Dogs are pack animals and highly social in nature. In the wild, wolves travel in packs of up to twenty members so it is no wonder why our pet dogs enjoy the company of their humans and dislike being alone. Some dogs can be home alone on a regular basis without problems, but an abrupt change in schedule or absence of a family member can trigger the development of separation anxiety. Dogs with separation anxiety show signs of extreme anxiety and distress while their owner is out of the house.
The symptoms can range from mild to severe and even dangerous. An owner may notice destruction of items/furniture around the home, escaping kennels or confinement, urine or stool accidents, and neighbors complaining about excessive barking/howling. Behaviors such as: dilated pupils, panting, salivating, trembling, pacing, and excessively licking the front legs are signs your dog is anxious. Typically these behaviors start when the dog anticipates their owner leaving then worsen or persist until that owner comes home. Dogs with separation anxiety will put all of their focus on impatiently waiting for the exuberant greeting that will take place upon the return of their beloved human. Even if your pet has mild symptoms or has not experienced separation anxiety in the past, it is important to prepare them for upcoming changes via training.
“I believe my dog has separation anxiety, what do I do now?”
First, call the vet or schedule an appointment. It is helpful to take video of your dog demonstrating the behavior when home alone. It is important to rule out other medical problems that could be the cause of the house soiling or other behaviors an owner may notice. Medications can be prescribed to help lessen the anxiety and alter behavior in conjunction with training.
Training is the first and last step in tackling separation anxiety. It is important to identify triggers or steps in daily routines that start the anxiety, then desensitize the behavior. For example, if the jiggling of car keys is triggering, you might try picking up the keys at random throughout the day when you have no plans on leaving the house. If at all possible, it is helpful to avoid situations that may prompt an anxious response. Vary the door that you exit so your presence near the front door doesn’t always mean you’re leaving the house. If the sight of your work uniform is a signal, you might change as soon as you get to work if possible.
Next, it is important to help your dog gain independence and feel safe in your absence. This can be achieved by basic mat/bed training for calm behavior. First have your dog lay on the desired object, then, once the dog is comfortable staying on the mat you gradually move further away. For most dogs it takes many sessions to build up to the point where the dog will stay while the person moves out of their sight. It’s important to go slowly with your training and use treats so your dog sees this as a fun game and never becomes worried about what is going on. Once your pet is comfortable being away from you but still in sight, you can start working on door training. Door training consists of waiting on the other side of a door, out of your dog’s sight, and each day increasing the separation time. It is very important for your dog to know basic obedience commands. An owner may partake in an obedience or agility class with their dog. This will build confidence in a dog. It will also help establish a relationship that is consistent and predictable which reduces overall anxiety.
Once some basic training has been established, continue desensitization by practicing short frequent absences. Make sure not to make any fuss when leaving or greeting your dog. When you or guests enter the home, be sure to stay very calm and quiet and do not look or touch your dog for at least 15 minutes upon your arrival. This will help reduce the flood of positive reinforcement your dog receives upon seeing you again as a counterpoint to the anxiety of your absence. Be mindful to only interact with your dog at your initiative and when the dog is relaxed.
The old saying, “ A tired dog is a good dog”, without a doubt applies to these dogs. All dogs need a “job”. If a dog is not provided with a job, they will find a job. The job or activity of your dog’s choosing will likely be unfavorable, anxious, or hyperactive behavior. Any job you assign to your dog should involve an abundance of physical stimulation. Examples include: a 30 minute walk or run before leaving the house, a trip to the dog park (if your dog is friendly with other dogs) or a game of fetch or frisbee. Mental stimulation such as food puzzle toys to help them practice independence while you are home with them and achieve a mental work-out that distracts them while you are away. Some owners enjoy hiding kibble around the house or safe space to keep their dog busy and engage their nose.
Dogs suffering from this disorder can have uncontrollable panic when separated from their owner. They can often end up injuring themselves in the struggle of escaping their kennel or confined area. Therefore it is imperative to only use a kennel for dogs that are well kennel trained and enjoy being kenneled. An alternative to kennel confinement would be setting up a safe place with no windows such as a bathroom. Providing sound distraction such as talk radio, classical music or TV is going to help make their safe space as calm and relaxing as possible. Using products such as a ThunderShirt® or a diffuser with DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) are helpful additions an owner could try to reduce the stress and enhance their safe space.
For the dogs that can not be kenneled or confined without injury or extreme destruction, there are a few medications and supplements that can be used, but medication alone is never the answer. As stated before, training is the first and last step of treatment. While waiting to achieve the effects of medication an owner should focus on avoiding leaving the dog altogether. An owner could arrange for a family member, friend or dog sitter to come to the home and stay with the dog when you’re not there. The dog could go to a sitter’s house or to a doggy daycare while the owner is at work. Make sure to keep trips out of the house to a minimum i.e. run errands right after work before coming home. Owners also need to know that there absolutely can not be punishment for separation anxiety behaviors. Punishment will only make things worse.
“Every dog starts life with a blank canvas. Their destiny etched by the hands of the painter. The portrait painted depends on how the brush is held.
Paint with hostility, the dog learns to fight.
Paint with cruelty, the dog learns aggression.
Paint with praise, the dog learns confidence.
Paint with tenderness, the dog learns to love.
Paint with boundaries, the dog learns respect.
Every dog is a product of their environment. Bad dogs are not born, they are created. If the portrait is flawed, look at the artist.”
Article written by: Lindsey B.
1 Image taken from Pixabay. Published under Creative Commons license. No changes made.
2 Image taken from Pixabay. Published under Creative Commons license. No changes made.
3 Image taken from Pixabay. Published under Creative Commons license. No changes made.