Doggy dependency: how to break post-lockdown separation anxiety | Life and style

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I adore my dog, Peanut. She’s a Miniature Schnauzer with a sweet nature and a button nose. She runs like a rabbit and pulls a lopsided smile when we greet her in the morning.

She likes to get close to me, really close. In my face close, then she stares. At times, as I gaze into her moony eyes, I wonder if she wants to suck out my soul. Or perhaps she truly is my daemon?

We got Peanut a few months after the start of the first lockdown. Like so many people, we realised we had space in our lives for a dog once the daily commute had been put on pause. My husband works at home full-time so it was a sustainable plan long-term. We didn’t want a puppy and were lucky to adopt a well-adjusted five-year-old who had lived in a house with masses of other dogs. After a mildly anxious first night in which she peed on the carpet, she fitted into our lives without a hitch.

A year on and she’s firmly part of our four-strong pack – my husband, 17-year-old daughter, me and Peanut. Because of Covid, the dog’s seen very few other people closeup because almost no one has come into the house since she arrived. And I seem to have become the main focus of her devotion, her world, her guiding star. She follows me when I go to the loo, greets me as if I’m the messiah after I’ve stepped out of the house for five minutes.

Deeply pleasing, of course, and a balm for neglected-mother-ego. My teenage daughter – AirPods active at all times – takes little notice when I walk through the front door. The dog on the other hand – oh the joy! The shrieks of delight! Somebody loves me! Oh hello Peanut!

But I have created a Great Dane-sized problem. I’ve turned her into a Velcro dog, a sticky glue dog.

When I’m sitting at my desk she eyeballs me, which is hard enough to ignore. If I’m on the phone, she paws at me. And recently she’s started barking, stopping only if I tickle her tummy. When I’m not around, she mopes pathetically. I’ve left her with my dog-loving parents for an hour or two, and it has not been a success. She climbs on to their chest of drawers to stare out of the window with tragic eyes until we fetch her. My father said he’d never previously seen a dog shed actual tears.

I am aware that this neediness is largely my own creation. And it’s not sustainable. Foreign holidays are essentially off the agenda, for now, so there’s no need to leave her. But I would like to go abroad, occasionally, in the next decade, and the thought of leaving Peanut, sad little Peanut with her teary eyes, makes me worry.

So I call Louise Glazebrook, one of the country’s leading dog therapists. The author of Dog About Town and a regular BBC2 presenter, she has run the Darling Dog Company since 2010.

Louise says she’s come across the problem many times this year. Lots of people are worried about what will happen when they return to work, or go away.

It’s not just about puppies and new dogs: even well-established pets have got used to their owners being around nonstop. We’ve all had takeaways rather than going to restaurants, picnics rather than indoor parties and watched Netflix rather than going the cinema. And, of course, the problem is global. The Atlantic magazine reported a massive rise in requests for dog trainers in the US, for dogs who never had guests in their home, never had a stranger walk within 6ft of them, and didn’t go outside at all during the worst of the lockdowns.

Louise, tall, warm and friendly, is nevertheless greeted by much barking from Peanut.

“This is a fear bark,” explains Louise. She does not reach out, but lets Peanut sniff her bag and coat, until the barking settles down. Then Louise offers a treat to gauge her body language. Peanut does what Louise calls “giraffe posture” to reach it. She sticks out her neck, but keeps her body fully grounded ready to flee if necessary.

Slowly, over the next couple of hours as we chat, Peanut becomes accustomed to Louise and accepts a pat. She even agrees to play a new game with her, called Find It. This is just one of Louise’s various strategies to help Peanut become more independent by introducing mentally challenging tasks into her daily life – in this case, by using her initiative to locate treats. Over the course of the afternoon she eats many treats indeed.

Louise says we need to introduce another person into the dog’s world, a stranger Peanut can learn to trust. Louise recommends finding an experienced walker to come twice a week, and use treats and games. The idea is that Peanut will look forward to going out of the house with someone else – and also get properly tired.

Part of me doesn’t like this idea, because I love walking her myself. It’s the highlight of my day. Plus, walkers are not cheap. But I can see the argument.

We should also play more games with her to tire her mentally and to help her achieve a level of self-confidence. From time to time we should leave a chew in the sitting room so she stumbles across it. Ideally, she will then stay where she is and chew it independently instead of (as she does now) bringing it to me to chew at my feet.

The other key thing is to change her association with my parents. In Peanut’s mind, their flat is a place where she is liable to be abandoned at any moment. To create a new association, Louise suggests getting my parents come to us and take her around the block a few times a week. My father, 87, seems genuinely delighted by the idea.

One of Louise’s greatest lessons is not to expect some sort of wholesale personality change. “She’s never going to be a waggy greet-everyone sort of dog,” she says. “As a society, we’ve come to think that that’s what dogs are. But they aren’t. They are each different according to their breeding, their early imprinting, their socialisation, the way we raise them and the environment they go on to live in.”

But as Louise has demonstrated in just two hours Peanut can be delighted to make a new friend.

There’s no quick fix, says Louise. “Peanut is a cautious dog and should not be rushed. It will take several months to make changes. I hear people say things like, ‘I’ve taken a week off work to settle the puppy in.’ A week! You would barely make any changes in that time.”

Well, Greece won’t happen for us this year anyway. So we’ve got time for Peanut and me to stretch the bond.

“Being greeted and loved is one of the main reasons we get a dog,” says Louise. “In lockdown, many people have felt lonely and dogs have helped enormously. But there is a huge difference between a dog being a companion and a dog that is highly anxious and can’t cope on their own. You need a dog who can take themselves off happily and lie for an hour or two on their own.”

She looks at Peanut’s sleeping position: on her side, utterly relaxed. But there are other postures, Louise says. There’s bored sleeping, on the tummy, with one eye alert for a change in situation. And then there’s the “anxious bagel”, where despite being curled up, the dog is tense and watchful.

After Louise has gone home, Peanut conks out. I’m pleased to note that she’s lying on her side. I put my shoes on, open the front door… and she doesn’t even lift her head.

Louise Glazebrook’s top five tips

Look into my eyes: Peanut comes face to face with leading dog trainer and behaviourist expert Louise Glazebrook. Photograph: Dan Burn-Forti/The Observer

1. If you are buying or adopting a dog, you need to truly understand that their background, breeding, genetics all plays a role in whether your dog develops separation issues. The top three breeds that I’m seeing at the moment for this (not in any order) are the Cavapoo, the Cockapoo and the miniature short-haired Dachshund.

2. Simply shutting them in a crate or shutting the door on them will not magically make the dog able to accept separation. If it were that easy, there would be no issues! Instead, spend your time on not encouraging dependent behaviour – like talking to them each time they follow you from room to room, or to make a cup of tea.

3. You need to allocate around three to six months to properly begin teaching a puppy about separation. Do seek out a behaviourist to assist you, as each dog is different. There is no one size fits all.

4. Do make sure your dog or puppy isn’t bored or has too much energy as this can massively contribute to separation issues.

5. Only give chews and treat-dispensing toys when you are there, otherwise you risk making these items into “trigger” points if you start using them and then heading out of the door. Your dog will soon stop using them and won’t pay them any attention as they realise it is a signal you are going to head out.

Louise Glazebrook’s new book, The Book Your Dog Wishes You Would Read (Orion Spring), is published in November. She has also created monthly Behaviour Boxes, with chews and games to help teach a dog or puppy to be independent. Pre-order at thedarlingdogcompany.co.uk

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