About a year ago I got my rescue dog, Jasper. I’d had two other dogs before Jasper, worked in a kennel as a teenager, grew up with dogs and have done volunteer work as a home checker for a dog charity. I’m quite a dog fan.
My previous dogs were Golden Retrievers and they were always calm when left alone. I could give them the run of the house and they wouldn’t get into any trouble at all. This wasn’t just nature – it was working with them from the very start as puppies, leaving them for extremely short periods to begin with and building up to more time gradually.
Being a rescue dog and an English Springer Spaniel, Jasper was different. He used to be left all day with another dog while his owner was at work and I think it was a very negative experience for him. I’m lucky enough to be able to keep him with me most of the time so that’s great for him as he’s a very sociable but highly strung dog.
However, like everyone, there are times when I do need to leave him and so I’ve had to try various approaches to help him feel happy and confident about it.
I came at this from several approaches – here’s what I did.
I tried to stop him being able to hurt himself and make him feel more secure:
I put up physical barriers to stop Jasper being able to hurt himself and to keep him to one part of the house so he’s not wandering around a large area. These barriers included a gate to the kitchen so he can’t steal food or empty the bin, and a stair gate.
Jasper might be a dog, but he loves human food. In particular, he loves chocolate and will steal it whenever he gets a chance. He’s never been given chocolate by us, but the mere sniff of it and he’ll go hunting it out. He got into the larder one day and stole some dark chocolate. That meal involved a trip to the vet, enforced vomiting, and a stomach full of charcoal. That was my first warning that I wasn’t dealing with the easy dogs I was used to! I’m determined he’s not going to do that again, and the physical barriers of a gate and a shut door are the only way I can be sure of stopping death by chocolate when I’m not around.
New bins with lids he can’t lift with his nose were essential. If he does manage to get to them he can’t open them. Again, this is from experience; he was very ill after eating the contents of a bin shortly after he arrived because I just wasn’t expecting a him to be able raid it and eat the contents.
I tried to make me leaving positive for him:
I got Jasper something called a lickimat and I really cannot recommend this enough. He wasn’t interesting in a Kong or other toys, but this worked immediately. It uses the idea that dogs lick to calm themselves – licking releases endorphins and so they feel calmer when they lick. The lickimat is plied with various treats, I mainly peanut butter (you don’t have to buy a special dog version but make sure it is Xylitol free), meat dripping mixed with grated carrot (yuk), liver paste for dogs, crushed biscuits or whatever is safe for dogs and will squish into the mat. You can really cram food into it and it’s difficult for dogs to get it all out if it’s sticky.
I approached using the mat in stages. First, I gave Jasper the mat a few times when I was at home so I knew he couldn’t hurt himself with it and that he liked it. I let him watch me preparing it too. As soon as he’d finished I took it away and hid it.
Next I let Jasper have the lickimat when I got ready to go out so he was distracted at that point – a point that used to cause him stress. You have to be aware of where the stress point is for your dog; Jasper knew that shoes and a coat meant I was leaving. When I noticed this I occasionally put shoes and a coat on, kept them on for a bit and took them off again without going anywhere. Now he’s not so sure I’m leaving when I have shoes on so seems less stressed about it. I’m just a strange human who sometimes wears a coat in the house for no reason!
When I make the mat he sees it happening. The mat is so special for him that it is the centre of his attention – this even beats his ball obsession. The mat is ready and he knows it and doesn’t care about anything else. When I’m ready to walk out of the door I give him the mat.
I’ll stress again that he only gets the lickimat when I go out; as soon as I get home I subtly swipe it, clean it and put it out of reach.
I made sure he got practice:
Dogs need to practice good behaviours. Most of the time I can keep Jasper with me, but I am aware that if there was an emergency and I had to leave him then if he wasn’t used to it, it would be unfair on him. I make sure he is regularly left alone for an hour or so as it gives him practice.
Like a lot of dogs, during lockdown he went backwards in terms of separation anxiety as he had the whole family around all day. When lockdown lifted I knew I’d have to start all over again with training him to be left alone and it was a real pain.
I got extra support:
I employ a dog walker. I know I’m lucky to be able to do this and that it’s not an option for everyone, but it has been great for Jasper because he loves the different walks he gets a couple of days a week and the new doggy friends he’s made. It’s been great for me because now when I do have to go out for a whole day I know that the dog walker will take Jasper for a decent walk and settle him in afterwards, that he’ll pop in and let him out in the afternoon, or will keep him for the day depending on our arrangement and how long I’m gone for.
If you can’t use a dog walker and you don’t have family or friends nearby that can help you could always try something like ‘Borrow My Doggy‘ so that your dog gets to know someone new who might like to help out occasionally. I’ve done this in the past and it worked well for everyone involved.
It can be very stressful when your dog is anxious every time you go out and it can end up feeling like an insurmountable problem. But there is hope. Jasper is still not where I’d like him to be with everything, but with a little effort and common sense we’ve overcome a range of unhelpful behaviours together, and doing that has really strengthened the bond between us. I loved my previous dogs, but I get so much more from Jasper because I’ve put so much more in. And yes, spaniels are harder work than some dogs and they need a huge amount of exercise (Jasper typically covers about 8 – 10 miles a day on his walk), but they are worth it.