One of the most difficult behavioural issues to deal with in dogs is separation anxiety – usually because you’re not there to witness or experience it and often you only find out about it when the damage is done or you have an irate neighbour at your door after a day of barking and howling….
Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to take your dog everywhere with you, and sometimes they are going to have to stay at home alone. Separation anxiety manifests in a variety of ways and can be very upsetting for both dog and owner, but there are some tried and tested methods that have proven to be successful before you need to look at consulting a Behaviourist.
Please note – we ALWAYS recommend that you consult your Vet before you give your dog calming medication of any kind.
The symptoms of separation anxiety are generally quite clear, once you know what to look for –
- your dog seems to noticeably “worry” when it appears that you may be going out
- you get home to destruction and mess every time you go out – whether its for 5 minutes or 5 hours
- complaints of howling, barking and whining from the neighbours
- he follows you from room to room when you’re home
- gets completely over-excited when you come back
- seems to be eyeing you suspiciously even before you leave
If you notice any of these behaviours, you can rest assured that you are quite likely dealing with a case of separation anxiety.
What causes separation anxiety
We don’t fully understand why some dogs suffer from separation anxiety and others not, but it is part of a panic response relating to:
- Being left alone for the first time.
- Being left alone when accustomed to constant human contact.
- Suffering a traumatic event, such as time at a shelter or boarding kennel.
- Change in the family’s routine or structure, or the loss of a family member or other pet.
Just remember, though – your dog isn’t trying to punish you! They just want you to come home!
How to treat minor separation anxiety
- Don’t make a big deal out of arrivals and departures — ignore your dog for the first few minutes then calmly pet them. Make your departures and returns completely calm and emotionless. If he gets excited and jumps all over you when you return, ignore him. Turn your back and walk away. When he finally settles down, say hello and greet him very calmly
- Leave your dog with recently worn clothing items that smell like you.
- Establish a word or action that you use every time you leave that tells your dog you’ll be back.
- Consider speaking to your Vet about a calming product that reduces fearfulness in dogs.
How to handle a more severe problem
Use the techniques mentioned above, but also try implementing some of the following desensitisation training techniques. The most important part of any the processes is for you to stay calm, and to downplay your leaving and coming home.
- Teach your dog the sit-stay and down-stay commands using positive reinforcement. This training will help them learn that they can remain calmly and happily in one place while you go to another room. Get them comfortable with this, and then move to rooms further away and eventually to out the house completely for short, then longer periods but without actually “going out”.
Remember – this is all training and will not happen overnight
- Create a “safe place” to limit the area that your dog could possibly destroy while you’re away. For example, a safe place could be a room with a window with “busy” toys for distraction, clothes that you have worn (and don’t mind chewed up in your absence) and even a snuffle mat or some frozen treats in a Kong as a distraction
How to cope while your dog learns to be calm
- It can take time for your dog to relax their panic response to your departures, so be patient. The more anxious you are, the more anxious it will make them.
- Speak to your veterinarian about drug therapy to reduce their overall anxiety.
- Consider a Doggie Daycare facility while you’re at work
- If you’re going on holiday, get recommendations for a reliable pet sitter that will sleep in, and who will be there all day with your dog in its familiar surroundings
What doesn’t help
- Punishment of any kind isn’t effective for treating separation anxiety and will only make the situation worse.
- Getting your dog a companion usually doesn’t help an anxious dog. Their anxiety is the result of their separation from you, not just being alone.
- Your dog will be still be anxious inside a crate, and they may injure themself trying to escape. Instead, create other kinds of “safe places” as described above.
- Radio/TV noise won’t make a difference if your dog’s anxiety is really bad.
While formal training is always a good idea, separation anxiety isn’t the result of disobedience or lack of training, and if nothing else is working, it’s worthwhile consulting a professional animal behaviour specialist as this is unlikely to resolve itself. There is lots of help available!