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Understand and manage your dog’s separation anxiety

Approx. 10 minutes read

If it’s a common occurrence that you leave your house for a while, only to return to a wave of destruction and an over-excited dog, it’s very likely that your poor pooch experiences separation anxiety when he’s home alone. Dogs communicate their feelings through their actions, so the message should be clear: I don’t want to be without you! I want to go with you wherever you go!

Torn up couch cushions, a destroyed dog bed, shoes chewed beyond recognition, pee and poop where there shouldn’t be pee and poop… and a scratched front door that definitely indicates signs of attempted escape. This is your dog communicating his distress – he is NOT exacting revenge on you for leaving him alone. He’s not simply being ‘naughty’, but is experiencing separation anxiety.

So what is separation anxiety and how can you change your dog’s reaction to being left home alone?

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety in dogs is extreme panic about being left alone. Some dogs may anticipate their pawrent’s return and are able to wait calmly until they hear the key in the front door, but many of our furry friends just cannot stand being left on their own. If your dog experiences his sense of self, his confidence and his safety from being close to you, then your absence will be and is his worst nightmare.

The moment you depart the house and leave your dog on his own, he experiences abandonment and loneliness, and he has no way of reasoning with himself that you’ll be back soon. Separation anxiety in dogs is a full-blown panic attack that becomes uncontrollable, and the longer it’s left untreated, the more intensely the dog feels it and the worse it becomes.

What causes separation anxiety in dogs?

Separation anxiety can be caused by a number of underlying factors:

  • puppies being weaned too soon
  • puppies not being properly socialised
  • major change in a dog’s home environment (a family member moving away, the family relocating to a new house, changes in schedule due to a new job, etc.)
  • an adopted dog’s past trauma being retriggered
  • a traumatic event when the dog was alone in the past – e.g., a break-in, fireworks, storms
  • a genetic predisposition

This feeling of distress is deeply ingrained in dogs’ social needs as pack animals – where being alone in the wild greatly increases their risk of attack, injury and death. The anxiety response is so deep-seated that even when your dog is pawfectly safe and protected in your home, he feels alone, vulnerable, even trapped, and desperately needs to escape and find you.

What triggers separation anxiety in dogs?

Dogs are very sensitive animals, so they anticipate your behaviour based on certain cues. Even if you work from home, the cues that you’re about to leave may include things like closing your laptop, putting on your shoes, putting your phone in your handbag, grabbing your car keys, or even brushing your hair or putting on make-up. If your dog is anxious about your soon-to-be absence, he will be hypervigilant for these cues and his anxiety will increase the more you engage in your ‘leaving’ behaviour (the cues). He may become restless, begin to salivate excessively (out of fear), tremble, and not let you out of his sight, by going with you from room to room before you leave.

The biggest trigger of separation anxiety is your absence – the moment you walk out and close the door behind you. Your dog is alone and the panic sets in.

What are signs of separation anxiety in dogs?

There are three groups of behaviour that result from separation anxiety: vocalisation, elimination, and destruction.

  • Vocalisation may include barking, whining and howling.
  • Elimination includes peeing and pooping in inappropriate places indoors. It may include vomiting.
  • Destruction involves the chewing up of inappropriate items like couch cushions, his own dog bed, shoes, completely destroying toys and ripping at curtains. It can also include biting, clawing and scratching doors, door frames and window frames, especially at or near your point of exit – as your dog tries to escape and come to you.

The destructive behaviours may also include personal injury to your dog. He may be so desperate to get out of the house to find you that he attempts to jump through a window, or tries to chew through wood, despite his teeth and gums getting injured. He may even compulsively lick and bite himself as a way to self-soothe, and can be subject to sores and infection as a result.

It’s understandable that when you return home to this scene of destruction, it feels personal and that somehow your dog has wronged you. However, when looking at it from the dog’s point of view, there is no rationalising his out-of-control panic and desperation. This underlying cause needs to be addressed for the destructive behaviour must be managed.

Does ignoring your dog help with separation anxiety?

Many owners of dogs suffering from separation anxiety come home to a living room full of cushion stuffing, destroyed shoes, and dog mess, and they feel like their dog has ‘done this to them’ or their dog is being naughty. This is what you do to me for leaving you alone, huh? However, dogs do not have the power of rationalising to begin with, and especially not when they’re in a full-blown panic attack.

If you come home and react negatively to the signs of your dog’s separation anxiety (shouting at your dog or punishing him), this reinforces his fear. He’ll then fear your departure and fear your return, merely escalating the separation anxiety and making things worse. Yes, it will help to simply not react when you get home to destruction, and to not reinforce your dog’s need for the attention he’s trying to get with an over-excited greeting. However, ignoring your dog is just one small part of reducing his fears and reducing his dependence on you, and it forms part of not reinforcing his fearful behaviour. Ignoring your dog needs to happen at crucial times during desensitisation training, to teach him he has nothing to fear.

In order to reduce and completely eliminate your dog’s separation anxiety, there’s a lot of work to be done.

How do you stop separation anxiety in dogs?

Very loosely speaking, your dog’s separation anxiety arises from his dependence on you for constant company, attention, reassurance, snacks, food and safety. If you’ve indulged your furry friend with ongoing free access to everything his little puppy heart desires, then when that free access is removed (i.e.: when you leave the house), he’s thrown into chaos because he needs you and suddenly you’re not there and he doesn’t have the skills to cope.

