The waiting lists for surrendered dogs in Irish rescues and shelters have never been this long. In fact some shelters and rescues have had to close their doors to surrenders, and instead focus on animals already in the pound.
There are many many different reasons why people are giving up their dogs. But one common reason is because the dog has Separation Anxiety (SA) and they feel it would be kinder to the animal if they had a home with someone around more.
We wanted to find out if anything can be done to help doggos with Separation Anxiety, before having to go down the surrendering route. We spoke to Léa Chevalier, a qualified dog trainer who is certified as a Separation Anxiety Pro Trainer to answer some of our questions.
Hi Léa. Surely the rate in surrendering has to have something to do with the lockdown puppies who weren't left alone but now are. Do you find this is a bigger problem since lockdown?
Yes and No. 20% of the dog population in the world is showing separation related behaviours. Lockdown has strengthened the relationship with our dogs, and we are becoming more and more aware of their needs and are more and more trying to meet them.
The impact of lockdown and people working from home is that a lot of dogs haven't been taught how to stay on their own at all, and when people are going back to the office, the dogs don't understand what is happening, and that can be very distressing for them.
Being on their own is a skill that needs to be taught to every dog or puppy. So in a way, yes, lockdown played a part in SA in dogs. And no, because it has always been a thing, we were just less aware of it, and dogs didn't have another choice than to adjust, happy or not.
What kind of symptoms does a dog with separation anxiety exhibit?
Symptoms can be very different depending on the dog the might include:
Vocalisations : barking, howling, whimpering
Destructions in the house
Some dogs will display signs that are way more subtle and even though they are not considered as a nuisance, they are still showing that the dog isn't happy when left alone.
What can people do to help their dog?
Step 1: Before anything else to make sure it is a problem linked to alone time. For example a dog who barks at every sound but also does it when humans are present have a sensitivity to sounds, not a problem with alone time. A dog that's in pain may exhibit similar symptoms so be sure to get a thorough check with the vet. It can be useful to video your dogs behaviour when you leave.
Step 2: If you want to build a successful training plan, you need to temporarily suspend all absences. Every time the dog is left more than what they can handle, they are not able to learn anything and it just confirms that it is indeed scary. That part is always the hardest, it involves quite some level of sacrifice but it's worth it in the end.
Step 3: Building autonomy when humans are present. I would do that via a good enrichment plan : loads of little mental games, chewing daily, scent activities, searching for treats in the garden, in a sniffle mat, rolled in a towel, or simply scattered in the grass during walks. This helps build their confidence which will help when they are left.
Step 4: I would also get them used to movements around the house and teach them that they are boring! The dog can follow if they want but it's highly unrewarding, because they don't get anything out of it. No touching, no looking, no talking. I would always give the choice to the dog to follow or not, I wouldn't close the door on them as it can build up stress. Then the more trips to the other room you take and nothing happens for the dog in those moments, the more they'll be a bit reluctant to get up and follow.
Step 5: And once all this has been done, proper desensitisation can be started. The main idea is to never go over what the dog is comfortable with, so if the dog can't handle the human going out the door, we start working with getting close to the door, then when ok with it, opening the door, then walking out without closing, then closing, then we build it up.
Does having another animal help? We felt that having a second dog helped our Luna when being left alone.
This will definitely depend on the dog. Some dogs will feel more confident with another dog, some won't. I would absolutely not recommend getting another dog simply to help the first one though. In some cases, the second one picks up on the first one's anxiety and you don't have one problem, you have two!
Thanks Léa. What do you suggest if people are at their wits end and think that the animal might be happier in an environment where they aren't left alone?
I would first ask for professional help. Separation Anxiety is one of the most complex behavioural issues, and it's okay to feel lost and that you need help. But we have successfully treated even the most fearful of dogs, who are now able to be left comfortably alone in their homes.
If you're worried about Separation Anxiety and want to speak to Léa directly you can visit her website: https://dog-training.ie where you will also find more information.
To find your perfect dog go to www.petadoptionwebsite.com