How to Help Your Dog Overcome Its Separation Anxiety
Veterinarian Reviewed by Dr. Janice Huntingford, DVM on June 26, 2018
Posted in Dog
Dogs that terrorize the house while the owners are away are often assumed to have behavioral problems caused by a lack of training. While this certainly may be the case in some scenarios, other dogs may have a bigger issue than bad behavior. These dogs may actually be panicking due to separation anxiety.
Most pet owners know that dogs don’t like to be left alone and will sometimes whine or cry when you are away. While this is normal to some extent, dogs with separation anxiety will exude many more symptoms due to their distressed state and will be unable to control themselves.
Dealing with separation anxiety in dogs can be difficult, especially if your dog has a severe case and is unable to be left alone at all. Fortunately, there are numerous methods and training mechanisms you can work into your routine that will help ease your pooch’s separation anxiety.
Understanding anxiety and its triggers
Separation anxiety is a stress disorder some dogs suffer from that occurs when the dog’s owners are away. While some cases are more severe than others, separation anxiety can occur after a few hours of being apart or after just a few seconds.
Symptoms of separation anxiety may include defecating or urinating around the house, chewing and scratching at objects and furniture and excessive barking. Additionally, the dog may show signs of agitation, depression or anxiety prior to the owner’s departure, as well as drooling and pacing. While alone, the dog may even try to escape the home, which can result in severe self-injury.
Unfortunately, the signs of separation anxiety are often related to other illnesses or medical conditions. For this reason, it can be difficult to pinpoint the cause of the destruction in your house. You may need to take your dog to the vet to be tested before determining the issue is, in fact, separation anxiety.
There is no one cause of separation anxiety, but some major changes in the dog’s life may contribute to the anxiety or trigger it, including:
- Having a history of owner neglect or loss of a close loved one
- Change in the family if the dog is put up for adoption
- New environment or house after moving
- Change in normal schedule, forcing the dog to be left alone more often
- Sudden absence, such as the death or sudden move of a former owner
No matter what the cause, handling your dog’s separation anxiety will require patience and dedication. It may take months of training to get your dog to a point where it is comfortable being at home alone.
You may need to use a combination of different methods, depending on how severe your dog’s anxiety is.
- Remain calm: One of the most common reasons dogs make a big deal out of their owners leaving is because the owner does. To mitigate anxiety, downplay your departure. Don’t make a big deal about your absence—when you hype up your leaving, you can provoke the dog and make it more anxious. Stay calm, quick and happy, then leave the house.
- Alter pre-departure clues: Dogs are very smart and pick up on the clues you give that you are about to leave—putting on shoes, picking up your keys, etc. Seeing these cues can make your dog anxious before you even leave, so you need to attempt to retrain them to not be anxious about them. Teach it that your cues don’t always mean you are leaving by doing some departure steps like putting on shoes by remaining at home to cook. Repetition of different cues over the course of a week or two will help.
- Counterconditioning: Some dogs are able to learn to stay calm through a process called counterconditioning. This process changes your dog’s anxious reaction into a calm one by teaching it that things it fears will produce good results. One popular way to do this is through food and treats. When you leave, give your dog a treat-filled puzzle toy that will take it time to complete and remove it as soon as you’re home, so it only has access when you are away.
- Stay games: Play games with your dog to teach it to stay out of your sight for short periods of time, gradually increasing the time it stays. You can start this game while on opposite sides of a door, then move into other areas of the home and eventually play as you leave the house. After a while, your dog will be conditioned to your leaving and know you will return.
- Medication: Anti-anxiety medications may be required if your dog suffers from severe anxiety. Speak with your vet about the right option for your pooch. You may also be able to incorporate a supplement to help reduce your dog’s stress and provide calming effects in lieu of medication.
Over time, your pooch will learn to accept your absences and have faith you will return. For dogs with very serious cases of anxiety, you may need to recruit the help of a trained professional. For other, less severe cases, working with your dog to train its reactions over periods of time should help them relax when you are away.
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Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan