For some dogs, the sound of car keys jingling in their owner’s hand is enough to send them into a spiral of panic that seemingly doesn’t end until their human walks back in the door. For owners who are gone at work for 8 to 10 hours a day, this is bad news for Fido. Dogs with severe separation anxiety can cause extensive damage to your home and even harm themselves with this destructive behavior. Luckily, there are many options available to treat separation anxiety in dogs that range from training to medication based on the severity of your pup’s symptoms.
This article will discuss the indications and causes of separation anxiety, along with the most popular methods to help your dog overcome his fear. Normal puppy behavior, along with tips and tricks for helping your dog deal with his dilemma will also be discussed.
Symptoms of separation anxiety
Many dogs act differently when they know their owner is getting ready to leave the house, but true separation anxiety is easily distinguishable from a misbehaving dog that is simply trying to get attention. Dogs that suffer from this type of anxiety feel truly distressed and have a physical response that cannot be feigned.
Most dogs begin to show symptoms when you start your routine of leaving the house, like putting on shoes or opening the garage door. Many dogs will start whining or act overly excited. Other dog anxiety symptoms include:
- Barking or howling as soon as you leave;
- Chewing furniture, door frames, and windowsills;
- Urinating or defecating in the house;
- Drooling excessively;
- Digging in the carpet or around the door;
- Scratching doors or chewing door knobs (particularly the door you most commonly go in and out of);
- General destruction of the house or chewing household objects.
Many dogs that display the above behaviors do not have true separation anxiety, so don’t be too quick to diagnose your dog until you have ruled out other reasons your dog may be acting out. For example, a dog that is eliminating in the house (especially is he was previously house trained) may have an undiagnosed medical condition.
Dogs with true separation anxiety have destructive behavior that is more than just temporary or an occasional slip up in behavior: barking or howling that lasts for hours on end, destruction of furniture that leads to bloody paws or broken teeth, and neurotic behavior that starts before you leave the house and doesn’t end immediately when you come home.
A note about puppies
Often, owners of puppies attribute their young pup’s destruction to separation anxiety, but in reality, chewing of shoes and having “accidents” indoors is the hallmark of a young (untrained) puppy, and teaching basic obedience commands along with crate training will usually resolve these juvenile problems. Puppies go through a teething stage just like human infants, and chewing provides relief to sore gums. It is common for young dogs to chew shoes, furniture, or practically anything they can get their paws on.
This knack to gnaw on anything and everything (including your fingers!) is natural and is not a symptom of separation anxiety. Prevention is key in teaching your pup that it is not okay to chew on your belongings, and crate training is the best way to teach this lesson.
Most dogs will grow out of the intensive chewing phase around six months of age, at which time you can start to leave your dog out of his crate for short periods of time while you are away. You can gradually increase the amount of freedom you give him, but if you come back to a partially destroyed house, take a step back and use the crate again until you are both ready to try again.
Causes of separation anxiety
Experts do not agree on what exactly causes some dogs to lose control when they are left alone, but statistics show that dogs from shelter environments and dogs that have had multiple owners suffer more so than dogs that have been raised by one family since puppyhood.
Dogs are creatures of habit, so it is natural that they should become upset when their environment or routine is changed. Dogs that have experienced loss (whether that is the death of an owner or simply being given away) certainly suffer the most, which goes to prove that our canine companions hurt and feel like we do (although not in the same sense or way).
Some dog behavior experts argue that since dogs cannot understand the concept of time, they are more prone to panic when being left alone because they simply cannot fathom that you may or may not return. If your dog is new to your home, this will typically get better with time. Every day that your dog sees you leaving (and ultimately returning), he will be assured and become less anxious.
Treating separation anxiety: behavioral training
Only you can judge how severe your dog’s anxiety is, and you can try different treatments based on the severity of your dog’s behavior. Mild separation anxiety may actually just be boredom, and can be easily cured by giving your dog puzzle-style toys or treats while you are away. Boredom destruction is more common in highly intelligent dogs that are not okay with a sedentary lifestyle.
These dogs (such as Border Collies and Poodles) often need a “job” to do, so in addition to leaving them with a Kong-style toy that will occupy their mind, be sure that your dog is getting daily exercise, at the very minimum, a brisk 20 minute walk every day.
For mild cases, giving treats hidden in toys is enough to make your dog realize that being left along is actually a good thing, because that means he gets food. For this strategy to be effective, however, be sure to only offer these special toys and treats while you are away and take them back up shortly after you get home so that your dog associates the special treat with being alone. The eventual goal here is for your dog to look forward to, or at least accept, being left alone.
For more serious cases, however, behavioral training is the best bet and must be done consistently and frequently for it to be effective. Often referred to as desensitization and counterconditioning, these two methods are used for both animals and humans alike to make a pervious object or experience less negative. For example, if a dog is terrified of his getting his nails cut, then muzzling him and pinning him down to the ground while you cut his nails will certainly only validate his fear, indeed, making it worse!
In the scenario of desensitization, you want to teach your dog that getting his nails cut is not a scary experience. So instead of jumping right into it, start by leaving the nail clippers out to where you dog can see them and even smell them. Later, you could go near your dog with the nail clippers in hand, but not use them. Additionally, you could pick up your dog’s paw (without the clippers) so that he gets used to the touch. Only after your dog shows no anxiety do you progress to the next step. This process takes a lot of time and patience, but it is well worth the effort.
