In the previous two parts of this series, we discussed the reasons why some pets develop separation distress, as well as how to tell if your dog is suffering from it.
This month’s article and the last section to the series, we’re going to look at things that can be done to prevent it from happening.
NOTE: While there are certain things that owners can do to help prevent their dog from developing SRD, it is by no means a recipe.
Therefore, if you do suspect that your dog may be suffering from SRD, please contact a COAPE Qualified behaviourist in your area for help.
A quick recap:
In PART 1 of the series, it becomes clear that a lot of skills for coping when left alone should be taught by the breeder or initial caretaker of the pup before she is 6 weeks old.
So do remember to ask about this when you are looking at a puppy/dog that you want to add to your family. If no information is available, you’ll need to do some remedial work to help your puppy/dog learn these valuable skills.
Timing is everything:
Most people adopt their pups at 8 weeks of age, and while the pups may be physically able to cope with rehoming at that age, from a behavioural point of view it is generally not the best time.
Why? Because most dogs have a significant milestone involving their ability to experience fear at around 8 weeks of age.
When is the ideal time? It’s best to wait until pup is 9 weeks old before bringing him home. Of course, if you wait too long you also decrease the time you have available to socialize your pup. Simply try to stick to as close to 9 weeks as you can.
Tips when bringing puppy home:
NOTE: the first night at your house will likely be the first time that your pup is sleeping on his own.
1. Create a comforting environment to help him deal with the adjustment. Put a hot water bottle in his bed, even if it’s summer, as the chances are that he slept with his mom/littermates up to now and that would’ve meant warm bodies next to him.
A hot water bottle and a ticking clock can go a long way toward easing his loneliness in a strange place, because being all alone in a new bed, with no warm bodies and nothing that smells familiar is not great.
2. When going to meet him, take a blanket with to his ‘old’ home and ask the breeder or caretaker to let him sleep with it for a few nights prior to bringing him home. Yes yes, it’ll get torn and dirty, but it will get that familiar and comforting smell. Place this blanket in his new bed once at your home and let him snuggle with it (don’t wash it until he’s fully settled in).
3. While I understand you may not want your pet to sleep in your room forever, it can help a lot to prevent separation anxiety in dogs. Allow him to sleep in his own bed next to yours for the first week or so.
Trust me, it’s a lot easier to teach him to sleep in a different room when he’s a bit older than it is to deal with a dog who suffers from separation anxiety. By allowing him to sleep in your room where there are noises and the sound of people breathing at night, you will enable him to get to know you, your house and his new environment while feeling safe (and not terrified).
REMEMBER: A dog who feels safe adjusts a lot faster than one who is overwhelmed and scared. If he cries, please don’t ignore him. Those are cries of true distress and ignoring him won’t make him feel any better.
If you keep in mind that it is hurting him to be alone (refer to part 1) it becomes cruel to leave a puppy to “cry it out”. It causes tremendous emotional damage, and really shouldn’t be done. If he cries, simply lower your hand and touch him. Don’t talk and play though - because you don’t want to turn it into a fun playtime, and night-time is sleep time after all .
It’s also not necessary for you to sleep on a mattress in the lounge for the first six weeks while your new puppy adjusts. His security will eventually be established around ‘his’ bed, therefore you should provide him with a really comfortable bed that you can move around (especially if you intend to change the sleeping locations later).
When is later?
Once he’s sleeping through the night and he knows that his bed is his safe space, you can then gradually move the bed to a new room if you want him to sleep elsewhere.
BEHAVIOURIST'S TIP: I want to add here that I am not in favour of dogs sleeping outside, regardless of their age, for a multitude of reasons (including safety), so if at all possible, please rather choose a safe room inside your house such as the kitchen or the laundry room if you don’t want him sleeping in the lounge or in your room.
Prevent separation distress head on:
Teach your dog to be alright when you’re not available or when you’re away.
