Have you ever come home from work to find the house trashed, with nothing missing and no signs of entry? Or perhaps it looks as though somebody got married there and left the confetti all over the place? You may need to help your dog with separation anxiety.
This is a very common problem. Up to 14% of dogs suffer from some level of anxiety. How do you stop separation anxiety in dogs? The answer is to recognize the problem and correct it as soon as possible.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety occurs when a dog’s significant human carer leaves him or her for a period of time. This could be at home or any other place the dog is alone, such as the car. The dog will be on high alert and may have an increased heart rate. There will be behavioral signs of stress. It’s important to remember that your dog is not being ‘naughty’. Separation anxiety has been compared to panic attacks in humans.
- Restless pacing
- Scratching doors
- Drooling or panting
- Destructive chewing or shredding
- Toileting indoors
Often the dog will appear agitated as you get ready to leave the house. They may start to whine and follow you constantly. They often push to get outside when you open the door. They could also appear normal, but left for long enough and the destruction will begin.
What causes separation anxiety?
Many studies have been carried out on dogs. No conclusive reason for the cause of separation anxiety is found. Dogs are pack animals, and as such prefer to be with their pack or family. They need to be taught how to be alone.
More than 2,700 dogs were included in a study published in the academic journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science. This research highlighted how different emotional states combine to produce problem behaviors. It is first triggered by the owner’s departure, but the unwanted behavior arises because of a combination of risk factors.
I’ve had dogs who suffered from separation anxiety. The first was a female who was three years younger than my other female dog. She didn’t become destructive until she was about six years old. At that time she began chewing and shredding when she was left alone. At the same time my other dog became aggressive towards her. It was a very difficult time and I even considered re-homing one of them.
The behavior started to improve when the older dog allowed the younger one to have ‘top dog’ status. This is normal behavior in nature. A lot of training had to be done too, but the problem was eventually solved.
The other was an adopted dog. When she was left at home, she would nibble the carpets. I started walking her before she was left alone for the day. The behavior stopped after she had been living with me for about 6 months. She became the calmest companion I’ve ever had. She obviously just needed some time to settle into her new life.
What to Do If Your Dog Has Separation Anxiety
It’s vital to know that you will have to put lots of time into helping your dog. It’s a commitment that requires repetition of training strategies. You will need to be calm and understanding. Only reward your dog with a treat or a pet when they are calm. Don’t positively reinforce anxious or pushy behavior.
Success or failure depends on how much time we are willing to spend on helping our loved dog.
Mild Separation Anxiety
Exercise, exercise, exercise! Dog behaviorists and trainers all agree on this point. Take your dog for a good walk before you have to leave the house. A tired dog will be more likely to settle down at home.
Dogs love routine. Feed, walk and socialize them at the same times every day. This helps them feel safe and secure. Your dog doesn’t have a watch but they’ll know exactly when you are due to arrive home from work.
You could leave some clothing with them that has your smell on it. I did this with my dogs, and they often used it as a bed. I would be happy if they were happy!
Leave a toy for them, in case boredom is a trigger. If they’re distracted by an activity it may bridge the gap between day time sleeps.
Always reward calmness and obedience. Never scold or punish your dog for being anxious.
Leave your dog for short periods several times a day when you’re home. Don’t make it dramatic, calmly leave him or her while you go into the yard for a few minutes. If they remain calm, let them know how good they are with petting or a treat.
Leaving a radio on may be worth a try. Not too loud though. You can also stream relaxation music for dogs to your TV or music player. Look on YouTube.
Severe Separation Anxiety
Use the same strategies as those for mild anxiety, along with more complex training techniques. You may need to ask your vet if they know of a good animal behaviorist or trainer to help you.
It’s a complete rewiring of your dog’s response to you leaving. They will need to be consistently, calmly and repeatedly taught how to be without you.
Start by picking up your coat or car keys. This may trigger them to begin feeling excited or energized. Walk around for a minute, then replace your coat and keys and sit down. Do this as often as you need until your dog remains calm. Reward that behavior. Be aware this process may take days or weeks.
Then move on to leaving your dog.
You should initially leave the dog for very short times, returning almost immediately. Gradually increase the length of your absences. Immediately before your departure, give your dog a little food or a treat. This creates an association between your absence and the positive experience of eating.
During this program of behavior modification, owners should avoid long absences. If behavior worsens, reduce the length of your absences again until the dog’s behavior improves. Resume the gradual increase in the length of the absences.
What Not To Do
- Don’t use prescription drugs unless absolutely necessary. Talk to your vet.
- Don’t rush the process. It takes a long time to correct this behavior.
- Avoid punishments. This will make the problem worse.
- Don’t buy another dog to keep the first one company. It doesn’t work and it may be an added stressor for your dog. They may show aggression toward the new dog.
- Don’t leave your dog in the car. This is dangerous, especially in warm weather.
How to cope while your dog learns to be calm
- Remember that however bad you feel, your dog probably feels worse.
- Is it an option to have a family member, or a pet sitter stay home with your dog?
- Can you take your dog to work?
- Is there a dog daycare facility near you?
Many dogs experience anxiety in their lives. As their carer and leader, it’s your job to look for the cues from your dog which signal imminent stress. Increase your knowledge. Understanding the reasons and triggers. This will help you deal with it appropriately.
Reward yourself when progress is made. It takes commitment, time and lots of love to help your dog with separation anxiety