Counterconditioning, which is often used to compliment desensitization, occurs when you make the previous experience (nail cutting) positive. So when you progress to begin to cut your dog’s nails, you would offer a highly-desired treat like pieces of hot dog every 30 seconds or so; the goal here is for your dog to eventually look forward to (or at least tolerate) getting his nails cut, because this is the only time he gets hot dogs!
Both desensitization and counterconditioning can be used for treatment of separation anxiety if you are willing to commit the time. To start, you want to teach your dog that you will not always walk out the door when you start your regular routine of leaving the house.
For example, pick up your car keys throughout the day (perhaps even carry them around) but don’t leave. You can also go open the garage door, put on your shoes, then sit on the couch and watch TV. If you can make a habit of this, your dog will not be prone to panic when you pick up your keys, but again, this type of behavior doesn’t happen overnight, so patience is a must.
The next step in desensitization is to gradually increase the amount of time you are gone from the house. If you have a highly anxious dog and you start this training by leaving the house for 10 hours, the damage to your dog’s psyche will be great. Start by going to the mailbox (or even just outside the front door), then progress to a few minutes, then eventually an hour, and so on.
Again, this training takes a lot of time to effective, so you cannot start with 5 minutes one day, an hour the next, then be gone for 10 hours the following the day and expect it to be effective. Dogs are certainly capable of learning, but this training can takes weeks (and more commonly, months) to make a difference in your dog’s behavior.
With counterconditioning, offer treats when you leave and return to your house. Just as with the nail-cutting example, the goal is to train your dog that being left alone is a positive experience. It is important, therefore, that you only reserve these special treats, toys, or puzzles for the time he is home alone. And remember that the more active and more intelligent your dog is, the harder it may be to train him.
Smart and energetic dogs are typically unhappy being left alone all day, compared to a more laid-back breed like a Bulldog that may be perfectly content to snooze solo on the couch all day.
How to treat separation anxiety: medication
While most experts agree that prescription medication should be a last resort for treating separation anxiety, there are a variety of dog anxiety medications on the market that can help Rover cope with being left alone.
Many prescription drugs used to treat anxiety and depression in dogs actually belong to the same class of medication (and contain some of the same ingredients) as human medicine. And while a daily pill may help your dog significantly, most experts agree that it is a poor long-term choice because these medications can have severe side effects such as seizures, allergic reactions, aggression or other changes in mood.
Often, calming prescriptions work by making your dog drowsy, so many owners find they are able to wean their dog off medication once he has become accustomed to being left alone.
Of course, be sure to discuss any medication with your veterinarian, and always try to use prescriptions as compliment (and not replacement) to behavioral training.
If behavioral training is not progressing but you want to try a more holistic approach to treatment, consider other therapies available. Specialty clothing like Thudershirts can be very effective at treating anxiety in canines by supplying a calming pressure to your dog’s body while you are away. Other holistic options include home diffusers that emit calming pheromones and over-the-counter herbal supplements that come in topical or chewable forms.
If your dog still has severe anxiety when left alone, there are many options available to help your dog:
- Doggy Daycare. While this can be an expensive option for some, try taking Fido at least 2-3 days a week so he can enjoy the company of other dogs (and people!)
- Take your dog to work. While obviously not an option for some businesses, speak with your manager about bringing your pup to work. If your boss is an animal lover and you describe the situation to him, you may be surprised by his response!
- Hire a pet-sitter or dog walker. Typically, dogs with separation anxiety don’t need the company of their human, but any person. Check online for a local company to find someone who can stop by your house to spend some one-on-one time with your pooch while you are away.
- Install a webcam. Viewing your dog’s behavior may give you some insight into what sets him off, and perhaps will help you determine if there is any underlying issue. If you purchase a webcam that also has speakers, you can offer reassurance to your dog throughout the day.
- Get another dog. Dogs are pack animals by nature, so a great option for some dog lovers is to get a furry friend for their pup. While some dogs actually prefer the company of their human to another dog, it certainly can’t hurt to try and offer your dog some companionship.
Tips and tricks
In shelter environments, dogs that have been residents for months on end are subject to mental deterioration, which happens when dogs are not given the opportunity to exercise their bodies and minds.
Dogs are creatures with acute emotions, and treating them like fish in a tank (that is, only providing them food and water and not giving them affection) can have sad consequences. If your job means that you are away from home the majority of the day, it is essential to make sure your dog is feeling fulfilled during your time together.
Try some the below activities:
- Instead of walking your dog after you get home work, try exercising him before you leave for the day to get him nice and tired. He may even need to take a nap after you leave!
- Purchase a calming playlist made specifically for dogs and leave it playing while you are away. Many dogs do not like silence, and calming music or other background noise can alleviate anxiety.
- If your dog is being destructive while you are away, do not punish his bad behavior. Often, dogs act out to get attention, and even though the attention you give him is negative, it is reinforcing his behavior to continue. Instead, ignore the bad behavior and praise the good.
- As you leave for the day, don’t make a big deal out of coming or going. Remain calm as you exit and enter the door. Dogs feed off our emotions, so if we are frazzled or hurried, they sense it and can become distressed.
- When you walk in the door, do not show your dog attention until he has calmed down. This way, you are rewarding his calm behavior, not rewarding a frantic or jumping pooch.
Dogs feel secure and safe when they are in an environment shaped by routine and showered with love. Sadly, many dogs that are surrendered to shelters or abandoned feel insecure and unconfident. If you give a dog at second chance at life and take him into your home from one of these situations, be aware that he may experience a degree of separation anxiety because of his past. The most important thing you can give your dog is patience as you work through this challenge together, and he will repay your kindness with unconditional love.