One of the most common problems in rescued and rehomed dogs is
the inability to be left alone. Quite often the dog will
attach itself to its new owners, in particular one person, and
follow them around constantly, becoming visibly distressed when
parted from them. Even the company of other animals within
the household rarely helps. If left alone the dog can become
destructive, soil the house or bark constantly in order to be
reunited with its owner. On the occasion where a dog has been
rehomed two or three times, this problem can increase to a point
where the dog will not let his owner out of sight.
This over-attachment is a form of insecurity, and an
illness. It is not something the dog is doing out of spite or
to get even with you for leaving him, contrary to common
misconception. Dogs do not have these powers of thought or
reason. Almost the worst thing an owner can do if the dog has
soiled or destroyed household items, is to reprimand the dog upon
their return, however angry or frustrated they may feel. This
may be minutes or even hours after the event took place and the dog
will not be able to associate its owner’s displeasure with the act
of chewing or soiling. It may also be counter-productive in
that the dog will learn to expect an angry outburst upon the
owner’s return and may therefore display an increase in
anxiety. In turn, a possible increase in destructive behaviour
may occur and you will then be caught in a vicious circle. It is
unlikely that the dog ‘knows he has done wrong’ rather that he is
reacting to his owner’s anger and body language.
Many people give their new rescue dog time to settle in before
leaving them alone, during which time the dog is with them
constantly, even sleeping in their bedroom and certainly getting
lots of attention on demand. Some people even try to make up
for what they feel the dog has suffered in their past life or in
kennels and give them undivided attention and spoiling. This
makes it extremely difficult for the dog to cope when the time
comes for it to be left.
Not all rescued dogs suffer from separation anxiety. Those that
are less insecure do not usually mind short periods left on their
own. This however, depends on the nature of the dog and its
history as to whether it can cope with being separated from its
The following recommendations may help when settling in a dog
with over-attachment problems:
Try not to allow your dog to constantly follow you around the
house. Get him used to you closing doors between you for very
short periods. Do not respond if he begins to whine or bark,
instead wait for a break in the proceedings before returning as it
is important he learns his barking has not been successful in
bringing you back.
Make sure that all demands for attention are instigated by you
and that your dog is not constantly given cuddles and fuss as he is
then more likely to cope without attention when you are out.
Whatever the temptation to keep fussing the dog, try to
ignore him for periods throughout the day so that he doesn’t become
Endeavour to go out at the same time each day to help establish
a routine, having exercised the dog well beforehand and perhaps
given him a meal before departure. This may well induce sleep
and the dog may be happier to settle down for a while.
Sometimes even the preparation for departure can bring about
panic. Desensitise the dog to this by going through the
motions of leaving, i.e. picking up keys, putting on a coat, etc.
but instead of leaving the house carry out some household chores or
just have a cup of coffee before removing your belongings and
continuing normally. This should be carried out a couple of
times each day and the dog will soon realise that these actions are
not necessarily a prelude to your departure and is less likely to
Provide your dog with something to amuse him which he will find
stimulating, i.e. a Kong or other chew toy stuffed with food to
alleviate boredom. Practice leaving your dog with this
special toy for very short periods whilst you are still in the
house or garden, with a door closed between you, and praise his
good behaviour when you return. Keep the chew toy for these
occasions only to increase novelty value. Very gradually
increase the time you leave the dog with the toy and don’t proceed
too quickly, remember you are setting up for success, not failure.
Once he can cope with half an hour or so it should be safe to
attempt leaving the house for a few minutes and building up the
time again slowly, always rewarding your dog upon your return.
He can always be fed the remaining contents of the chew toy
after which the toy can be removed until the next time.
However frustrating it may be, do try to ignore any
destructive behaviour, it may be that things have progressed too
quickly for the dog to cope with and the programme should be taken
back a stage or two.
Try to ensure your dog does not have access to your bedroom at
night as he will certainly suffer from over-dependency if he is
allowed to sleep there. Move him out gradually by moving his
bed a few inches each night until he is outside on the landing,
then begin closing the door an inch or so per night. It
should not be too problematic if the operation is carried out
gradually and you are resolute in your determination that he sleeps
on his own bed on the floor.
You may also like to leave the television or radio on for the
dog while you are out, or even a taped recording of a family
conversation. It all helps to lessen the stress of your
departure. Leaving an old sweater or sweatshirt with your
scent on can also be a comfort to the dog.
Occasionally the condition can re-appear especially with dogs
who have had constant company during weekends or school holidays.
It may help to taper off the time devoted to the dog towards
the end of the break so that he gets gradually used to time spent
Separation anxiety can be overcome but it can
take a long time especially in dogs with a history of problems or
those that have never been left. However, in most cases with
tolerance and patience it is not impossible.
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