Dogs Experience Separation Anxiety Too!
You have probably seen or heard of a dog who cowers and hides during fireworks or other loud noises. Or a dog that becomes fearful and anxious when riding in a car. But one of the most common types of anxiety in dogs is separation anxiety. This happens when your dog is unable to cope when you aren’t around.
It is obviously impossible to understand exactly why some dogs develop separation anxiety and others don’t, however, according to the ASPCA, this fear is more common in dogs that are adopted from shelters, leading to the belief that it occurs more often in dogs who have lost a person or a group of people and been placed in unfamiliar places.
Signs of Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety in dogs can range from mild to severe. In severe cases, owners can’t leave their dog for even a few minutes without facing some type of problem when returning. Some of the common behaviors include:
- Urinating and defecating even after dogs are properly housebroken
- Barking or howling
- Chewing, digging or destruction of property
- Coprophagia (defecating and then eating the excrement)
In order to attribute these behaviors to separation anxiety, it can’t be present when the owner is home, for example, if your dog chews on furniture when you are together, then chewing on furniture when you are away isn’t a sign the dog is anxious. However, if your dog only does this after you leave the house, it could be fear that is driving the behavior.
Other Possible Causes
While undesired behaviors only when you are gone is a good indication of separation anxiety, there might be other reasons for some of the behaviors you notice happening when you are out of the house. Dogs often chew or dig when they are young or out of boredom. Some dogs urinate to “mark” their territory or because housebreaking methods are inconsistent. Some breeds of dogs bark or howl more often than others. If you have questions about certain behaviors, talk to your vet to rule out any possible physical causes.
Managing Separation Anxiety
For mild separation anxiety, there are several things you can do to help your dog better cope with your absence:
Start by having your dog remain in one room while you go to a different room, increasing the time you stay in the other room as your dog’s fear eases. Make sure your dog knows basic commands, such as “sit” and “stay.” You can start by having the dog stay and going on the other side of a door for a few seconds and then praising your dog for staying. Slowly increase the time you remain hidden from sight.
Use certain play toys your dog enjoys only when you are leaving. This helps your dog associate something pleasant with your absence. Make sure you pick up the toys as soon as you return.
Use KONG toys to hide a special treat or a meal. A KONG toy is specially made to hold food inside. Your dog has to work to get the meal or the treat. This gives your dog something to do while you are gone. You can start out with a simple treat inside or you can give your dog breakfast in a KONG toy before you leave the house. The ASPCA provides recipes and tips for filling a KONG toy.
Remain calm when leaving and returning. You want to provide reassurance without coddling your dog and reinforcing the fears. Give the dog a pat and a reassuring word. Pay more attention once your dog has calmed down.
Leave an article of clothing that smells like you with your dog while you are gone.
For moderate and severe cases of separation anxiety, you might need to use a desentization process:
- Start during departure time if your dog shows signs of anxiety when you are preparing to leave, for example, some dogs will start barking, whining or become agitated when you are preparing to leave. Look for the exact trigger. Is it when you pick up your keys? put on your coat? put on makeup? Once you have the triggers, go through these motions without leaving the house. Do this several times a day for a few weeks. Your dog will learn to not become anxious when these actions occur.
- Start slow. As in the previous tip, start by having your dog stay in one room while you go into a different room. Advance to leaving the house for a few seconds and slowly build up the time you are away. Make sure you always return before your dog becomes anxious, the point is to show you can be away without triggering anxiety. You should do this several times a day.This might take several weeks or months of work on your part to build up to where you can be away for any length of time without your dog being anxious. You can use the previous tips of giving a special toy or treat when you leave.
If you do need to leave the house for extended times, try to keep your dog in a safe location, such as blocking the kitchen with baby gates to limit the problems. You might need to enlist the help of a dog-sitter or doggie day care as you go through the process and build up your dog’s tolerance of being alone.
If, no matter what you do, your dog still experiences anxiety each time you leave the house, consult with your vet about anxiety medications for dogs or other alternatives. You can also hire a professional dog trainer that specializes in working with dogs with separation anxiety. Remember, these types of behaviors are not your dog’s way of punishing you for being away, they are a reaction to fear.
“Separation Anxiety,” 2013, Sept 12, Staff Writer, The Humane Society of the United States
“Separation Anxiety,” Date Unknown, Staff Writer, ASPCA