Storm's story: Dealing with separation anxiety
Our late dog, Sammy, had struggled with separation anxiety so when we adopted five-year-old collie-cross Storm from our Stubbington Ark in July 2020, we knew that we wanted to start out on the right track and ensure he was comfortable being home alone.
"He'd become quite reliant on me and would follow me around like my shadow"
Taking on a dog during lockdown - at a time when we were spending almost all of our time at home - we knew that preparing Storm for a time when he'd be spending short periods of time at home on his own would be really important.
After giving him several months to settle in and get used to our house and our routine, we contacted Elaine, a local clinical animal behaviourist, to help us develop a training plan for Storm, and our circumstances. I'd already noticed that he'd become quite reliant on me and would follow me around like my shadow, waiting outside the toilet for me and becoming a trip hazard when I was preparing dinner in the kitchen!
Read more: Separation anxiety in dogs.
"We slowly increased the amount of time we were away"
First, we started off by trying to help Storm become less attached to me. My husband, Mark, spent more one-on-one time with him, took him for more walks alone, spent time playing in the garden, and did some extra training with him. He'd always be a mummy's boy but I knew I wanted him to enjoy spending time with both of us.
Next, we moved on to getting Storm used to spending time alone in parts of the house without us. While Storm had lots of toys and treat dispensers, we decided to choose one that he would come to associate with spending time on his own. We chose a bright green licky mat and bought some dog-friendly peanut butter to spread on it, before popping it in the freezer to help it last longer and keep him more focused.
We started with baby steps; I'd give him his mat and as he laid down to furiously lick and chew at the tasty peanut butter, I'd step out of sight just for a moment. Soon, that became short trips into another room - just a minute or two - and then out into the garden and back in before he could finish the treat.
"We kept a close eye on him while we were out of the house"
It was to be a gradual process and needed painstaking precision. Leaving the house became a perfectly choreographed routine as we closed the bedroom doors (I didn¿t need black dog hair and muddy paw prints all over my white John Lewis sheets!); put classical music on the sound system; prepared the all-important licky-mat with peanut butter or liver treat paste, and calmly exited the house in a way that wouldn't alert or frighten Storm.
We kept a close eye on him while we were out of the house via a webcam that was set up in the hall so we could ensure he wasn't becoming distressed or anxious by our absence. As we slowly increased the time he was alone from a few minutes to 15 minutes to an hour we realised that there was very little to do to keep ourselves busy; we were, after all, in the middle of winter and in the midst of a nationwide lockdown!
When I dreamed of having a dog, I pictured long summer walks at the beach and cuddling up together in front of a roaring fire in the winter. I never imagined that the reality would be my husband and I, in the middle of a global pandemic (so unable to leave the confines of our own home), sitting on the driveway in the car watching Netflix on our phones as we monitored the dog inside via a special webcam that had been strategically placed by the front door to capture his every pant, yawn and bark!
Find out more: Training your dog to be left alone.
"Owning a dog is a challenge, a huge responsibility, and a privilege"
However, if you're prepared to put in the time and the effort to do it right and ensure their happiness, they will pay you back in loyalty, love, companionship and utter joy - as Storm did that by the bucket-load every single day. As we headed out for dinner that winter, safe in the knowledge that Storm was happily snoozing at home, the months of work had finally come to fruition.
A few months ago we moved house and the change has been quite unsettling for Storm. He's become more attached to us and finds it difficult to be left home alone in his new surroundings. We're giving him time to adjust and get used to his new home before we start from scratch all over again. We know he can do it and we're willing to help him get there. Because if Storm is happy, we're happy.
8 out of 10 dogs struggle being left home alone
If you're concerned about your dog's behaviour or fear they may be struggling with separation anxiety please find a clinical animal behaviourist to help.