The current situation of pandemic-induced-Lockdown is creating interesting times in the world of dog behaviour. On one hand, due to people not going out of the home to work, we have the utopian concept of more dogs than ever being taken out of rescue shelters to be fostered or rehomed. At the same time, families with existing dogs have more time at home to interact and bond with their dogs, and even take on a long-desired puppy.
However, the flip side to all of this is that we are seeing a huge increase in problems relating to dogs who are getting confused and overwhelmed by the almost constant attention they are receiving from their human family in some lockdown conditions. This over stimulation has the possibility of showing up in problem behaviour instantly (dogs who seem to have no “off button”), and also post-lockdown, when the human family return to the lives they were living before.
Happily, all problematic dog behaviour can be tackled with a little understanding of how a canine understands the world in which it lives, and by implementing some easy and simple daily strategies. I have repeated experiences of calming over-excited dogs extremely quickly, sometimes within a couple of hours, but often it is only a matter of minutes and only using appropriate body language. However, the preparation for future separations of the household following an intense period of lockdown should be seen more as a work in progress that you can start working on right away.
See below for my strategies to implement now to help your dog remain calm and to give him the best chance of avoiding Separation Anxiety post-lockdown:
- Start your day peacefully. Don’t acknowledge ANY excited behaviour, only acknowledge a calm dog and have a gentle cuddle if you have initiated the contact by calling the dog to you. If you can’t achieve this, have breakfast without acknowledging the dog and try again afterwards.
- Assuming you have a dog and a human ready to go outside for a walk together, lockdown is THE perfect time to work on walking TOGETHER calmly on lead (a dog that pulls is a dog who is taking care of business for you, not joining you in recreational activity).
- When at home together, ensure that the balance of activity vs rest is appropriate! Without our human intervention, canines would choose to rest and relax most of the time with short bursts of hunting or enjoyable play here and there. Any dog (or human!) who cannot achieve this, needs calmly and consistently reminding that this is a healthier and happier way to live.
- Once there is more peace in your lives, you can directly and effectively ensure that your dogs do not suffer from separation anxiety. Build into your day times when you and your dog are not in the same room together. You may need to build this up very sensitively if you have a dog who has trouble when prevented from being with you. Begin very easily and gently by, when the dog is calm and without looking in his direction nor saying goodbye, simply walking out of the room, closing the door behind you. To avoid distress, walk back in after a few moments and resume what you were doing WITHOUT EYE CONTACT with the dog (this bit is so important). This is what is known as Gesture Leaving and is a very effective ritual in building up a dog’s tolerance to being left in a room alone. Continue to build short episodes into your day that get a little longer and a little longer. If you can, use different rooms and areas, for example, go out of the back door without the dog and come back in (disregarding the dog), same with the front door etc etc. Even if you live in a small apartment or an open plan house, there is always a door somewhere… usually on the bathroom – so there are no excuses for not practicing this essential and preparatory ritual. When you are getting proficient you can add in other potential triggers like keys jangling, locking/unlocking the door, putting different shoes on, putting a coat on first. All without looking at or speaking to the dog showing him it is of no concern to him.
- Gesture Leaving can be as simple as this to begin with:
- NEVER leave the dog with food in hope that he will not notice you going or not become bored because he is eating. Not only is it unadvisable from a safety perspective (choking hazards, or think of the damage to dog or furniture if the dog rolls the food item under something and then spends his time trying to get it back…), but it is key when learning about canine behaviour to understand the symbolic nature of food. We should ALWAYS be in charge of food, never leaving them to decide what to do with it and when.
- Finally, some understanding of WHY a dog suffers with anxiety when separated, will help the overall outcome immeasurably. Canines are a group-living species and, as with all group based animals, they instinctively recognise and require a level of structure within that group. If they become confused about their role within the group, they come to feel responsible for looking after everyone else. And this is the key to all problem behaviour, including Separation Anxiety – if they feel responsible for you, yet are prevented from coming with you, they panic. Separation Anxiety is not due to boredom or protesting. It comes from the dog feeling so out of control of the group he believes he should be looking after, that he chews to relieve his stress, or barks and howls to help bring you back. Toileting while you are gone is a sign of the dog scent-marking the domain so that it is easier for the group members to find their way home. And if we can see it like this, from the canine perspective, we can ultimately resolve this problem and remove any feeling of responsibility from their shoulders. They are such incredible family members, we owe it to them to show them, by using rituals such as Gesture Leaving among others, that they have nothing to panic about.