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How to Train Your Dog to Stay Calm When Left Alone

How to Train Your Dog to Stay Calm When Left Alone

Dogs are highly social animals that thrive when they are with their human families. As pack animals, dogs have an instinctual need to be with their "pack" – you! So it's not surprising that many dogs struggle when left home alone. Separation anxiety is a common issue in dogs that manifests as stress, anxiety, barking, howling, destruction, pacing, and inappropriate elimination when a dog is separated from their human family members.

Separation anxiety usually stems from the dog being afraid of being abandoned or separated from their family. Dogs with separation anxiety become extremely distressed when left alone – even for short periods. They are unable to relax and enjoy their own company. Severe separation anxiety can lead dogs to injure themselves in panicked attempts to escape and reunite with their family.

Separation anxiety often develops early in a dog's life, such as when a young puppy is separated from their litter. However, it can develop at any age – even in mature adult dogs. Changes in routine, a new home, loss of a family member (human or animal), or trauma can trigger the onset of separation anxiety. Certain breeds like Border Collies, German Shepherds, and Australian Shepherds are genetically prone to attachment and bonding and may be at higher risk.

The key to managing separation anxiety is to help your dog learn to be calm and relaxed when home alone. This is a gradual training process that requires patience, consistency and a loving approach. Medication from your veterinarian may help reduce anxiety during the training period. But the long-term solution is counterconditioning your dog and building their confidence through training.

Creating a Predictable Routine

Dogs thrive on routine and feel more secure when they can predict what will happen. Creating and sticking to a routine can significantly help ease your dog's separation anxiety. Try to have set times for walks, feeding, playtime, training sessions, and alone time.

Before departing, follow a consistent series of actions like taking your dog for a walk, giving them a food puzzle toy, and using a cue like "I'll be back!" as you leave. When you return home, ignore your dog for a few minutes to avoid reinforcing frantic greetings. Maintain calm energy when arriving and departing. Over time, this predictable routine will help your dog relax when left alone. They'll learn that you leaving is not scary – you'll always come back!

Establish a safe, quiet space like a crate or gated room where your dog will stay while alone. This should be a positive space filled with your dog's favorite toys and chews. Feed your dog in this space and provide special high-value treats ONLY when in this alone zone. This teaches your dog to have pleasant associations with being in this space when you are gone.

Desensitizing Departures & Absences

A main goal is to desensitize your dog to your cues and actions before leaving the house. Gradual exposure to being alone will build their confidence. Practice short absences first. Grab your keys, put on your coat, and open/close the door without actually leaving. Over many repetitions, your dog will learn these cues don't necessarily mean you are leaving.

Next, step outside the door briefly, and immediately return before your dog can become anxious. Gradually increase the duration until your dog remains relaxed for 5-30 minutes alone. Scatter treats so your dog is rewarded for calm behavior in your absence. Bring them on short errands like checking the mailbox. With patience, your dog will gain confidence in their ability to handle alone time without stress.

Use background noise like TV or radio when you leave to mask environmental sounds from outside that could trigger anxiety. Provide interactive puzzle toys stuffed with treats that serve as pleasant distractions. Ensure your dog has access to fresh water. Consider calming supplements or pheromone diffusers to help soothe your dog.

Reinforcing Calm Behavior

When training a dog, remember to focus on reinforcing the behaviors you want to see more of – not punishing unwanted behaviors. Give your dog plenty of positive reinforcement for calm behavior when left alone. Reward them with praise, treats, playtime and affection when you return and they are settled. This teaches them being non-anxious alone is beneficial.

Observe your dog's body language and watch for signs of stress like panting, pacing, whining, trembling. If they show anxiety before you leave, divert their mind with a game or chew toy before trying again. Only depart once your dog is calm. This prevents reinforcing anxious behaviors.

Use phrases like "settle down" and "go to your place" to teach your dog to go relax in their designated zone when asked. Reward them lavishly for complying. This builds a positive mental association with being in that area calmly. Practice this when you are home to solidify the training.

