When left alone, most dogs find a familiar spot and go to sleep. However, a dog suffering from separation anxiety will become extremely anxious. Not understanding where you or your family has gone or if you will ever return, the dog exhibits behavior which may include chewing, barking, salivating, urinating, defecating, vomiting or escape behavior, such as chewing through walls, scratching through doors, busting out of cages or digging under fences if left outdoors. There are many reasons for this, and each dog will need a slightly different approach. However, you may find some of the following ideas helpful.
- First, make sure it is not your return the dog is anxious about!
When you come home, greet your dog in a calm manner, no matter what devastation greets you. (This can be very hard to do!) Despite the fact that he looks guilty when you yell or show him the mess, your dog does not know why you are angry. He does know that coming home seems to make you angry, and this may be why he is anxious when you go out! Just this change alone can sometimes work wonders.
- Next, make the dog less dependent on your continued physical presence. If your dog follows you everywhere (even to the “smallest room”) when you are at home, you cannot expect to leave him for an hour or more when you go out without causing him distress. Slowly begin to prevent the dog following you about in the house. Casually shut the door behind you when you go out of the room. Don’t make a big fuss about this. After a few seconds, open the door and return. If the dog has been good, praise him quietly. The aim is to be out of the room so briefly that he doesn’t have time to bark or chew. Do this for literally a few seconds only at first, increasing the time very slowly.
- Before you go out, teach your dog to respond to a command for emptying his bladder or bowels, so that you can make sure he’s “been” before you leave him.
Play with him, throw Chuck-It, walk him or whatever else you usually do to make him tired and inclined to sleep while you’re gone. A light meal afterward may also make him inclined to nap since it follows the dog’s natural routine of hunt, feed, sleep. Then, about 10-15 minutes before you go, slowly start to withdraw your attention from him. By the time you go, you should be more or less ignoring him. Presently, the most accepted method for treating separation anxiety involves planned departures. This method involves gradually adjusting the dog to being alone by exposure to many short departures. Because the stress response occurs very shortly after the owner’s departure (within 30 minutes), the dog should only be left alone for very short intervals at first (seconds to minutes) to ensure the owner returns before the onset of anxiety. Before the departure period can be increased, the owner must be certain that the dog is not stressed. The owner must closely watch the dog for signs of anxiety and ensure that the dog does not engage in an extended greeting. After the short departures have reached the 30-minute mark, the length of time the dog is left can be increased by larger increments. Once the dog can be left alone for 1.5 hours, it can usually be left all day. Departure and return should be made as quiet and uneventful as possible to avoid over stimulating the dog. The dog should not be given attention prior to departures nor given attention and praise upon returns. Excessive attention prior to departure and upon return seem to increase the anxiety during separation and it does NOT make it easier on the dog as most people suspect.
- When you are ready to go, put your coat on, and GO. Don’t linger. If you give your dog a lot of attention just before you go (“Now be a good dog, don’t chew, I’ll be back soon, try not to worry, etc, etc” – yes, we’ve all done it!), it is suddenly very lonely and quiet when you’re gone. If you were ignoring him anyway, there is less contrast between when you are there and when you are not! Do the same when you get home. Ignore him until he has calmed down, then greet him warmly with as much fuss as you like.
- Distract him while you are out.
Keep an indestructible toy which your dog only gets when you are out; a Kong filled with peanut butter or a frozen marrow bone works wonders. This gives him something to do with novelty value, and hopefully helps to distract him away from your furniture and floors. Give it to him as you go, and pick it up as soon as you have finished greeting him on your return.
Leave the radio or TV on, a loud ticking clock, or a tape recording of a normal, noisy family breakfast (don’t call his name or speak directly to him on the tape).
Consider crating him (in an “indoor kennel”). A crate can be a very safe and enjoyable place for dogs if they are introduced correctly.
- Antianxiety medications are sometimes used to suppress anxiety. These are often used on dogs with severe separation anxiety or when owners simply must leave the dog alone for an extended period while treatment is occurring. The use of drugs allows the dog to spend extended periods of time free of anxiety. However, in most cases, drugs do not offer a solution and should be used in combination with a treatment program. A vet should be consulted for further information on the safest and most effective anxiety-suppressing drugs.
When a puppy or new dog is brought into the home, it is important to avoid situations that may encourage an excessive attachment to develop. Your dog should slowly become accustomed to staying alone. This can be accomplished by crate-training when the pup is young. As well, ensuring that the dog does not constantly follow the owner and gradually adjusts to being alone in the house will go a long way toward a healthy owner-pet relationship.
If you think your pet may be the victim of separation anxiety it is important to take measures to alleviate the problem soon. Unfortunately, it is not something that will simply disappear with time. Your vet may be able to help start a treatment program or could refer you to a trainer who may be more familiar with treatment alternatives. It is important to remember that your pet is not bad or trying to make life miserable, although it sometimes may feel that way! Your pet is the victim of a disorder that can be treated. Prognosis for recovery is excellent if you are willing to spend time working with your pet. If early attempts on your own fail to decrease your pet’s anxiety, contact a professional.