Beanie’s separation anxiety is a cornerstone of my relationship with him. Everything we do now from training to travelling, from day to night, the courses I teach, the people I know, the entire dog world I now inhabit, all of that was born out of Beanie’s inability to be without my company. I made a pact with him that I would never leave him alone for a moment more than he can handle. In return, he could… relax.
So we just started doing everything together. Motorbike holidays became walking holidays. Cocktail bars became dog-friendly pubs. Dresses became waterproof trousers.
Beanie’s separation anxiety at home is almost non-existent now. I don’t actively work on it anymore. We have resolved it through a mixture of management and desensitisation. It took six months to teach him to be able to sleep for 4 hours alone in the evening through carefully constructed circumstances that are very clearly defined and well-rehearsed over thousands of successful increments. He continues to go to daycare during the day and, even though it is no longer necessary, he is pretty much always kept company by someone he trusts during the evening.
But his worry rears its head when we go on holiday or to just a new place, triggered by the new context, new smells and new routines. It so happens that we have had a lot of travel together lately on holiday and for various workshops, which made me think about articulating my methods of ensuring a smooth transition from home to hotel. I don’t do all these steps now, nearly three years and numerous holidays later. So I’ll compare his needs on our first trip away from home to where he is today to reflect on how far he has come.
Advisory: None of what I am about to write takes the place of a structured desensitisation and counterconditioning protocol to resolve separation anxiety in the long term. This article is simply about what might work for you if you have the dog I have when travelling together for a short period away from home or moving to a new place until settling in. My tips are all predominantly about effective management with antecedent arrangement and a little bit desensitisation. Please note this is not the cure for separation anxiety but can form part of the treatment plan. Get in touch with a force-free behaviourist to address the condition as a whole – Emma Judson and Malena DeMartini are both experts I recommend. This article best applies to dogs who become anxious about separation from their owner(s) when out and about.
Just like home
I want Beanie to feel exactly at home the minute he rests his head on his bed and closes his eyes. I want it to smell the same and feel the same. So I carry his bedding with me. This ranges from a folded cotton towel to settle in a cafe that has been conditioned for a default settle behaviour to two giant double duvets for a longer stay.
There was a time when we had to travel with Beanie’s 42” crate because that is the only way in which he could happily sleep overnight, just as he did at home. He can now sleep anywhere without confinement, evolved slowly by introducing variability to that overnight routine to the extent that remained comfortable. All he needs now is very, very comfortable bedding. It does not even have to be from home anymore.
Plug in an Adaptil diffuser
Adaptil diffusers mimic the effect of the Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) given out by a nursing mother to calm her litter and make the pups feel secure. Whilst it is not a standalone solution to cure anxious behaviour, some dogs like mine do respond well to it and it forms a component of the whole package alongside other changes.
There are a number of products such as Pet Remedy, Rescue Remedy, Zylkene and other over-the-counter calming supplements which all work in different ways but so far, Adaptil has the most scientific evidence. My key recommendation is that you test the product in advance and monitor your dog’s behaviour to inform whether or not it is effective for him before relying on it for a longer trip. In my experience, Adaptil has been the only effective over-the-counter supplement for Beanie.
Bearing in mind that the diffuser takes many hours to permeate the floor with the synthetic pheromone, I plug it in as soon as we arrive in the new place and I position it in the lounge where we are likely to spend most of our time.
I don’t use Adaptil in this context anymore as Beanie is now sufficiently confident about changes in the environment that he doesn’t need it but there was a time when it certainly made a difference between a pacing dog and a snoozing dog.
Unrestricted night access
Beanie sleeps in another room at home unless there is reason to have him in the bedroom to keep a closer eye on him. For a long time, worried about creating unintentional habits and mixed messages, I used to set up his crate straight away in a room that appeared most similar to his room at home. This did not work well overnight and in retrospect, I realise I would have been simply asking too much of any dog, let alone a dog who suffered separation anxiety. It is unethical to leave a dog to cry alone in another room in a brand new environment and forcing him to not be able to seek out human company for reassurance if he needed it. Dogs are excellent discriminators. I haven’t had any issues with Beanie’s sleeping arrangement at home even though he now always sleeps somewhere in the same room as me on holiday.
