Preventing separation-related behavior problems in dogs
– by Dr. Joni Delanoeije, dog ethologist and trainer
Many dog owners currently follow a new rhythm with their dogs, often spending much more time than ever with their beloved furry family member. Increasing time spent with our dogs provides opportunities for deepening our relationships with them and may elucidate our strong bond. However, when we anticipate returning"back to normal", some concerns arise. How then can we prevent separation-related problem behaviors (SRP’s)? Dog owners should notably anticipate and learn to respond to two major issues: dogs whining or showing excessive apathy.
First, owners should be aware that they may provide their dog with much more mental and physical stimulation compared to what they were used to before. Even when not actively engaging in activities with our dogs all day long, for many dogs the mere fact of their owner being at home does provide them with additional social enrichment. When owners return to work or start engaging in activities without their dogs once again, there is a high likelihood that dogs may create new daily behavioral patterns. If this suddenly occurs, dogs will need to seek different outlets for their energy, causing unwanted behaviors such as barking or destroying furniture, potentially harming dogs’ welfare through increased arousal and frustration.
Owners can prevent such a catharsis by slowly adapting their activities with their dogs already a couple of weeks before another change in rhythm will occur. The best would be to adapt their activities to the level that they will be able to preserve once they will go back to work. Importantly, since dogs need an appropriate level of mental and physical activity, owners may also think of other solutions to maintain their dogs’ current activities, e.g. by consulting neighbors willing to take care of their dog while they are away, changing their future working schedule or making extra time before or after work to maintain spending quality time with their dog.
Second, we should be aware that dogs are very attached to structure and that a sudden change in routine may cause unexpected or unwanted behaviors. Many dogs have experienced a routine change when their owners suddenly stayed home. Since dogs generally enjoy increased social company and activities, they easily adapt to such a routine change. The reverse, unfortunately, will likely be more problematic. Because dogs are highly social animals, their sensitivity to our daily routine and our time spent with them may cause difficulties for them to cope with the switch from increased owner-presence to sudden absence of their main attachment figure. Besides, dogs easily build expectations. Sudden routine changes are likely to violate these expectations, which may cause stress or frustration, harling dogs’ welfare. As a result, dogs that did not have any problem with being home alone to date may be at risk for developing SRP’s. On a positive note, for dogs that already experienced problems when being home alone, this period may function as a moment of relief. For their owners, this period is ideal for practicing short "absences" away from your dog, since we know that between 20% and 50% of dogs show signs of distress when being alone – these signs may be as subtle as behaving depressed and may not always be noticed by owners.
When training "absences" from your dog, the main message is to never leave your dog for any longer – not a minute – than he is capable of enduring in a relaxed way. Unlike many misconceptions, dogs will not get over their stress if you let them cry out and come back after. Dogs will only learn that being alone is stressful and won’t develop a healthy coping mechanism. Therefore, always prevent stress from occurring. To start off, provide your dog with a safe space (e.g. a big crate, a fenced area within your house, his favorite dog bed – or a combination of all these!) and a chew he likes. Use a ritual before you leave, say your dog good-bye and return before he shows any sign of distress (which can be as subtle as panting or pausing eating). For some dogs, "short" may include only a couple of minutes or even seconds. If you experience difficulties in this process, e.g. because your dog already starts showing signs of stress before you leave, consult a certified behavioral trainer that will help you and your dog throughout the process. Remember: as their main attachment figures, we’ re providing them the safety and predictability they need.
All in all, try to include as much predictability and routine in your day and practice short absences from your dog – a good rule of thumb could be to practice around three times a week absences lasting up to two or three hours. Aim for a gradual change towards a daily structure as similar as possible to the one you will have once you will get back to work and include resting times for your dog according to your future working schedule already. To help your dog in having enough dog-appropriate activities – either while currently working from home or while working from the office in the future –scent or tracking games can provide a lot of fun for your dog. Providing an appropriate level of both mental and physical activity will help your dog to become more relaxed during his demarcated times of rest and/or "alone time" in his day structure.
… As a thought experiment, we may want to consider whether our dog enjoys their current additional exercise and company. If so, we may want to think of possible future solutions to establish extended quality time with our furry friends. We may use this corona lockdown time to get to know our dogs, understand their psychological and physical needs and think of solutions for fulfilling these needs. Depending on the personality type of your dog and on the possibility for maintaining a certain amount of predictability, many "out-of-the box" solutions may in some circumstances enhance our dogs’ welfare; think of dog walkers, caring neighbors, changed working schedules, home-based telework, dog-allowed dinners with friends or even bringing your dog to work. In the end, dogs are members of our family and are genetically and psychologically equipped to behave accordingly.
Joni Delanoeije, PhD
Psychologist / Human-animal interaction researcher / Dog ethologist and trainer