Helping Your Dog Overcome Separation Anxiety
Helping Your Dog Overcome Separation Anxiety
Does your dog leave a mess in the house if he’s been alone too long? Have you ever come home to find she’s tried to dig her way out of the backyard?
Rather than being signs your pup is a “bad dog,” your pooch may be suffering from separation anxiety.
They say home is where the heart is and for dogs, that’s you. Take you away and their hearts ache. Though some dogs may show signs of depression such as low energy and a loss of appetite, others act out. In extreme cases, dogs have been known to injure themselves attempting to break through windows or bust down doors.
Helping your dog with separation anxiety means teaching him it’s okay to be alone.
Signs of Separation Anxiety
Not all dogs suffer from separation anxiety. Some dogs are confident enough to be alone and understand that you’re coming back.
Others, especially those who haven’t been left alone often, don’t handle even your short trips to the store well.
Here are the most common signs of separation anxiety to be aware of.
- Barking/howling: This might start as early as you starting to gather your things to leave the house. Or it might start once you’ve gotten in the car. It’s persistent and rarely stops after any period of time.
- “Accidents”: Dogs with severe separation anxiety might urinate or defecate in the house while they’re alone. It’s usually an involuntary response to the high stress they’re feeling.
- Chewing/Pacing: If you’ve ever been so stressed out you don’t know what to do with all that nervous energy, you have an idea of what a dog with separation anxiety is feeling. Taking action – any action – can relieve the discomfort, even if only for the moment. Chewing and pacing are two of the most common methods dogs use to reduce the nervous energy they’re feeling. Dogs may chew shoes, clothing, and furniture, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.
- Escape Attempts: Dogs with severe separation anxiety sometimes try to escape their home. Whether they’re trying to get back to you or trying to escape the feeling of being alone, dogs will try to break through windows, chew through doors, and dig under fences. Successful attempts lead to lost dogs, some of whom never make it home. Unsuccessful attempts can lead to injuries such as cuts and broken teeth.
Separation anxiety can crop up at any time in a dog’s life. It can start with puppyhood or might occur in a formerly confident adult dog after a trauma, such as a change of ownership or the loss of a family member.
Tips to Overcome Separation Anxiety
“Since COVID, a lot of pet owners work from home,” Dr. Georgina Ushi Phillips, DVM, a contributor to the website We Love Doodles, told Coastal Pet Products. “In turn, their dogs are used to them being home all the time and in the same room together.”
Because of this, they’ve learned to expect their humans to be home with them all the time. Even if those people used to work in an office.
If you’re planning on returning to the office, prepare your dog for the separation by practicing it.
“Make sure that you intentionally practice separation by working in another room and giving each other space,” Dr. Ushi said. “Yes, we all love our dogs, but the reality is that you both need personal time alone from each other.”
One of the best ways to help your dog overcome separation anxiety is to teach her that being alone can be fun. Providing your pup with a variety of interactive dog toys can help.
Try filling a toy with peanut butter. Or provide a puzzle feeder that rewards your dog as he solves the puzzles.
Spend time before you’ll need to be away experimenting with different toys to see which ones your dog likes best. Then only give them to her when you’re in separate rooms or when you go to the supermarket. Your pup will learn to associate her favorite toys with you being away.
This works best “if your dog has a mild case of separation anxiety,” Dr. Ushi said. Toys will only distract a dog for 30 minutes or so, she added.
“If you plan to be gone for a long period of time, you’re going to want to train your dog to gradually deal with separation anxiety.”
Physical stimulation can also help, though again only for short periods of time. Taking your dog for a long walk before you have to leave the house can tire him out and prime him for a nap. If you’ll only be gone for 20 to 30 minutes, your pooch may never even realize you left the house. Even if you’re gone for an hour or so, he might not have enough energy to work himself up over being left alone.
Some dogs feel most at ease in their crates (or other safe space). In some cases, a dog with mild separation anxiety can learn to accept being alone if she can spend it in her crate.
Before leaving your pup alone in the crate, be sure it’s his safe space. If you notice your dog shows signs of distress in the crate (whimpering, slobbering, panting), it’s not a safe space and it won’t work.
With counterconditioning, the goal is to train your dog to respond to being alone in a new way. Teaching your dog to associate his favorite toys with being alone is one example of counterconditioning. In dogs with moderate to severe separation anxiety, the counterconditioning process is more complicated. And, it can take many weeks or months. Working with a professional dog trainer or behaviorist is highly recommended.
Start by desensitizing your dog to your departure. That means turning off your departure cues. For instance, picking up your keys. Many dogs understand that’s a sign you’re getting ready to leave. To desensitize your pup, pick up your keys and put them in your pocket at various times during the day. But don’t go anywhere. Or put on your coat but then sit down to have lunch. Do this several times a day for a few weeks and your dog will stop associating these cues with your departure.
Oh, and even after your dog has been desensitized, keep up with this activity off and on so he doesn’t go back to only associating those cues with your leaving.
Now, it’s time to get your dog used to you leaving the house. Start by walking out the door for 30 seconds to a minute every day. Don’t go anywhere. Just walk out, ask your dog to sit or stay, close the door, wait, and then come back in. The goal is to train your dog that just because you’re leaving, doesn’t mean you’re not coming back. Give your dog a treat before you leave and after you come back. Again, you want your dog to associate these actions with something enjoyable.
The ASPCA recommends these “sit and stay” exercises start with you being on the other side of the bathroom or bedroom door, then progress to a backdoor before moving to the front door.
Gradually increase the time you spend on the other side of the door before coming back. It is critically important that you do this at your dog’s speed. Your dog should never feel heightened fear at any point during the process.
According to the ASPCA, “The main rule is to plan your absences to be shorter than the time it takes for your dog to become upset.”
We highly recommend working with a dog trainer or behaviorist at this point. These exercises are vital to the success of any counterconditioning program.
Calming supplements can help reduce your dog’s anxiety, but they are not a magic bullet and they do not work on their own. They are most effective when used in conjunction with the counterconditioning process.
A calming supplement will rarely help a nervous dog that’s been left alone for five or six hours and has never been through desensitization.
Find a Sitter
Some dogs may never be okay with being left alone for a full day. If you’ve tried all the tips above and your dog still has separation anxiety, you may need to hire a dog sitter. Alternatively, you might need to leave your pup with a friend or family member if you’re going to be gone for an extended period of time.
Email interview with Dr. Ushi of We Love Doodles