Do you have a dog that suffers from separation anxiety? Then you know how frustrating it can be for you and how devastating for your dog.
If you are a dog owner but haven’t experienced this disorder, it’s only a matter of time. A dog in your future may show you what it’s like to come home to destruction, defecation and self-inflicted injuries from trying to escape.
This is a serious situation and one that can diminish your pet’s quality of life, not to mention your relationship with them.
If you’ve ever experienced anxiety, you know how horrible it feels. But you understand that everything will be okay. Your dog doesn’t understand that. All they know is they are terrified that you’ve left them alone and they’re certain something bad will happen.
What does separation anxiety look like?
A dog that suffers from real anxiety will show signs before you even leave the house. They may drool and pace as they see you going through your usual departure routine.
When you come home, you may find they’ve peed or pooped in the house. They may have tried to chew or dig their way out of the house, and may have broken teeth or bloody paws from their escape attempt. Chewed windowsills and clawed doors are common.
Dogs can severely injure themselves by jumping through windows in their panic to get out.
You may also come home to a full voicemail box with complaints from neighbors that your dog barked and howled all day.
Upon your return, they’ll act like you’ve been gone for years.
Separation anxiety is much more intense than separation distress. Distress is a low level of stress and not usually as destructive.
The behavior of a dog suffering from separation anxiety differs greatly from the behavior of a dog that has a medical problem that causes them to have accidents. Or a dog whose owner hasn’t housebroken them completely, or correctly. So the dog isn’t sure where they’re supposed to do their business.
It’s also very different than the behavior of a dog that is destructive because they’re bored, under exercised or needs to chew.
What causes this disorder?
No one knows for sure what causes separation anxiety in some dogs but not others. But to understand why some dogs suffer from it we only need to look at the behavior of their pack ancestors.
Pack animals need their pack to survive. In the wild, an animal by itself will starve because it needs the pack to hunt. It also needs the pack to protect it from predators. So isolation means almost certain death.
It makes sense that a pack animal like a dog is hard-wired to fear isolation.
In today’s world, we see more and more dogs suffering from separation issues, or at least showing the manifestations of separation anxiety, than we did 40 years ago. It’s more common now for dogs to be left home alone all day. In those days mom was often home most of the day to keep a pet company.
So it’s possible that dogs would have shown the same signs of anxiety years ago if they were alone for 8 hours a day, but it didn’t happen as often.
Because of this destructive and frustrating behavior, too many dogs end up at shelters. It’s no surprise that this problem is most often seen in dogs adopted from shelters. Whether it’s because many dogs are given up for this reason, or because shelter dogs are more insecure as a result of having lost a person close to them, no one knows for sure.
What can you do if your dog can’t be left alone?
I must be frank. This is a behavior problem that will take work… a lot of work. And patience. And probably some medication too… for your dog that is.
But first be sure that what your dog is experiencing is actually a separation problem, and not a training or health problem.
If your dog suffers when they are alone but are okay with a pet sitter or even another dog in the house, that’s isolation distress or anxiety. They don’t want to be alone.
You might fix this problem by getting another dog. But I would suggest trying that out by borrowing a friend’s dog first to see if it helps.
If your pet can’t bear to be apart from you, or another member of your household, even if they aren’t alone, they are suffering from separation anxiety or distress. There’s no quick fix for this. It will take counter conditioning.
If your pet is suffering from a low level of stress, whether it’s separation or isolation distress, you can probably fix the problem yourself by conditioning your dog that good things happen when they’re alone.
You can train your dog to associate the fear of being alone with something they love like food. You can give them a food puzzle when you leave the house or a stuffed and frozen Kong. They only get that special treat when you leave the house. You take it away as soon as you return.
This will only work with a dog that suffers from mild distress. A highly anxious dog will not eat when you leave.
If you give your dog something they love when you leave, your dog will soon develop an association between being alone and a special tasty treat. And your dog’s fear may be replaced with positive feelings.
