Two weeks ago I celebrated with one of my separation anxiety clients over her newfound ability to leave her dogs alone for three-plus hours without barking complaints from her apartment neighbors. And then suddenly the gym where she could finally climb the rock wall again closed and the library that she visited on her first night of dog-less freedom closed and the coffee shops closed and… you know where this is going. But I’m not the kind of person to dwell on the negative, and neither is she, so we had a good laugh about the irony of it all.
Then it hit me: This Coronavirus shutdown is the PERFECT time for us to teach dogs how to handle being alone.
On its face that statement doesn’t seem to make sense. How can dogs learn to be alone if we don’t leave them to go to work or the gym or the grocery store? The answer is that now that we don’t have to leave for extended periods of times, we can finally leave in small enough increments that teach the pups that there is nothing to worry about.
Let me explain. When someone is scared—dogs, cats, people, you name it—we can teach them to overcome their fear by using a behavioral psychology process called systematic desensitization. Basically, we introduce the thing that is scary but at a level that is not scary.
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Take my arachnophobia, for example. If I want to overcome the fear that was instilled in me at a young age when my house was infested by big, brown, furry, eight-legged monsters (OMG I’m sweating just writing about this!), the first thing I’d need to do is figure out how far away I could be from a spider without being scared. Let’s say that distance is 10-feet away with a spider in an enclosed tank.
So I’m 10 feet away. I’m in a comfy chair, eating chocolate, reading Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts (amazing book if you’re looking), and I feel fine. No sweats, no goosebumps, no worry lines on my forehead. I am completely relaxed. Great. Let’s see if I can inch a little closer. Nine feet away—still no problem. Eight feet—I’m good. Seven feet—gulp! Way too close. Let’s back ‘er up a bit… 7.5 feet—all good.
Little by little I move closer, but only as long as I still feel fine. If after I finally made it to six feet without any worry, the spider got out of the tank and started running towards me, I would scream and run away, and the progress I had made would be wiped clean. The key is controlling that distance so that I can always feel safe.
Let’s apply this to dogs who are scared to be alone now.
Almost every dog that I work with flies to the door the second their people walk to the door, turn the door handle, or open the door. Pups are not dummies. They’ve figured out that every time the keys make that jingly sound or the jacket goes on, their people leave through that door, and their terror begins. We know this because they whimper; they stiffen; they yawn; they lick their lips; they bark; they howl; they jump up to the door knob; they scratch and chew the door, the frame, the floor; they lose their bladders; they break out of their crates and cut themselves in the process…
All of those behaviors are rooted in fear. Notice how your dog does not do that when someone else is there? They’re scared when they’re alone, and so—just as I would scream in terror if someone locked me in a room with spiders (OMGOMGOMG!)—if we stop scaring them, the “bad” behaviors go away too.
So rather than thinking of separation anxiety training as something to “teach your dog that you always come back in,” think of it as training to “teach your dog that nothing bad ever happens when you walk out that door.” In order to do that, you have to watch their body language to control how long you are gone, just as I would have to pay attention to how I’m feeling to control my distance from spiders.
Find that starting point. When you turn your door knob, does your dog fly to the door? Then don’t turn the door knob yet. Just walk to the door and then go back and sit down. Can you open the door halfway, but all the way is too far? Fine, only open it halfway until you dog doesn’t even look up when you go to do that. Can you stand outside with the door closed for 1 second, but 2 seconds is too long? Ok! Great info. Keep it under 2 seconds.
Get the idea? There will never be a better time in our society for us to help so many dogs overcome their fears of being alone, because we’re all home! We can still go outside for a drive or a walk and be safe from infection, so pick one or two times a day to do 30-minutes of alone-time exercises.
And for all the wonderful people who are adopting dogs right now, do these exercises too! Teach your dog that nothing bad ever happens when you walk out the door before anything bad does happen. Just as you wouldn’t simply throw a dog in a crate without teaching him to feel comfortable in it first, don’t leave a new dog alone home without giving him the skills to handle it. Up to 55% of dogs worldwide exhibit some kind of separation-related problem, so why risk that happening to your dog too? Tackle the issue before it becomes a problem.