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No need to panic when leaving a dog on its own

Dog owners whose dogs manage to spend time on their own for a while without complaint consider themselves lucky. This is certainly the result of a responsible upbringing that successfully removed any feelings of stress from the dog. Unfortunately, there are many dogs that suffer greatly from loneliness, which is extremely stressful not only for the dogs but also for their owners. But how can this problem be prevented so that both master/mistress and four-legged friend can be spared this misery?

Step-by-step training from day one

Regardless of breed, combination of breeds or "personality type", prevention in this case is all about gradual, consistent training. In this context, you should ensure that not every minute is spent with your dog - as to do so would undermine the waiting training. No mother dog in the world would spend all her time with her puppy at giving-away age. As her worthy successor, you should follow her example and start the waiting training with small everyday things.

Exercises for puppies

As previously mentioned, the dog should be trained to spend time on its own, starting in small steps from puppy age so that separation anxiety never actually occurs. The first exercises begin at home: Every puppy will instinctively follow its master or mistress everywhere. This need should also be tolerated during the first few weeks as it strengthens the bond with and trust in its owner. However, it is advisable to incorporate brief periods of separation from the outset. Start by leaving the room for a short time. Close the door behind you, count to three and return to the dog. It is very important not to pay attention to the dog when leaving or on your return and to give the impression that the separation is perfectly natural. Make sure that you never return to your dog or give it attention if it whines. Naturally, it is heart-breaking to listen to a puppy crying for its owner, but giving it attention at that moment will merely serve to confirm the puppy's fears and lead to ever-increasing levels of psychological stress in the future. Also resist the temptation to reward your dog for waiting so bravely. Doing so will merely raise its expectations accordingly and cause it to anticipate your return with even more excitement.

Gradually increase the frequency of the separation phases:

Once your puppy accepts short periods of separation without complaint, you can gradually lengthen them. Vary the length in an irregular pattern as your dog will otherwise interpret the training situation as just that. Then move the training outside and leave the house. Proceed in the same way as you did for training inside your home. The only difference is that you must always incorporate key indicators of your departure: Put on your coat, take your keys and your handbag. It must look convincing to the dog! In this case, you must also depart and return without displaying any emotions. Pay no further attention to the dog and, if you do greet it, only do so after it has completely calmed down after its joy in seeing you again. If you gradually increase the duration of your absence as part of this training, you will soon have a dog that can be left on its own for a couple of hours without difficulty.

Dogs with separation anxiety

Training a fully-grown dog to spend time on its own if it has never been taught to do so as a puppy is much more difficult. Particularly those dogs with separation anxiety demand a great deal of patience, consistency and understanding and in some cases even the most intensive training will be to no avail. As a rule, the structure of the training required is identical to that described above, however, specific nuances must be considered.

Training steps to counter separation anxiety

As already mentioned, the training for anxious dogs is similar to that used for puppies. However, the traditional key indicators play a far more significant role in this context. Generally speaking, the dog will already know what it means if its owner puts on his or her shoes and reaches for a coat and keys. Therefore, its response to these stimuli must first be mitigated. Perform your normal departure ritual over and over again without actually leaving the house and fulfilling your dog’s worst fears. Unfortunately, frequent repetition in this case does not mean just ten times per day, but more like hundreds of times (which is of course unrealistic on some days. Nevertheless, you should perform as many training sessions as possible.). Only when your dog casts a bored glance in your direction as you put on your jacket yet again have you achieved the first really major success. You can now begin to leave the house for seconds at a time. Once again, the same rule applies: No commentary and no reward when you depart and arrive! Gradually increase the duration of your absence and schedule your training so that it is unpredictable for your dog. It can also be very useful to check the progress of the training with the help of a camera. Another rule that is often difficult to follow but essential for a successful outcome is that your dog must never be left on its own outside the training sessions. Otherwise, it will fall back into old habits and even the smallest amount of progress achieved will be undone.

Little aids for distraction

Although rewards are counter-productive when you return, they can be extremely helpful during your absence. You can teach your dog to associate spending time on its own with something special: Give it something special to chew or a favourite toy that can occupy your dog for an extended period. A filled Kong is another effective distraction method. Depending on the recipe used, it can occupy a dog for several hours. Always bear in mind that there is a certain risk of injury if a dog is left unsupervised with toys or items to chew. Whether the benefit outweighs the risk for you and your dog is something you must decide for yourself.

Separation anxiety or loss of control?

Since the reactions in both cases are similar, they are not very easy to distinguish. In the case of loss of control, the dog sees itself as being responsible for looking after its “people” and is frustrated if it cannot perform this duty. However, this feeling has nothing to do with separation anxiety. If your dog jumps at you forcefully when you enter the house without displaying any calming signals such as a bowed head, retracted ears or a lowered tail, it is reprimanding you for abandoning it and causing it to lose control over you! In everyday situations, it is then often the dog that makes decisions, whose behaviour restricts its owner's movements and has him or her continuously running after the dog.

Recognising genuine separation anxiety

An important indicator in recognising separation anxiety is also the behaviour of the dog when the person returns home. If your dog greets you with a bowed head, raised ears and a lowered tail and crawls up to you to lick your face, it is showing you respect. This type of dog that is unable to remain on its own is very likely suffering from separation anxiety. However, there are other indications that point to fears of loss. Observe your dog after you have arrived home. Stressed dogs have an elevated body temperature, which you can feel with your bare hand. They also pant, shiver or salivate strongly. Even if your dog is exhausted after your return, this indicates that it was under constant stress during your absence. To confirm your suspicions, you can record your dog with a camera while you are out. If your dog watches or scratches the door, if it runs around tirelessly or whines and barks (the barking frequently turns into a howl), these are clear symptoms of pronounced separation anxiety.