What help can I give my dog to reintroduce them to being comfortable alone when I am in the office?
Firstly, understand them, and be aware that they aren’t doing any behaviours to ‘annoy you’ or ‘be mischievous’ and he/she is not ‘naughty’. Any signs of a problem being left mean that your dog is either anxious through fear, or frustration, or perhaps boredom. Filming your dog is a way to find out whether the problem is boredom or anxiety. To a dog, separation issues can feel like when we have a full-blown panic attack, so it really is extremely distressing for them.
Anxiety is displayed in other ways (Please see “How will I know if my dog starts to have separation anxiety”.) If your dog doesn’t appear to have an issue – they calmly go and lie down once you’re gone - then this is fantastic. Ensure that this continues by asking someone you trust to go in and let them out to the toilet every hour (or as often as possible after that) to start with. The helper should arrive and leave calmly, as low-key as possible. If they report any signs that the dog has been anxious, please see below for how to help them.
Once you know what kind of reaction your dog has when you’re not at home, then you can start to help them. If boredom is a problem, food puzzles such as Kongs ™ or dispensers are great. Try to leave at least one to keep them busy and provide mental stimulation. You could also leave a ‘treasure hunt’ around the room or a larger area of the house. Harringtons Freshbakes are great for this because your dog will use their natural scenting abilities to track down the prizes!
Mental exercise is probably as tiring, if not more, than physical exercise, and scent work plays to a dog’s natural problem-solving abilities. Try to exercise your dog before you leave, dedicating the last 5-10 minutes of the walk to actually just walking and sniffing, especially if your dog has been playing or running around. This will help them physically and mentally calm down. Ensure they’ve been to the toilet and always leave them with access to fresh water.
If, however, your dog is anxious when left, you will need to gradually build up to being able to leave them. If you have to leave them before they are comfortable with it, please try to leave them with someone else or take them with you if you can – being left for periods that they cannot cope with will likely set you right back in your training and make the problem worse.
Firstly, desensitize the ‘triggers’ that your dog recognises as signs that you are leaving, such as keys, shoes, coats and bags. Pick these up/wear them at random times when you’re NOT going to leave, so that they become unrelated to you going. Do this often and make it very casual. Don’t engage your dog whilst you do this, just let it become a normal and inconsequential occurrence (although sitting reading the paper in your coat may not be very normal to you!)
Once your dog isn’t reacting to these triggers you can move towards practicing leaving. Choose a time when you have exercised your dog and he/she is relaxed and lying down. Calmly walk towards the door, open it, close it and go and sit back down. There’s no need to engage with your dog – keep it low-key. If your dog doesn’t react to this, repeat it later but step outside the door, back in and carry on what you were previously doing. Repeat each step multiple times without any fuss until your dog isn’t reacting at all – that means, they are hardly noticing what you’re doing. Next you can close the door behind you before coming back in again. Then close it and count 5 seconds. Increase your time away like this but work at your dog’s pace – they must be calmly accepting each step before you increase to the next.
One of the biggest things you can do to help them is to persevere with this process. It does take time and it is hard work but it’s SUCH a big pay-off for you and for your dog. To know that they are happy when they’re alone is a huge comfort for you, and is the ultimate for their mental welfare.
Remember, if you and your dog are struggling with this problem, please contact an accredited behaviourist https://ukdogcharter.org/