When you get ready to leave the house, does your pup wake up from their nap to follow after you? Maybe they start pacing, panting and whining too! I would love to reassure my dog by hugging, kissing, and saying goodbye to her, “I’ll be back soon!” And when I’d get back, my dog would look so happy as she’d cry and wiggle! Little did I know a few years down the line that the restlessness would turn into endless barking when I was away and I’d even find her paws raw and chewed up. These are all symptoms of separation anxiety. It made leaving the house difficult and I could never fully relax while on vacation.
Separation anxiety is the most common behavioral disorder affecting dogs worldwide, 20-40% of dogs seeking help from behaviorists are diagnosed. It occurs frequently in shelter dogs or dogs who have been abandoned, have had a change in ownership or home setting such as moving. Even changes in schedule such as an owner who has worked from home to a 9-5 can trigger separation anxiety! It also occurs when dogs are overly attached, lacking self-confidence, and dependent on their family and when their family leaves, these dogs go into a state of panic. It can look as mild as your dog waiting at the bathroom door with the occasional whimper to as severe as destructive chewing from trying to escape. Either way, these are all signs of stress.
What are the signs of separation anxiety?
- Destructive behavior: chewing furniture, pooping and peeing, digging or frantic scratching
- Vocalizing: excessive barking, howling, whining
- Self-sabotage: excessive licking, scratching, self-injuries from escape attempts
- Signs of stress: drooling, whining, panting
- Restlessness: pacing
Many of these signs can be a result of other issues. For example, pooping and peeing indoors may be a result of incomplete house training. And many of these symptoms are a result of boredom.
How to treat separation anxiety
Since separation anxiety can range from mild to severe, there are many ways to help our dogs find calmness but some tips won’t work on their own. Separation anxiety requires patience and a change in your dog’s mindset and it will take time, sometimes months depending on the case and requires patience.
Counterconditioning is adding a pleasant stimulus (like treats) to an unpleasant stimulus (like vacuuming) to make it pleasant after many repetitions. The key is to never let your dog reach that state of stress from the unpleasant stimulus. For dogs with separation anxiety, this stress can actually start when you begin your “leaving” routine. Picking up your car keys, putting a jacket on, doing your hair and makeup. Changing up your routine and adding counterconditioning principles while making sure your dog never feels stressed is common technique many behaviorists and trainers use for helping dogs with separation anxiety. It starts with baby steps as small as opening the door without exiting to leaving the house for 5 seconds and returning. Working with a behaviorist is a great way to keep you motivated through a potentially long process. For mild cases, you can leave your dog with a durable toy to keep them occupied and happy in your absence!
Calm exercises: Many dogs need to be taught “calm.” Before and after we leave our dogs home alone, we may be unintentionally rewarding that stressed state of mind when we pet, treat, and acknowledge them. Instead, it’s important to reward calm behavior and make leaving our dogs alone like it’s no big deal! Leave the house calmly with no attention to your dog and return immediately. If your dog is not calm, ignore them completely while going about your business. Wait until your dog has settled down and then you can pet them quietly. Establishing a “Place” command, or an appropriate area for your dog to sit such as a raised cot or towel, can help teach your dog boundaries and learn that the “place” is where to go for attention.
Crate training: Successful crate training is a guaranteed peace of mind for pet owners! When your dog finds comfort and happiness in their enclosed den, there is no concern for unwanted chewing or destruction in the home. Begin crate training while you’re working on other ways to decrease anxiety but don’t use the crate for separation anxiety until your dog is 100% happy in it. It may worsen the situation if it isn’t properly introduced.
Mental Stimulation: Games and exercises for the brain will quickly tire out a dog and encourage calm and relaxed behavior. Scent hunt and interactive puzzle toys are great activities to challenge your dog! Set out a Kong or engage in a game of hide and seek treats before you need to run to the grocery store to help mild anxiety! Make sure your dog has been supervised with toys and chews to make sure they’re safe to leave alone with.
Pet Camera: A way to observe your dog’s behavior when you aren’t home. Pet cameras will help pinpoint your dog’s triggers, see the severity of anxiety, help you create a game plan, and check your progress on training.
Exercise Balance: Physical exercise is also important for a tired and happy dog but make sure it is adequate to the breed or energy requirements of your dog. Running your low energy dog for 5 miles isn’t the solution.
Routine: Especially for dogs who have experienced a change in structure with family or home life, routine is important for them to feel more comfortable and at ease. If possible, prepare for a sudden change in routine by adjusting your schedule. For example, if you are going to work longer hours, prepare your dog for that change by leaving the house occasionally for longer periods. Use of pheromones will help settle your dog into a new home or if there’s an absence in family. If there’s a sudden routine change out of your control such as bringing home a shelter animal, maintain a schedule and ritual immediately.
For severe cases, it’s not always feasible to tackle separation anxiety over the course of 3 months when your dog is barking endlessly or hurting itself. Some options to consider while you work through your training with a behaviorist or trainer can include supplement therapy such as pheromones, CBD oil or prescription medication in severe cases from a veterinarian can help. Having a familiar person for dog sitting when you need to be away can help your dog feel more comfortable. You can arrange meet and greets with a dog sitter to allow your dog the chance to associate comfort with a new person. Separation anxiety takes time to alleviate, but there are always different options available; soon your dog will be napping peacefully when you’re at work and they’ll always be happy when you come home!