Once you have diagnosed separation anxiety in your dog, taken her to a veterinarian for a thorough examination (I highly recommend running a full thyroid panel as well), and addressed any medical needs your dog has, it’s time to start a plan for your dog’s recovery.
The first step I took when I decided to tackle Charlie’s SA hands-on was to wake up an hour early every day and go jogging with him. My reasoning behind this is that a tired dog is a happy, relaxed, and sleeping dog. The more energy you can get your dog to expel when she’s with you, the less energy she will need to burn off when you’re not home.
Many people do activities with their dogs on the weekends, and for some dogs this is adequate. For dogs battling SA it may not be, and they may very well need extra exercise in the mornings before being left home alone for the entire workday.
Charlie and I live in NYC where off leash laws are very strict, and in the neighborhood we lived in at the time, there weren’t many dog-friendly locations, so we took to the streets. If your neighborhood is more dog friendly and your dog is dog social (seeks interaction with other dogs and generally likes to engage and play appropriately with most other dogs) you may want to consider a dog park, off leash hours at a public park, or other location where you can let your dog off leash and run free.
Word of caution: Most dogs are not dog-park dogs. Neither of my two dogs is, and that’s fine. It’s perfectly normal for your dog to not enjoy the dog run, so please pay careful attention to your dog’s body language and discontinue dog run visits if your dog seems uncomfortable, tense, aggressive, extra shy, bullied, or shows resource guarding. Dog parks can be dangerous places when people don’t pay attention to their dogs, so please don’t go to a dog run to socialize, always keep your attention on your dog, and be a responsible owner! It will also help tremendously if you read up on dog body language so you can better understand your own dog, as well as the dogs your dog interacts with.
If your dog is not dog social, don’t worry! There are many wonderful options available to you. You can do what Charlie and I did and jog/run, you can bike, rollerblade, skateboard, or even just go for brisk walks. If you live near a body of water, you can take your dog swimming. I also got Charlie a backpack from the Ruffwear company (ruffwear.com) to help make the runs extra tiring for him. I added weight very slowly to make sure he was comfortable and able to carry it without injuring himself. Please remember to desensitize your dog to any new equipment you may be using to exercise her. Many dogs may be leery of running next to a bicycle, skateboard, or rollerblades at first.
Consider yourself lucky if your dog likes to fetch – this opens up a whole plethora of options. You can do regular fetching of a ball, stick, or other toy; you can hook up something called a spring pole, which is like a large cat’s toy, made up of a long thin stick, a rope, and a soft toy. You put them all together and you can whip the toy around on the end of the stick for hours of fun. You can also teach your dog to catch a Frisbee, retrieve objects from the water, or even teach your dog to discriminate scents and find them in hidden locations (lots of fun to do!).
Every dog’s needs and abilities will be different. You want to tire your dog out a little, get the “edge” off, but you don’t want to overdo it, accidentally injure your dog, or even make your dog dislike going out with you. The other end of the spectrum is the dog who gets worked so much that she becomes an athlete and needs the incredibly large amounts of exercise to stay sane. This is also not something you want with a dog who’s prone to anxious behavior, so please tread carefully when planning an exercise regime, confer with your vet and a professional trainer to make sure you’re giving your dog the proper exercise – not too much and not too little.
Coming up next: How to Train the SA out of an SA dog