So technically it is a compliment. But it feels far from comforting to know that when we are their world, they stress so much when we swap their company for the reality of work, a shopping trip or a night away...
While there’s no doubt the last two years of more home time have heightened that dependence, at some stage we need to develop their home alone skills. And it is possible with some planning and patience. Just try to remember that the longer those separation anxiety signs have been around, the longer it may take to turn around…
Here are the classic calling cards of separation anxiety: - Whimpering - Repetitive barking (and often howling) - Pacing - Digging - Destruction - Toilet ‘accidents’
Importantly, none of this is your dog being deliberately ‘bad’. It’s just them trying to cope as best they can. Even if it means your favourite shoes, cushions, bag of gravel (thanks Buzz) or neighbours patience sometimes get a little frayed…
Ok let’s get started…
STEP ONE: Take a stroll. But only a stroll! Sure you’ve probably heard morning exercise is useful, but the key is actually the type. Anything too long or involving multiple intense interactions with other dogs can actually heighten their stress levels before you even truly begin the day. So keep it to a gentle walk (around 30 minutes is ideal…unless they’re a highly active dog who needs a run) remembering the key is to keep it all nice and calm.
STEP TWO: Your departure prep begins! It’s all about giving them the tools to cope with some alone time. And one of the most useful is supplements. But rather than using anything that ‘sedates’ them, my go-to is the amino acid called L-theanine which is derived from green tea. This is proven to promote calmness while reducing irritability and those worrying anxiety related signs. Thankfully, I use L-theanine in my Calm + Collected treats (and School Snacks for the little ones!) so you don't have to worry about sourcing it yourself. Just a few snacks at least 45 minutes before you leave will make a huge difference.
STEP THREE: Time for some self-soothing! So here’s the thing. Every dog is equipped with some instinctive coping mechanisms for moments like these. You just need to help them brush on these skills they’re actually born with and rarely use in real life. They’re called ‘self-soothing’ techniques (SST’s) and the key is identifying which one your pup has in their little kit bag by watching what toys or items of yours they seem drawn to when they’re stressed or bored.
The three most common self-soothing techniques (SST) are: - Chewing - Licking - Sucking
You may even need to video them to work it out. But once you have their SST, you need to build up their soothing skills. If you have a chewer, try soft and hard textures (in chew toys) to see what they enjoy the most. If you have a licker or sucker, find a time occupying device (like a toy or mat) and a treat you can stuff it with. (Tip: Drool balls and School Snacks sticks do fit perfectly into Kongs)
Then, just before you leave, encourage them onto their SST in a place where they feel relaxed.
At first, only leave for 2 minutes. Then 5. And then 10 minutes. This is all about them learning to rely on AND develop their self-soothing skills. Just don’t make a big deal when you depart…and return.
Once those self-soothing skills do develop and the time apart can increase, 30 minutes for a coffee can easily build to a full day at work. The ideal result is that they sooth themselves to sleep. A little activity during the day is normal and positive. You'll often find that after wandering around looking for signs of you, they will return to their self-soothing if they feel lonely again.
Follow the steps in order and together, you might just conquer the most challenging of all furry family fears. This won't be easy on either of you. But the love will survive even with some time apart. But honestly, knowing they can at least relax without you is often the greatest gift of all. Good luck.