Do you more often than not find yourself coming home to what looks like the aftermath of a hurricane, with your four-legged friend standing in the center of it? If so, your dog could be suffering from separation anxiety.
Reasons as to why your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety can vary. Some dogs react this way if they are not used to being left alone, others if there is a change in the family’s routine. In almost all cases there is undoubtedly a genetic component - some dogs just aren’t programmed to cope very well. Whatever the reason may be, it’s important to remember that your dog is not trying to punish you by acting this way, so do not punish your dog in return. Instead, try these tricks to help ease your dog’s separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety can range from mild to severe. Regardless of what symptoms your dog exhibits they will be present almost every time he is left alone and no matter how long he is left alone. The symptoms are also rarely exhibited when you are home. If those parameters are not met separation anxiety might not be the cause of your dog’s behavior.
Symptoms of mild separation anxiety are whining or barking, pacing, light scratching at doors or windows, and carrying/possessing an item of the owner’s. These behaviors tend to be brief and the dog eventually settles. Symptoms of moderate to severe anxiety include whining/barking/howling, inappetence, drooling, pacing/running about, eliminating, destructiveness, and self-mutilation. These behaviors begin invariably as soon as the owner leaves, if not before, and continue until the owner’s return.
Treatment for separation anxiety is not always easy, especially for moderate to severe cases. The following management tools can help your dog accept being on his own.
Rather than crating your dog, keep him confined in a room where he cannot be destructive. Along with plenty of water, leave your dog fun toys to play with to keep his mind off of his anxiety. In some cases of separation anxiety, the less space the dog has the more stressed he is so crating is not the best option for them. Your dog will still engage in anxiety responses inside the crate and may injure himself in attempt to escape. Unless your dog seeks his crate for security, do not crate him while you are away.
Keep arrivals and departures as low key as possible. Depart and arrive as quietly and calmly as possible. Recent research has shown that dogs with mild separation anxiety fare better when alone with one minute of slow, gentle petting and soothing talk from their owner just before leaving than being ignored. Dogs with moderate to severe cases should be ignored or just get a “See you tonight” as you walk out. Greet your dog only after he has calmed down.
Leave your dog with recently worn clothing that smells like you. Your scent is calming to your pet and may help soothe his anxiety when you’re away. Make sure that the clothing you leave your pet with is not valuable; an old T-shirt will do just fine.
Provide auditory therapy. Different sounds have been shown to soothe anxious dogs. One study found that audiobooks were successful in reducing barking; others found that certain music was beneficial in reducing anxiety. Classical music that isn’t too loud or uptempo (Pachelbel’s Canon in D, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and Debussy’s Clare de Lune are a few examples) and music specifically designed to be calming for dogs can help your dog relax.
Make sure your dog is getting enough exercise. All dogs should exercise for at least 30 minutes a day. However, if your dog is still experiencing separation anxiety, try adding an extra game of fetch or an extra walk into your daily routine. For more information on exercising your dog, check out our Exercise Article.
Leave your dog with something to keep him busy. Treat-stuffed toys such as Kongs are great for keeping your dog pleasantly preoccupied while you are away. For more information on Kongs and other forms of canine enrichment, check out our Canine Enrichment article.
Moderate to severe cases will not respond to management alone. Desensitization - exposing your dog to gradually increased periods of being alone without panicking - will be required. Practice at a time when your dog is calm and ideally not at a time when you would normally be leaving.
To begin you will go outside and then come back in. Do not pause, do not stand outside. Go out and come in. Wait a minute or so and repeat. Do this as often as you wish but be mindful of your dog’s responses. You don’t want to push him to the point of being stressed. It is better to do four five-minute sessions than one 20-minute session. When your dog is repeatedly comfortable with this go out and wait two seconds before going inside. Again, repeat until your dog is calm a number of times, then remain outside for three seconds. Continue to gradually (one or two seconds at a time) increase your absence. Once you reach 20 minutes you can increase your add-on time from one or two seconds to about 10 or 15 seconds. At 40 minutes you can jump to adding one minute for a few sessions. If all goes well, add on five minutes. Most likely, when you attain 90 minutes for a few sessions your dog will be okay for a few hours so it shouldn’t be necessary to keep building by a few minutes at a time up to six or eight hours.
If your dog is anxious when you are just out of his sight you will need to start indoors with simply going into the next room. Follow the same procedure above to build up time. Move to leaving the home, starting from step one, when your dog is comfortable with being apart for about 15 minutes.
It is very tempting during this training to move ahead to the next step. Be very wary of moving too quickly and foiling your hard work. There is no “right” number of times to practice each step. Generally, if your dog remains calm for about ten repetitions at a given duration you can add on time for your next trial. If at any time your dog becomes anxious, go back two steps and build up again.
The more often your dog is anxious, the more difficult it will be to successfully treat. Whenever possible, take your dog to a doggie day care or to work with you, or ask a family member or neighbor to care for him during your absence.
Speak with your veterinarian about anti-anxiety medication for your dog. Some mild cases can be treated by medication alone. Severe cases usually take longer to treat without medicine, especially if there are times when the dog is left alone for periods longer than he has been trained to accept.
Your dog’s separation anxiety will not be resolved overnight. It’s important to remember to remain calm and patient throughout this process. For more assistance in resolving your dog’s separation anxiety, don’t hesitate to call our Free Behavior Helpline at (312) 645-8253.