Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Applicable For:
  • Dogs

Separation anxiety is the most common behavioural problem seen in dogs; it affects around 30% of them. Separation anxiety is a very serious problem and can affect dogs of any age or breed, although some breeds are more prone to it. The Dog being separated from his owner or family causes separation anxiety. The dog becomes anxious, stressed and may have a panic attack. He can cause himself physical harm, be emotionally traumatized, disturb neighbours and could cost his owner considerable expense if he destroys furniture, walls and other household items.

Dogs are pack animals, they are naturally social creatures; when they are separated from their pack it causes them anxiety and stress. Their natural response when left alone is to howl and bark in an attempt to get their pack's attention so they can rejoin them. When that does not work, dogs may attempt to free themself for their confines so they may physically rejoin their pack. Dogs may scratch and chew on doors and walls, and destroy furniture in an attempt to escape the house.

Any breed of dog can develop separation anxiety, but it is more often seen in breeds that bond very closely with their human families. It is also often seen in dogs that come from pounds and rescues, dogs that lack confidence and dogs that have moved recently or have had a change in their routine where they are left alone more often than previously. When left alone, dogs with separation anxiety may whine, bark and howl, defecate, chew on and destroy furniture, walls, doors and doorframes, drool and pant excessively, scratch windows and refuse to eat.

Separation anxiety can be a very difficult behavioural problem to fix, but with hard work and dedication, it is achievable. The length of time needed for a dog to overcome separation anxiety varies depending on the degree of the problem. Owners should never comfort their dogs when they are upset, as doing so will reinforce their anxiety. Dogs should only be praised and rewarded when they are in a calm emotional state. The best way to stop separation anxiety is to prevent it before it starts. Owners with new puppies should be sure to leave their puppy alone for short intervals regularly so they get use to it. Puppies that spend time alone are much less prone to separation anxiety that puppies who do not.

To solve the problem of separation anxiety, owners must work diligently and always be consistent. There are many things owners can do to help their dog:

1. It is important that when owners leave or return home, they are very calm and low key. They should not fuss over the dog, not say good-bye or hello; they should completely ignore him. The goal is to keep the dog calm and to remove as much stress from the situation as possible. Once the dog is calm, owners can then give them attention.

2. The basic rule that a well-exercised dog is a well-behaved dog works with separation anxiety too; before going out owners should make sure their dogs have had plenty of exercise. Tired dogs are much more apt to spend the time sleeping instead of stressing.

3. Giving dogs a special toy like a Kong filled with treats or an interactive treat ball can be a big help. The special toy should only be given to the dog when the owner is going out. The special toy allows the owner to leave without all the normal stress and ruckus, it helps the dog correlate the owner's leaving with something good, and it helps to distract and entertain the dog while the owner is gone.

4. Sometimes getting another pet can help dogs with separation anxiety, but often the stress is caused by their separation from their human family and another pet does not help.

5. Some dogs bond very closely with one person and they suffer separation anxiety when they are separated from that person despite having other human family members around. It is important that dogs realize that they can have fun and be happy without their special person. If the dog has developed an extremely close bond with one family member, that person should ignore the dog for a week or two and the other family members should take over the dog' feeding, walks and training sessions. Single dog owners can send their dog to a doggie day care or have someone else come in while they are at work to walk and play with the dog.

6. Crating does wonders for some dogs with separation anxiety, but increases the stress in others. Many dogs that were crate trained as puppies find a crate a source of security and comfort. However, many dogs that were not crate trained or improperly crate trained as puppies find the confinement of a crate scary and it increases their anxiety. Older dogs can be crate trained; it should just be done slowly. If even after introducing the crate slowly the dog still howls, claws at the crate and/or soils in it then it should not be used.

7. To help a dog with separation anxiety owners should desensitize the dog to their departure. Dogs with separation anxiety usually start stressing at the first sign of their owner getting ready to leave; putting on shoes and coats, picking up car keys etc. The owner should desensitize the dog to these stressors. Owners should go through the motions of getting ready to go out, but not leave the house. Eventually, the act of getting ready to leave will become less stressful. Once the dog is desensitized to the act of getting ready to leave, owners should start practising leaving the dog alone. Owners should start with leaving for just a minute or two at first and then slowly increase the time. Owners should remember to completely ignore the dog and do not give attention to the dog until he is in a calm emotional state.

Helping a dog through separation anxiety takes time and patience. Owners should remember to never punish the dog for anything he does while they are away. Dogs simply cannot correspond that the reason they are being yelled at and punished in the early evening if for something they did in the morning or the afternoon. Dogs do not destroy things out of spite or maliciousness, or to get back at their owners for leaving; they do it out of fear and anxiety. Owners who come home and punish their dog for destructive behaviour that is caused by separation anxiety are only increasing the dog’s fear and are making the matter worse. Separation anxiety cannot be cured by punishment, only through positive reinforcement, hard work and dedication.