A dog is man’s best friend, and a rather childlike animal. Its development often stays at almost the puppy stage when compared to, for example, the development of a wolf. This is the reason why a dog often gets strongly attached to its owner and may be afraid when the target of its devotion leaves, for example, for work or even for a shorter period – as dogs have no concept of time.
Consider the following simple example: Once the owner finally returns, the relief may be as overwhelming as being rescued from the sea.
“There are natural differences between individual dog breeds,” says Inka Juntheikki, specialist in dog behaviour, from pet supply store Musti ja Mirri. Juntheikki has studied animal behavioural science and has trained dogs for several years using positive reinforcement.
“Small pet dogs are bred to be close to humans. The work of herding and hunting dogs is more independent, so they are also otherwise independent,” says Juntheikki.
The ability of dogs to be separated from their owners is called separation skills. Usually, a puppy is taught to be alone so that it will not get overly anxious when its owner is out. Adult dogs suffering from separation anxiety can also be trained to be alone in the same way as puppies. This is like going back to square one.
Juntheikki lists five steps on how to gradually train a dog – young or adult – to be alone.
Everything starts with sleep: when the dog is left alone, it should be able to take naps without the owner being present. Usually, dogs sleep most of the day when they are left alone.
This does not mean that the dog should be forced to sleep alone at night if it wants to sleep, for example, at the foot of the bed. Nighttime is a delicate time.
“Nighttime is not necessarily the best time to learn separation skills,” says Juntheikki.
1. The first thing for a dog to learn is the skill of sleeping without a human present. The owner must be able to stand up, leave the dog and move around the same room without the dog waking up and starting to follow. You can tell the dog to stay still if it tries to follow you.
2. The next thing is to learn to rest without following the owner in sight from one room to another. This can be practised using a pen or gate. The dog receives a treat when it doesn’t move. Start with small and short training sessions.
3. The owner should then be able to go to another room or area not visible to the dog without the dog waking up or following the owner.
4. After this, the dog is taught to tolerate the owner leaving the room for a longer period.
5. Finally, the dog is taught to tolerate situations when the owner leaves via the front door for varying time periods. The time spent outside the door should vary instead of making the situation more challenging every time.
The aim is to operate below the fear reaction threshold and arrange training sessions that are easy and stress-free for the dog. Gradually, the dog will learn that the owner leaving means a sleeping and peaceful state of mind.
Teaching tolerance is not always required. If an adult dog with separation skills, such as the ability to be alone, barks indoors when the owner is absent, the reason for the barking may be something other than the fear of separation. The dog may be experiencing some other issue with its well-being.
An anxious dog is usually agitated and restless when the owner returns home.
Is the dog sleepy enough and is it able to sleep at the time when the owner leaves? Has the dog had enough exercise?
It’s also possible that the apartment building sounds simply scare the dog. It’s natural for dogs to keep guard and react by barking at some corridor noises.
“You can play different soothing tracks for dogs from Spotify by using the search words ‘dog relaxation music’. You can also buy the Digital Dogsitter application with which you can record your own soothing voice. The device will play your voice when the dog barks.”
One way to support separation skills and the well-being of the dog is to leave clothes with the owner’s scent for the dog to sniff – you can leave them in several places in the apartment. It may also help if the exit routines are always the same. The dog should also be allowed to go to its preferred sleeping places in the apartment.
If you have a dog with separation anxiety, it’s preferable you visit a professional who can teach separation skills. The dog may have built-up anxiety and be agitated.
How do you know when an adult dog is anxious?
“An anxious dog is usually agitated and restless when the owner returns home. It has also probably been barking. It may be extremely tired and not eaten or drunk anything. It may also have relieved itself inside or panted.”
You can monitor dog sounds by using, for example, Digital Dogsitter. Juntheikki reminds people that dogs are individuals, just like humans. The starting points in learning separation skills are different for different individuals.
“I have two dogs. One still sleeps next to me at night, while the other chose to sleep in another room already as a puppy.”