Dog Gone Problems is a weekly advice column by David Codr, a dog behaviorist in Omaha. David answers dog behavior questions sent in by our readers. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Dogs are very social creatures who thrive on community and do well with a regular schedule. So people being home the last few months because of the coronavirus pandemic has been an awesome time for most dogs.
While that is great for the dogs short-term, I fear that many dogs are going to start suffering from what I am referring to as the "coronavirus effect," where they are in such close proximity to their humans that they have forgotten how to be calm when left alone. Separation anxiety kicks in when a dog is left alone beyond his or her capacity to stay calm and relaxed. Over the last three weeks, I've discussed how you can help your dog develop skills that will help them practice being calm when left alone. We'll continue that discussion in this final blog, as well as learn how to put it all together.
But before we get into it, I'd like to add a disclaimer: If your dog has not achieved a minimum three-minute stay command five times in a row in five different locations in your house, you should not proceed any further until you have done so. Additionally, it’s always wise to set your dog up for success by exercising him or her beforehand and then resting 10 minutes before you start to practice anything. Please don’t discount the importance of exercise, as it will make it easier for you to accomplish your goals if your dog is properly exercised.
In order to help your dog avoid panicking when left alone, you need to start having him or her practice being apart from you. This needs to be accomplished very progressively and in very short sessions practiced multiple times a day.
When you're home, ask your dog to stay a foot or two away from you when sitting and watching TV rather than immediately next to you. Vary the length of times that you ask your dog to stay. Once your dog is very relaxed and settled staying a few feet away from you multiple times without getting up and moving away on his or her own, increase the distance by another foot or two. Keep repeating this process until the dog is on the complete other side of the room relaxing at a distance.
Next, have your dog practice being outside of the room but within eyesight. If your dog seems calm and relaxed at this distance, try having your dog stay in the other room so that he or she can't see you but can still hear your voice. Go slow. Ask the dog to stay for only a minute at first before you let him or her come back to you. As you practice, that duration needs to increase. Once dogs can achieve something for two hours, you usually do not have to practice beyond that. Some dogs might not even need that much practice.
Side note: You can supplement this by asking your dog to stay while you get up and move away. Before you get up to do something, first put your dog into a stay command before you depart for another room. Remember to release your dog as soon as you return. After you practice this for awhile, you can leave your dog in a stay position after you return for progressively longer periods of time.
After your dog is comfortable calmly staying outside of the room where he or she cannot see you, you’re ready for the final step — leaving your home. Get up and go to the door without grabbing your keys or any of the other triggers. Open the door, step through it and then close the door. As soon as the door is closed, open it back up and come back inside as if nothing happened. Do not pet your dog or engage with him or her. If your dog seems pretty relaxed from you departing for only a second, you can start increasing how long you wait before returning inside.
Once you’ve achieved a solid minute or more outside and your dog stays calm while inside, you can start adding different levels of difficulty — such as locking the door from the outside, opening the garage door or starting your car. These are important and sometimes difficult milestones, so if your dog gets upset when any of them are added to the equation, that is not unusual. But it's important you continue practicing at that step or back up one step and practice at an easier level until your dog is relaxed before moving onto the next stage.
I tell my clients to sit outside their home instead of actually leaving and, if possible, watch their dog through a security system or use FaceTime to watch how the dog behaves when there is no one in the home. Any time your dog shows signs of distress such as barking, drooling, pacing, digging or chewing inappropriate items, back up a step and continue practicing at that easier level until your dog is calm and relaxed before moving forward.
You can also give your dog something very appealing when you leave that can keep him or her occupied, such as a bully stick, cows knee, a no hide or other high-value chew item they can ingest. Chewing is a very healthy thing for dogs to do to calm down and relax. If you go slow and at your dog's speed, you should be able to leave for progressively longer periods of time without your dog freaking out.
Good luck and remember — everything you do trains your dog. Only sometimes you mean it.
Meet the 10 (very good) dogs who have been at the Nebraska Humane Society the longest:
Meet the 10 (very good) dogs who have been at the Nebraska Humane Society the longest
These are the very good dogs who have been at the Nebraska Humane Society the longest. All are up for adoption as of March 10. For more information on the adoption process and to see all dogs available for adoption, visit nehumanesociety.org/adopt.