Training Tip: House Soiling and Separation Anxiety

If a dog urinates/defecates in the house when left alone, it might not be a “house training” issue, but it might be caused by anxiety/distress at being left alone (isolation anxiety) or being away from a particular person or the family (separation anxiety). (For this discussion, “separation anxiety” will include isolation anxiety and separation anxiety.) “House Training” is about teaching the dog how to hold its bladder/bowels, where it is appropriate to potty (e.g. outside), and how to signal to the humans in the home to be let outside to potty. Addressing separation anxiety is about teaching the dog how to be comfortable being left alone.

Below is an excerpt from an article I published a few years back. The information has proved very helpful for many clients over the years. There are also some resources listed at the end that you may find helpful.

Separation Anxiety can be a very difficult problem to address. If you require one-on-one professional help, please contact me for a private consult. 

Separation Anxiety

There is a big difference between a dog that chews up the furniture out of boredom and one that does it because of separation anxiety. Exercise, mental stimulation, restricting the dog’s area when alone (perhaps in a cozy crate), and providing enough chew items are some things that can help keep the bored dog from chewing the furniture. These things may provide some distraction for the dog with mild separation anxiety, but the approach to working through this disorder is much more complex. One of the hardest things for people to accept is that a dog with separation anxiety is not “being bad” or “getting revenge.”

Dogs are social creatures and learning how to be alone can be a difficult thing for some dogs. Some dogs are anxious about being left alone and some are anxious about being separated from a particular person with whom they’ve bonded strongly. When working on a plan to address this problem, it’s important to know if the dog suffers from one or the other (or both). Often there are simple things dog owners can do (and avoid) to help reduce mild separation anxiety or even prevent the problem in the first place. Separation Anxiety is something that usually gets worse if it’s not addressed early or properly, so if your dog is showing signs of distress when left alone, it’s best not to ignore it. There’s a very good chance that the dog will not “get over it” but instead will become more sensitized to being left alone.

Unfortunately, many people let the problem become extreme before they get help, and sometimes they get some bad advice that makes the problem worse. (Separation Anxiety is not a ‘dominance thing’ and cannot be “punished away” and letting a dog cry it out can make things worse.) Sometimes the problem becomes so severe that the owners who love these dogs dearly have no choice but to euthanize or surrender the dog. Dr. Ian Dunbar ranks this problem as one of the top reasons why people give up their dogs to shelters. Finding the right home for a rescue dog with separation anxiety is a difficult task, and sometimes people are not aware of the problem (or the extent of the problem) when they adopt the dog.

Having even a bit of knowledge about what to do and what to avoid can make a big difference. If your dog has mild separation anxiety or if you want to prevent this from becoming a problem, have a look at the following tips and resources. If you have a dog with moderate to severe separation anxiety, you may wish to consult a reputable professional for help, but be sure to find a professional that understands behaviour modifcation and specifically how to use desensitization and counter conditioning effectively.

Quick tips:

Take the emotions out of your departures and arrivals. Communicate to your dog on an emotional level that your arrivals and departures are “no big deal.”

If your dog is excited to see you when you arrive, wait until your dog is calm before giving your dog attention; avoid direct eye contact, touching your dog, or talking to your dog until your dog is fairly relaxed. You can let him out to pee and that sort of stuff, but limit your attention. When your dog is calm, pick a special chair or place to deliver your greeting; you’ll likely notice that he begins to wait for you there for the greeting. When you do greet him, try to keep it rather low-key and not too intense, even though you may have really, really missed him when you were gone.

Try to avoid having very exciting things happen too soon after your arrival. Sometimes the anticipation of a super fun thing (e.g. a walk) can get your dog worked up. You want to avoid stirring up emotions too close to your departures/arrivals.

Some mild to moderate physical and mental exercise an hour or so before you leave can help some dogs with separation anxiety. However, the exercise should not over-stimulate your dog, but instead meet some of her physical and mental needs and encourage a more relaxed state. Playing intense games like fetch or tug can cause some dogs to become too stressed, so figure out what works for your dog.

Vary the order of the ‘clues’ your dog has picked up that signal you are leaving. Do some of these things on days when you aren’t going anywhere (e.g. pick up your keys and sit and watch TV; wear your work shoes for an hour at home on a day off).

Crate training your dog can be very helpful. Teach your dog to LOVE being in his crate; have him spend time in there when you are home, too, so he doesn’t associate it with you leaving. Feed him his meals in his crate. Give him super yummy treats that he gets ONLY when he’s in his crate. If your dog has already learned to dislike his crate, you’ll have a tougher job. Contact a professional who understands behaviour modifcation, positive reinforcement, and specifically how to use desensitization and counter conditioning effectively.

To help take the “sting” out of your departures, you can keep your dog occupied with a long-term treat such as a bully stick, a meaty bone, or a Kong-type toy that is stuffed with little bits of yummy things. If you want to make a Kong-type toy last longer, layer it with yummy bits and canned dog food or peanut butter and then freeze it. Be sure he has lots of positive experiences in his crate with these items when you are home so he doesn’t begin to associate these things with being left alone.

 

Helpful Resources:

 

Free webinar on Separation Anxiety

Books:
I’ll Be Home Soon! How to prevent and treat separation anxiety by Patricia B. McConnell (2000)
Don’t Leave Me! Step-by-step help for your dog’s separation anxiety by Nicole Wilde (2010)

 

 

Training Puppies

The three most important things your puppy needs to learn are:

  1. The world is a safe place.
  2. It’s okay to be alone sometimes.
  3. Where the potty area is and how to hold it.

These are in order of importance.

Teaching a puppy that its world is a safe place is top priority because there is a short window of opportunity to teach this. Before the age of 12 to 16 weeks, a puppy is more accepting of new experiences and the sights, sounds, smells that come a long with each experience. After 16 weeks, a dog becomes less accepting of new things and will be cautious and uncertain at first. Sometimes this can go really wrong and cause severe behaviours through adolescence and into adulthood.

Separation anxiety (and the unwanted behaviours that come along with it) is a complex problem that is very difficult to change once it becomes moderate to severe. Puppies are not designed to enjoy being alone, but it is a skill they will need (sometimes very quickly upon arriving to a new home). The unwanted behaviours associated with separation anxiety are in the top reasons why dogs are surrendered to dog rescues and animal shelters.

Housetraining is also one of the top reasons people give up their dogs. Training this successfully is a lot of work at the beginning but it’s worth it because it saves you a lot of work later. Going potty is a “self-reinforcing” behaviour (it feels good to the puppy to relieve the discomfort of a full bladder or full bowels), so it’s essential that you start early to teach a puppy that it’s more reinforcing to potty in the right area.

There is much more to training a puppy, but the three listed are the most important for raising a happy, confident, well-mannered puppy.