1. Make sure that he has an abundant supply of delicious and fun chew toys available that he knows how to use. This may sound silly, but you’d be surprised how many dogs don’t know how to use their chew toys.
How to choose the right chew toy:
- It must be safe (e.g. can be digested OR that it isn’t a choking hazard i.e. fit down their trachea)
- Their jaws should be strong enough to actually chew it (not too hard OR not too complicated)
Why? If the toy is more work than play - he’ll lose interest and won’t use it.
Quick toy introduction and tips:
Let’s say you choose a KONG as it’s a high value dog toy.
- Start by making the Kong easy for your pet: don’t stuff it too tightly or make it too difficult for the food to fall out.
There are many recipes and ideas on Kong’s website (www.kongcompany.com) too. Do read some of their tips on how to introduce the toy, how to teach them to enjoy it, play with it and chew it, before you give a Kong to your pet.
- Once he knows how to use the Kong, you can start giving it to him three or four times a day instead of providing food in a bowl. When he’s busy with his Kong, it’s the ideal time to leave him alone. The whole point of this exercise is to teach him to tolerate being on his own without humans around - so if you interact with him or interrupt him the whole time when he wants to focus on his Kong, you are not teaching him this critical skill.
- He’s allowed to eat the Kong around you but try not to talk or engage with him when he has this. When he’s really focussed on his Kong, get up and move around so he gets used to the idea that you’re not always there when the Kong is.
- ONLY once he’s had some practice and with being occupied by the lovable Kong while you’re there, can you start giving him the Kong a few minutes before you leave.
If you only give the Kong when you’re leaving him alone, the Kong itself will quickly become the signal that he’s about to be abandoned, which is why you must also give it in your presence or when you’re home.
REMEMBER: For every one time he gets it when you’re away, he needs to get it ten times when you’re at home.
2. Try to avoid all emotional peaks or arousal paired with arrival or departures. By making a huge fuss, you’re just adding to your dog’s possible anxiety. You can also rile him up if you turn saying goodbye into an event, and then when you leave him he’s left behind with all that energy and nowhere to channel it. Keep your comings and goings as calm and nonchalant as possible.
3. When you’re at home, don’t always be available to your dog, because your absence will be felt more keenly and will have a bigger impact on him.
When at home, give him time to be a dog: just let him dig in his digging patch, let him chew his toys, let him play outside on his own or even let him scatter kibbles in the garden to track down and eat.
That way, you’re keeping balance in his life and he will not experience distress when you leave. As flattering as it may be to have a dog who is completely dependent on you, remember that it is not pleasant for the dog. Every time you leave to go work, go out with friends or even head out for mundane things like grocery shopping, it could cause him great emotional distress, and who would want that for their best friend?
4. Have certain places in your house as a “no dogs zone”. Humans have yet to disappear down the toilet when going to the bathroom, so keep bathrooms off-limits. This will introduce a little bit of alone time for the dog, which will help him to learn to cope with social separation at a very mild level.
5. If you’re adopting an older dog from a rescue centre, try not to flood your new family member with attention and love from the moment he gets home. Yes it is indeed tempting, but it can have devastating effects on the dog if you give him your undivided attention for the first three days, while he is learning about your routine and lifestyle.
Why is this important?
Because he’ll come to expect flooding of emotions and admiration. When you do then go back to work, he may be completely lost because this is not what he is familiar with. Instead start off on the cooler side of the affection scale and as time goes by, increase the amount you give him. That is far less likely to cause that “velcro superglue” effect and will help the dog cope a lot better.
Make a point of giving him yummie toys to keep himself occupied and remember to pop out for a few minutes during his first week at your house so he understands that you do leave – but that you also and always come back home.
As mentioned, there are dogs who are extremely prone to separation distress, and no amount of preparation will be sufficient to stop them from feeling distressed when left alone.
The good news though is that you can find help for your dog and sooner is always better than later! Visit https://www.capbt.org.za/ and find someone in your area who can guide you through the process of addressing separation distress today.