For the first few trips away from home, I had to sleep on the floor right next to Beanie for the first couple of days or he would whine in the middle of the night despite being in the same room. That is not necessary anymore as Beanie happily settles in his bed wherever it is placed in the room. But I do occasionally wake up in the middle of the first night in a new place with a Gothic long face staring inches away from mine, easily resolved by a quiet request to return to bed. He has to check if I’m still there, hours after the last substantial movement. There I am. Time to sleep again.
Forced separation is a terrible idea. It doesn’t teach the dog that all will be OK. It only teaches the dog that what they want does not matter and is physically impossible to achieve. That’s not a realisation that I would wish upon anybody.
I don’t close fully any door behind me in a new place, so Beanie can push a door open if he wants to check if I’m still there. I actively give him a heads up if I’m leaving one room to go to another because I want to avoid the situation of Beanie falling asleep in one room, feeling secure that I am right there, then waking up and not finding me in the room anymore. That would result in panic within seconds for him and affect his ability to fall asleep the next time. The fact that he knows where I am is instrumental to him not worrying about where I might be.
We recently stayed in a three bed bungalow on a farm where I disappeared out of sight for the smallest errand in such a big place. Even though Beanie always had the option, he certainly followed me far less often, sometimes choosing to sit in the lounge with a pricked ear even if I flitted to another room. Invariably he follows me less and less over the first few days to not really caring anymore by the end of the holiday unless I am physically away for more than a few minutes.
Beds with benefits
Sighthounds seek comfort. You can pretty much point a sighthound into a room full of furniture and guarantee that they will find the softest, plushiest bed in the vicinity in no time. I make use of this, especially in cottages where one bed does not give full view of the entire property. I position multiple comfortable beds in key locations around the house where there is good visibility of a portion of the house and I give Beanie full choice of where he wants to hang out. Some beds are naturally more comfortable than others. Some beds get direct sunlight. Some beds have a great view out into the garden. Some are cosy and tucked into a corner. Each of those beds is going to be closer or further away from me as I flit around the house through the day.
During the first few holidays, bedding didn’t matter to Beanie as much as company. He could be physically exhausted from a whole day’s hike and yet he would pick himself up and wander to another room just to make sure I didn’t vanish. That isn’t true anymore. Invariably I find Beanie picking the more comfortable spots despite me walking around, choosing to remain in one room as I go to another.
An active cue to wait
The simple act of going to the toilet becomes an issue when you have a Velcro dog, even if your dog can stay with someone you trust for those two outrageously-long minutes it’s going to take for you to return. Teaching the dog to actively wait for your return in one place is not the cure for separation anxiety but it does help for when you need to step into a shop to buy a bottle of water or ask for directions or use the toilet.
Teach this at home, then in your garden and then take it on the road. Remember that if your dog is unable to wait for you to come back, no matter how near you still think you are, and he chooses to follow you or shows other behaviours like whining even if staying in position, chances are you’ve asked for too much and his anxiety has gotten the better of him in that environment or he just didn’t understand the behaviour well enough in the first place.
Two years ago, I could not have gone to the toilet even in a familiar cafe without some level of panic on Beanie’s face. Two weeks ago I left him in a brand new hotel with the receptionist he has never met before to rush to a shop to buy some emergency late night dinner. He didn’t bat an eyelid. I regularly ask him to wait for me as I go to the vet’s back office to wash my hands after our training and I have filmed his behaviour in my absence. He simply sits down and watches the direction I went until I return, exactly as I had taught him. Every single successful repetition where I return before he worries is one more in the trust bank before the next one.
Finding your way
Living with a dog who experiences any degree of separation anxiety is hard work and simply life changing when done right. Human guardians absolutely need a break and dog-friendly holidays are an excellent way to achieve that with your dog. The most important goal for me with my dog is to ensure I am not drawing from the trust account into which I have spent years making deposits. A crucial step to curing separation anxiety is to ensure that the dog has no reason to be anxious in the first place, never left alone for any more than the dog can cope with. Achieving that goal has taken trial and error through minute variations made from one night to the next to figure out what works best for my individual dog based on both of our past experiences.
I go on many trips with Beanie now and he is a seasoned traveller. With every passing trip, I can see him settle quicker and quicker into a brand new environment. I don’t need a dog who doesn’t care about whether or not I am in the room. I am happy with a dog who can let me out of his sight and fully trusts that I will come back without any doubt that I might not.