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As the summer holidays come to an end, families are beginning to get back into school and work routines. But what does this mean for our four-legged friends who struggle to cope when left alone?

Canagan, the grain-free pet food, have put together some advice on how you can settle your pet before leaving for school, how to train them to feel comfortable in their own company for a set period of time and finding them a ‘safe space’ for them to relax.

Separation anxiety can be distressing for both you and your pet, it is often used as an umbrella term to cover any anxiety-based issues that occur from separating a dog from humans, or from another dog. The problem can arise in puppies, rescue dogs or older dogs who have slipped into dependent habits. However, it is not always dogs that are new to the family that experience separation issues. The following situations can also trigger behavioural issues:

  • An abrupt change in your schedule such as getting a new job which sees you transition from spending the majority of your time at home to leaving for an office five days per week
  • Uprooting the family to a new home – unfamiliar surroundings can take time to get used to
  • The sudden absence of a resident family member, whether they’re moving out to start a new chapter or a more sombre situation like a break-up or death

Spotting the signs

For a highly dependent dog, the first fifteen minutes after you leave are the hardest. Physiological signs of fear include:

  • Quickened heart rate
  • Heavier panting
  • Increased saliva
  • A need to go to the toilet

Once you leave, these heightened feelings can cause a dog to act out in the following ways:

  • Persistent howling, whining, barking
  • Causing destruction – from jumping on window sills to digging, scratching at doors and destroying household objects. These behaviours can go as far to cause self-injury such as broken teeth, cut paws and damaged nails
  • Escaping
  • Pacing up and down in a fixed pattern or turning in a circle
  • Urinating or defecating

Safe space

Dogs naturally want company and although they should never be left alone for too long, having a safe space for them to relax as well as training them to be happy on their own is a good way of making sure they are safe and happy when separating from them.

Decide on a space where you feel comfortable leaving your dog. Create a cosy space for your pet to relax in so they don’t associate it with isolation and add the following creature comforts:

  • Ambient noise, playing the radio softly will reduce background noise that may trigger anxiety
  • A couple of chew toys as chewing will keep your dog occupied
  • An item of clothing that you’ve worn recently as your scent can reassure them
  • Add blankets and low heating if it’s chilly, or a fan in the summer if it’s hot. The right temperature is essential in ensuring your dog feels comfortable

Teaching your dog to be relaxed when alone will result in them becoming confident when solo, and secure in the knowledge that you will return. Using interactive toys is a great way to keep their brain engaged and occupied while you are gone.

Start by being present when your dog is figuring out how to use the toy, then in short sessions, begin to separate yourself from your dog while they are in their safe space by using barriers (eg. a stair gate or puppy pen). Start by being visible then once the dog is relaxed start to move calmly out of view. Repeat by gradually increasing the time you leave your dog until you are happy that they are calm and content with being alone.

Dogs also become stressed and anxiety can be triggered as you prepare to leave. To avoid your dog associating things like picking up keys or putting on shoes with being left alone, desensitize them by randomly doing these things without leaving.

Before you set off

So you’ve experimented with minutes away from your dog but now it’s time for you to set off for a few hours. Before you go it’s worth doing the following:

  • When it comes to leaving the house, don’t make a big deal of it. Instead act as if there is no issue. Then when you return, act in the same manner and calmly greet your dog (maybe gently offering them a treat or toy) without creating a highly arousing reward.
  • Make sure they have adequate amounts of exercise, walking them will result in physical and mental stimulation and will also give them a chance to relieve themselves before being left.
  • Make sure water is always available, and feed them a small meal as this will help relax them and induce sleep.
  • Don’t punish them if they aren’t playing ball when you need to leave as it’s a sign they’re simply not ready and will undo your progress.

For some dogs, the prospect of being without their owners – whether it’s for five minutes or five hours – is too much to bear and may spotlight an underlying issue. To minimise stress for your pet, find opportunities to include them. Ask your boss if you can bring them into the office. Allow them to spend time with close friends and family, who you can call on to dog-sit if you have plans. If you’d like to go on holiday, there’s always the option of travelling with your pet.

While some dogs will progress without a fuss, others may take longer to get used to being alone. Ultimately, patience and perseverance are key to paving the way to time apart – so you, and your pet, can relax!

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