they hang out on the couch (alone or with others) and doggy is there, they go out for evening walk with doggy….. and on and on. That’s just the daily routine and it’s great – unless doggy gets SO used to having mum/dad around all the time that when they do have to leave the house/condo doggy gets super stressed out.
You might start to notice that closing a door behind you (the bathroom example) or leaving time (on your way to work or going out at night) might become more and more stressful. You might start getting noise complaints from your neighbors. You might start noticing that things are being chewed/ripped up/peed on while you are out… these are all signs that you need to start nipping this issue in the bud. Then there are the much more obvious signs as well: whining, screaming, barking, scratching at the door, howling, etc. but if this is going on you should already know you’ve got an issue on your hands!!! lol
There are some easy things you can do in this situation if you are noticing that your dog is really starting to cling to you. Even if you don’t work from home but you are dealing with a dog who is super attached to you that they HATE being home alone ever!
Go for a quick coffee grab in between walks and don’t bring them along. You’re only gone for a few minutes but they get to be alone and have you come back and everything is ok! While you’re in the house, close the door when you’re going to the bathroom. Close the door to collect your laundry from your bedroom. The idea isn’t to shut them out – it’s for them to understand that a closed door is no big deal. If you’re dealing with a dog that LEAPS onto you the minute you sit down you will need to start enforcing that boundary a little more as well – ie. having them wait for an invite onto the couch.
Create a leaving and coming home routine.
Before you leave you fill a hollow Kong with healthy treats (can be anything from peanut butter to carrots, to sweet potato to apples) and give it to them to keep them interested/focused. When you come home (depending on when you last took them out) you can do your outing. If you are coming home from work you can make the routine for your dog to greet you but WAIT and be calm until you get in the house, change your clothes, and are ready to take them out for a walk – it doesn’t have to be RIGHT AWAY. It’s all about what behaviours you reward. I’ll get back to that soon.
Make/Buy some brain activity games for them to do while you are out.
They have a ton of different ‘dog puzzles’ out there but you can make your own for WAYYYY less money and by doing this you can change things up and try different things – not just be limited to what you bought.
Give your dog their OWN SPACE.
This can be done through crate training or pen training – you can even create their own ‘bedroom’ for them – be creative! The idea is NOT to punish them by putting them in the crate or pen – it is to show them that they have a space that is their own, that they can relax and hang out while you are out that they WILL get to come out of when you come back, that they can play with their treats, take a nap, etc. This is key with puppies and can be more difficult with older dogs that aren’t used to it – but again, totally has to do with the behaviour. This might be a MUST if you’re dealing with destructive behaviour/marking behaviour to protect your home as well.
Reward the Right Behaviours.
This one is tough. Even I have issues with this one – but with my parrots not my dogs LOL. It really comes down to be mindful of what behaviour you are reinforcing and what behaviour you are trying to change. If your dog is freaking out to see you; happy and jumping and whining and barking and carrying on and you reciprocate you’ve just rewarded the behaviour. That is obvious. It’s the same with nervousness. You see it all the time with dog owners and their small dogs. A bigger dog will come to say hi – perhaps run towards them – and the small dog will get nervous/crouch down and the owner will pull the dog up off the ground and hug/cuddle and soothe the small dog. They do this out of love but they have just reinforced the fear and doing this over and over will most certainly cause their dog to have a fear of larger dogs and they will not be comfortable off leash or on around them whatsoever. Good intentions, wrong behaviour.
So if you’re dog is anxious to see you when you come through the door try staying calm, don’t let them jump on you, be very quiet (other than your chosen command) and use a hand signal to have them sit down. Take your shoes off, put your bag down, while maintaining your/their calm/quiet – then when they have achieved it (not just for a split second – but actually achieved calmness) reward them with your acknowledgement/love/going for a walk. It’s not “mean” to not reciprocate love right away – the dog will not get hurt feelings. In these cases think of small children at a pool when they want their mom to watch them do something and they are tugging on her yelling “mom, mom, mom, watch me, mom, mom” and the poor mother is trying to unpack their lunch of something lol yikes! Also think of the kid at the toy store who is asking for a toy over and over and over and over and then the parents is finally just like “fine – get the toy”… you can see where that behaviour – it’s the same with your dog (in this specific example – do NOT confuse children and dogs across the board – DOGS ARE DOGS!).
Do Not Lose Your Cool – Be Patient.
Behaviours take time to learn and they take time to ‘unlearn’. Repetition is key, a calm demeanor is key, sticking to it is key. You won’t see immediate changes in most cases but if you don’t stick with it anyway you won’t see any changes.
When you’re having a bad day always remember that your dog is a dog and they are not TRYING to frsustrate you – they WANT to please you and they just need to know what you want them to do. You don’t have the option to tell them with words so all you can do is tell them with your actions/your mood/your tone. Frustration throws all of those things off kilter and can make you give up even when you’re on the cusp of making real progress.
(This isn’t a bad thing to keep in mind for the rest of life too : p)