Separation anxiety


When Ardbeg died Lily’s bond with us got visibly stronger, she became more dependent on us to tell her what to do in new situations and she started displaying some signs of separation distress. I guess I am prone to it as well, I would have just wanted to stay with her all the time. But it would be damaging for both of us.IMG_1898

So that’s what we did:

We avoid repeating long rituals before we go out (looking for keys, getting anxious, putting the jacket on and looking for a bag, phone, wallet and so on).

We opt for short rituals: jacket on, keys in hand, ready to go out.

We use them to make sure Lily associates them with something ordinary, not scary: ‘people go out and ALWAYS come back’ so :  1. we pick up the keys -Lily shows no anxiety, we give her a cuddle   2. we pick up the keys, walk to the door- Lily shows no anxiety, we give her a cuddle    3. we pick up the keys, walk to the door, go out, go back after a second, praise non-anxious Lily using a neutral tone   4. we repeat all this extending the period when we’re out. We praise Lily, give her a cuddle, but all that is casual, unlike in trick teaching. We don’t want her to get excited because we always come back. We want her to understand it’s normal: we go out, we come back, nothing special. We never say good-bye before we leave, we say hello when we come back, but again: it’s nothing to get too excited about. She associates us being out with the positive outcome: she’ll see us again and she’ll get a cuddle-but she wouldn’t want to speed up our return because the reward is so special.IMG_1908

Lily’s never left on her own for long – four hours is probably the longest. But in case she got bored, she has her kongs and chewy toys. She also has access to the garden at all times. Our two cats keep her company. Her own ‘safe’ bed is in the corner of the landing, she feels secure there, isolated from any noises or disturbances.IMG_1909

At first I was leaving her my scarf and background noise on the laptop (there’s music and TV for dogs, but I think BBC4 on the radio works well for my dogs, possibly because I tend to have it on all the time when I’m home). But I don’t think Lily needs it. It’s been a month and now she shows absolutely no signs of separation anxiety when we go out. Don’t get me wrong: she probably isn’t happy about it, but she doesn’t seem to show any emotional distress at all. And it’s important because stress means suffering. We don’t do suffering in our house if we can help it.

Because Lily has never actually developed separation anxiety, our desensitisation process was more preventive than rehabilitative. Dogs with serious problems will need more work and patience. In extreme cases I would definitely recommend asking your vet for a behaviourist referral.


9 thoughts on “Separation anxiety

  1. I know how very lucky I am to have a pretty mellow puppy. I’m with Fergus most of the time because I’m mostly retired, and when I leave, I generally take him with me. “You wanna go for a ride?” being his six most favorite words. He knows when I’m getting ready to go out and stays right by me, sometimes with the plush toy we always take when we “go for a ride”, just so I don’t forget him. But, on those occasions when he has to stay home, I fill the Kong with peanut butter and put it in his playpen with a full water dish and one of his cushy beds. He goes in, I tell him calmly what a good boy he is, I don’t say goodbye, I just leave. No fuss. When I get back, like you, it’s hello and cuddles, but he never leaps up and gets excited, he stays in his bed and the little tail starts wagging. So lucky.

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  2. We do have to use melatonin for our dog sometimes when we leave her. Sometimes, we just can’t bring them along, but it sure would be nice if we could.

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    1. It depends on the dog as well. Some dogs are really bad at coping on their own. The sooner this tendency is spotted and worked on the bigger chances of success, but every dog is different. All my dogs have been rescues, they are generally prone to this type of problems. I can take Lily to work but I don’t want her to be to dependent on my presence. I want her to be able to cope with life without getting scared- after all, she nearly died in the shelter because she was terrified of everything. But again, she’s unique- as is any dog, so there are as many solutions as there are dogs 🙂 And I think it’s often that both the dog and us hate being apart…


    1. That’s kind of basic, I didn’t need a lot as she didn’t get as far as developing a full-blown separation anxiety. And each dog is different: if he chews doors and furniture, he’ll need a long walk before, with some training and treats and a good toy he can spend hours chewing (well, kongs are really good-I’m not trying to sell them, they just are). Some working breeds might just find it too much to spend hours at home doing nothing. The most serious situation, when the dog is self-harming requires an urgent vet visit with a request for a behaviourist referral. It’s also important to remember: dogs are not vicious and spiteful: they suffer and try to cope. So, as much as I’d like to cuddle Lily before I go out and tell her all the silly things (‘mummy won’t be long, I love you, poor little thing’) I don’t, because I’m supposed to be the more reasonable one and protect her from pain and anxiety…It’s harder for the owners, really!

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      1. Yes that’s true! Mum frets about leaving Erin, but she’s actually quite intelligent-the dog, that is- and only gets upset if Mum makes a fuss…we’ve given her kongs but she just looks at us as if to say” well what am I supposed to do with this?” I’ve shown her but she’s really not that bothered…what are stimulating toys for GSDs?!

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      2. GSDs have been bred to be very intelligent 😉 The problem with so called ‘intelligent’ (human-type, or IQ or problem solving, remembering patterns and so on) is that they get bored easily and they need constant mental stimulation. She needs to earn her kong, anything that is given for free has no value 😉 Use it in training, teach her to retrieve it and then whatever is in it can be her prize (she still needs to get it out). Teaching a dog to bring a toy needs to be broken into segments. First: hold the toy, the dog touches the toy with her nose: cue, treat, still holding the toy but further from you, the dog touches the toy, treat. Increase the distance and then give her a treat ONLY when she picks the toy up (no fetching yet is absolutely fine), finally, she’ll fetch it. It lasts between 3 and 5 minutes (all the segments done successfully) but needs to be repeated often, in various places, with all members of the family (dogs are clever: she might think you give her the treat only when she brings this particular toy when you’re facing her in the living room, in the morning). Anyway, it doesn’t need to be a kong. You can hide some food in places where she’s allowed to go and she might amuse herself with this when alone (well, it needs to be taught first, too). GSDs need a lot of exercise, too. They’re usually super easy to train, though. All dogs learn very fast when they know what we want from them (thus, little chunks rather than: a command like: ‘go to the shop and bring me a pint of milk and my paper’ and staring at the dog). Cognition/intelligence testing is actually a great way to interact with the dog, too, it’s a good idea to try the tests. It tells you more about what the dog is good at and not so good at. Ah, and you can make your own ‘educational’ toys. From plastic bottles or paper boxes. Too much for one comment, maybe I should write more posts about more practical things 😉

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