This will not work with a dog that’s severely anxious. In this case, your dog must gradually become accustomed to being left alone for longer and longer periods—starting with short intervals only a few seconds long. These short separations must be anxiety free.
As soon as the separation is filled with fear, your counter conditioning will backfire.
If your dog is really anxious, crate training may not be an option either. The crate just exacerbates the anxiety. You can give a crate a try when you are around to watch your dog’s reaction to it. If they become stressed or anxious when they’re crated and you’re there, it will only be worse when you’re gone.
You must confine your dog in a small room with a baby gate until your dog has overcome their anxiety and can be safe roaming a larger area. And that may never happen. The safest place for them to be may always be confined in a room.
If your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, you will need to enlist the help of a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. Your vet may be able to help you if they’re expertise is in animal behavior.
But a dog trainer may not. Most trainers are not certified animal behaviorists. And this problem requires an expert.
What might an animal behaviorist suggest?
They can help you set up a behavior modification plan. This plan will lay out how many short separation stints you need to do each day, how long the separation can be, and for how many days before you can increase the duration. This can take several weeks.
An expert will suggest things like changing your routine. So instead of grabbing your keys and running out the door to go to work in the morning, pick up your keys throughout the day and watch television. Or make dinner.
Change the association between picking up your keys and leaving the house, to picking up your keys means nothing important happens.
If you always put your briefcase in the car a few minutes before you leave the house, put your briefcase in the car in the evening before you sit down to dinner.
Make your routine unpredictable. And do this for several weeks.
Little changes will minimize the anticipation and spiraling anxiety your dog feels when they see you getting ready to leave the house. If you leave your dog when their anxiety level is heightened, it only worsens the problem. Your dog needs to be calm before you leave them.
Exercise your dog for at least 30 minutes before you will leave them alone. And be sure you finish exercising them at least 20 to 30 minutes before you will leave. Then they can settle down before you go, yet still be a little tired.
Goodbyes and hellos should be calm. If your dog gets crazy, turn your back and walk away. Acknowledge them only when they settle down.
Give your dog lots of physical and mental stimulation to reduce anxiety. Food puzzles make them use their brains.
You can play “find it” with their food, hiding small piles around the house when you leave. This can be a good distraction and keeps their brain working.
Take them to lots of new places and give them new experiences. New sights and sounds provide stimulation.
These things will give your dog more confidence and will also tire them out. A tired dog is less likely to be anxious.
Be sure your dog has appropriate chew toys when you’re gone. Chewing and licking has a calming effect.
There are many parts to the separation anxiety dilemma, which is why it’s so important that you enlist the help of an expert.
Your dog doesn’t suffer from separation anxiety? Hold on…
Separation anxiety can suddenly become a problem for a dog that has never showed signs of a problem before.
An abrupt change in routine can trigger separation problems. If you’ve always worked from home but suddenly get a job outside of the house, your dog may find it difficult to adjust to being left alone for 8 hours a day.
Moving to a new house or a household member moving out of the house can cause anxiety.
But a little preparation and training can head off a problem. If you are planning a lifestyle change that will affect your dog, talk to a certified animal behaviorist first. They can help you implement strategies to get the dog used to the change before it happens.
What about medication?
Dogs that suffer from severe separation anxiety will need medication to decrease their anxiety enough so that you can leave them alone for short spurts during behavior modification sessions.
Dogs with mild separation problems may only need medication. If the meds enable them to be alone without fear that’s often enough for them to become conditioned that they can be by themselves and be okay. Eventually they won’t even need the meds.
Most dogs will need meds and behavior modification.
It’s very important to see your vet as soon as your dog exhibits separation anxiety. The longer you let the problem continue, the more you are reinforcing the fear associated with being alone.
Remember that anxiety isn’t something your dog can control. So never scold or punish them for doing damage when you’re away. Punishment will only cause more stress and anxiety, making the problem worse.
Have you had a dog that suffers from separation anxiety or distress? How did you handle it? Share in the comment section at the top of the page.