Providing Mental & Physical Exercise

Ensuring your dog gets adequate daily exercise and mental stimulation is key to reducing separation anxiety. A tired dog is a calmer, more relaxed dog! Walks should involve brisk movement and games – not just sniffing and potty breaks. Incorporate training mini-sessions and food puzzle toys into their routine as well.

Providing outlets for your dog to exercise their mind and body prevents boredom and restlessness when left alone. Well-exercised dogs are less likely to become stressed and destructive. Take steps to make sure your dog's needs for activity are met every day before periods of alone time. This powerful approach can prevent or resolve many anxiety issues.

Consulting Your Veterinarian

In severe cases of separation anxiety where destructive behavior is involved, your veterinarian may recommend prescription anti-anxiety medication in conjunction with behavior modification training. Medication can help take the edge off while implementing the training techniques outlined above.

Your vet may also refer you to a certified dog trainer or behaviorist for expert guidance on anxiety reduction protocols tailored to your unique dog. Working with a dog training professional provides extra support in overcoming separation challenges.

Keep your veterinarian informed if your dog's anxious behaviors persist or worsen despite your training efforts. Reach out promptly if your dog shows signs of injuring themselves or destroying property when alone, as this poses risks to their physical health and safety. Ongoing separation anxiety to this degree requires veterinary intervention.

Being Patient & Consistent

Improving separation anxiety issues takes time and dedication from pet owners. There will be ups and downs, so try to be patient and stick with the training program. If you give up too soon, your dog's anxiety behaviors could return or worsen. Consistency is key – be reliable about routines and reward calmness.

Celebrate small wins and don't get discouraged by setbacks. Your dog may take several months to comfortably handle longer durations alone. Ensure your schedule accommodates the gradual training process. The long-term rewards of having a dog who is peaceful when home alone makes the diligent effort well worth it!

Preventing Future Separation Anxiety

If you have a young puppy, take proactive steps to prevent separation anxiety before it develops:

  • Socialize your puppy early and often to build confidence.

  • Gradually get puppy used to alone time in short increments from 8-10 weeks old.

  • Arrange for your puppy to be cared for away from home occasionally.

  • Provide interactive toys and food puzzles when you leave to prevent boredom.

  • Avoid making departures and arrivals too emotional. Remain calm and low-key.

  • Crate train your puppy so they learn to relax in their own space.

  • Allow your puppy to become accustomed to routine household sounds.

  • Ensure your puppy receives sufficient physical and mental exercise daily.

Following these guidelines from a young age can prevent attachment issues and separation anxiety down the road. Be proactive about periodically leaving your puppy alone to build their independence and resilience.

Seeking Additional Help

If your dog's separation anxiety persists despite consistent training efforts, don't hesitate to seek help from a certified professional:

  • Consult with your veterinarian about medication to help support the training.

  • Hire a certified dog trainer or behavior specialist to assist with customized behavior modification.

  • Enroll your dog in doggy daycare during the day to provide companionship.

  • Use in-home pet sitters or dog walkers to break up long periods alone.

  • Consider doggy day boarding if you need to leave town.

  • Try calming supplements like melatonin or Adaptil pheromones.

  • Discuss temporary anti-anxiety medication with your vet if needed.

With patience and support, almost all dogs with separation anxiety can learn to relax and enjoy time alone. Consistent training paired with lifestyle adjustments makes progress possible. Your dog's improved quality of life is well worth the effort!

Summary of Training Techniques

  • Establish set routines for feeding, walks, training.

  • Gradually desensitize dog to departure cues like grabbing keys.

  • Practice brief absences, building up duration slowly.

  • Provide food puzzles and chew toys when you leave.

  • Mask sounds using TV or radio.

  • Reward calm behavior handsomely.

  • Ensure dog gets sufficient daily exercise and playtime.

  • Use phrases like "settle down" and reinforce calmness.

  • Be patient – anxiety reduction takes consistency over time.

  • Prevent separation anxiety by socializing and short alone times early.

  • Seek help from vet, trainer, or behaviorist if needed.

With diligent training methods, lifestyle adjustments, and added support if necessary, you can help your anxious dog become confident and peaceful when home alone. By taking a patient and loving approach, you'll build an even stronger bond with your canine companion.

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