To reduce your dog’s separation anxiety, he needs to be trained to be independent, separate from you, and self-assured when you’re at home, so that he can maintain his confidence when you’re not there – knowing you will come back and he’ll be okay in the meantime.

Can you train a dog out of separation anxiety?

Yes, training a dog out of separation anxiety is an effective way to manage the condition. However, separation anxiety is a very traumatising and ingrained condition, so teaching your dog the correct skills he needs to remain calm and confident while you’re away may take a while. It starts by ensuring your dog can cope being left alone, and the only way to do this is very gradually, while only rewarding him for being calm and relaxed.

While this process is by no means simple and the steps have to be implemented consistently to get gradual improvements, these are the principles you need to apply to boost your dog’s confidence and for him to be okay while you’re not in the house.

1. Desensitise your dog to your departure

If your dog starts acting hypervigilant, needy and paces when you put on your shoes and pick up your keys, you’re cueing him to your departure. Notice which of your activities trigger his anxiety. When you start desensitisation training, put on your shoes and jangle your keys, then go and sit on the couch. Don’t leave. Your dog will probably come to you and wonder what the heck you’re doing, but just remain calm, ignore him, and after a while get up and do something else. Do this at random times throughout the day without actually leaving the house.

2. Extend your dog’s sit, stay command

While at home, reinforce your dog’s association with a certain place in the house (such as a ‘stay’ mat, his dog bed, or a crate) as being safe and calm. Put your dog in a sit, stay position on this calm spot and reward him with a treat. Move away from this spot and if he remains calm and relaxed, reward him again. Each time you do this, move further and further away until you can spend a few minutes to half an hour in a different room without him becoming flustered or anxious. If he comes running the moment you’re out of sight, return him to the calm spot and try again until you can increase the distance and amount of time you spend away from him.

You’re teaching him that there’s nothing to worry about if he can’t see you all the time, and that you will always come back.

3. Leave the house - just for a moment

With your dog calm and relaxed on his bed or in his crate (with the door open), give him a distracting and delicious chewable treat, and then walk out the front door and close it behind you. Be outside for two seconds, then come back inside again and ignore your dog. Go about your day. You are teaching your dog that it’s no big deal when you leave, and it’s no big deal when you return. Don’t come back inside and greet your pup enthusiastically, as this will create excitement, and for this part of the exercise, we want to keep excitement to a minimum.

Practise this exercise many times throughout the day so that your departure and return can be gradually extended in time, and when your dog has mastered his fears, he can be okay with you leaving for an hour or two at a time and returning when he least expects it.

4. Exercise your dog before you leave for real

As we’ve mentioned in our barking, digging and boredom articles, regular exercise is the magic wand of reducing problem behaviours in dogs. Exercise (i.e., going for a nice brisk walk) at the same time every day does two things: it gives your dog a routine on which to build his confidence, and it gives him an opportunity to burn off the steam that would otherwise power his problem behaviours. For a dog suffering from separation anxiety, going for a walk with you is a huge reward and soon he’ll put two and two together – that it’s something that will happen at the same time every day and he can remain calm about it.

Exercising and playing together will also build your bond with your dog in a healthy way.

5. Ignore your dog (don’t reward attention-seeking behaviour)

Dogs will often approach us, jump up, paw at us, whine and vocalise to signal they want something from us. Ignore this attention-seeking behaviour. Only look at, speak to, pet or treat your dog when he is in a calm state – any time day or night. Let this be the rule of thumb; let this become his new normal.

Similarly, about 30 minutes before you’re about to leave the house, ignore your dog so that if he’s feeling anxious, you don’t reinforce that anxiety. And, when you get home again after being out of the house, ignore your pup until he’s calm and relaxed, and only then say hello and acknowledge his delightful self in a calm and reassuring way.

6. Distract your dog with deliciousness

The night before, prepare a Kong toy or similar treat toy with some wet food, peanut butter, treats, and other delicious goodies that can be stuffed into the treat toy and pop it in the freezer. A marrow bone is also like a treat toy that needs to be ‘solved’. Another option is to place some treats and dry kibble in a snuffle mat as a distracting toy. Before you leave the house, place the snuffle mat and/or treat toys down for your dog to enjoy, then quietly leave without making a fuss. Be calm and don’t create any anticipation or anxiety around your departure. Chances are, your pup will be too ‘into’ his special treats and won’t even notice that you’ve left.

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The facial and jaw muscles required to solve the treat toys are the same muscles that store a dog’s energy and anxiety, which is why chewing and barking are two of the most stress-relieving activities for dogs. Naturally engaging these muscles in a positive way will help to reduce your dog’s anxiety about your absence.

Also, be sure to balance the extra calories you’re giving your dog with these distraction treats, by subtracting them from his kibble. You may end up solving your pup’s separation anxiety, only to add on a few kgs thanks to the delicious distractions.

There are plenty of resources available to help you with this process.

Separation anxiety relief success stories

Have a look at how these very different dogs (and their owners) have all been able to be desensitised and retrained to manage their separation anxiety:

What do vets prescribe for separation anxiety?

In cases of very severe separation anxiety, some veterinarians will prescribe mood stabilising drugs, while some may recommend calming medications and diffusers. If you are concerned about your dog’s separation anxiety, speak to your vet about medicinal solutions to use while you are undergoing the behavioural training aspect with your dog.

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