When it’s time to go to work in the morning, the last thing I need is another dose of guilt and stress. So when I brought home my new puppy, Oliver, I was disturbed (to say the least) when neighbors began complaining about his incessant barking while I was away. I’d leave for a quick run, and would return to hear him barking from three blocks out. Sunglasses were ruined. Toilet paper was shredded. No matter how many nos I issued, isolated areas I left him in, and kisses I gave him, nothing worked. After some research, I realized that I hadn’t brought home the devil incarnate—little Ollie was just suffering from some fairly common pet separation anxiety.
According to ABC News, more than ten million dogs across the country deal with separation anxiety—barking, whining, and wreaking destruction on anything in their sight as soon as their owners leave the house.
“The dogs are feeling out of their element and wondering where their mommy or daddy is,” says Kevin Salem, master trainer, dog psychologist, and author of DogSecrets.com.
Luckily, there are a handful of things that we can do to ease the stress of saying goodbye.
Work Up to It
Most pups, especially younger, untrained ones, feel scared and confused when their caretaker leaves them. The mistake many of us make is assuming that they understand we’re coming back. The problem is, the whole leave-and-return routine is new to them. If we don’t teach it to them through practice, most will continually feel scared and confused every time we walk out the door. “Leave the dog for a few shorter periods before the actual departure,” says Salem. Whether you’re planning on leaving her with a friend or at a kennel for a few days during a vacation—or just at home while you work—practicing leaving your dog for shorter spurts of time will prepare her for success when the real deal rolls around.
First, get her used to being alone by separating her into other rooms of the house. This means I’ll go inside a room, shut the door (with the dog on the outside), and stay there for a few minutes (be prepared for heavy whining and barking). After she gets used to this, we can kick the training process up a notch by leaving the house briefly—just stepping outside the door for a few minutes. Salem recommends working up to leaving the dog for an hour, a few hours, and then a half day, and making sure it’s always a positive experience: “Leave a toy or blanky that the dog likes,” he says. Most importantly, be patient. It may take twenty or thirty times before the dog stops getting upset. Every dog will react differently, but he’ll get used to it eventually.
Keep Things Laid-Back
Despite being greeted like a long-lost hero when we come home, we shouldn’t make our comings and goings a big deal, says the Humane Society. (I suppose this means my usual ten minutes of cuddling and telling Oliver how much I love him before I leave and when I get home isn’t exactly setting him up for independence.) Remaining nonchalant as we come and go shows the dog that there really isn’t anything to get worked up over.
Make It Special
Is your dog still not adjusting to the whole home-alone thing? Try adding a treat into the mix. If he’s staying with a friend or at a kennel while you’re on vacation, allowing his caretakers to spice up his usual diet can distract him from missing his usual routine.
“If you never give the dog canned food,” says Salem, “try giving [him] some mixed with the usual dry food for just that time period.”
Also, ensure that the kennel or pet-sitter is going to make the stay exciting and filled with exercise, games, or other furry friends. This keeps the dog distracted and excited about the new situation, says Salem.
If your pooch is used to having lights on and hearing background noise from the television or radio, shutting everything down and abruptly leaving her in a dark, quiet house is sure to make her feel confused and skittish. While it kills me to waste electricity, I’ve succumbed to leaving one light on and keeping some music quietly playing when I go out, so the place still feels like home even when I’m not there. Bonus: this also distracts from outside noises that set him off on barking sprees.
Salem emphasizes that dog owners should implement (and avoid) a handful of training techniques to ease the separation drama from the start.
Don’t let your dog follow you from room to room. Perfecting that “stay” command can prepare dogs for success at being left alone. “Leave him in the crate or leash him to the couch, and go to another room,” Salem says. “Ignore any whining.” As soon as the noise-making stops—even for just a few seconds—reward the dog by freeing him.
Practice the leaving routine without leaving. “Grab your keys, put on your shoes, and then just sit there,” he says. This shows the dog that these aren’t signals that should freak him out.
Cut back on constant petting. We do it out of love, but it makes a dog constantly look to us for love and reassurance. “If the dog comes up to you ten times for attention, ignore her for five of them,” he says.
Minimize the in and out. “Let him know that sometimes he has to be outside, even when you are inside,” he says. This way, he’ll realize that being left alone isn’t all that scary, and that we do always come back. It will also make the routine more consistent—being home alone all day without being let out (or in) will seem normal.
Taking the time to put these practices in place—and being consistent with them—is all it takes for most dogs to develop healthier, more house-friendly habits. “Sometimes owners have more anxiety than the dog,” says Salem. “Dogs need a strong leader. A strong owner results in a strong, independent dog.”