Separation anxiety occurs when dogs become anxious in the absence of their owner. A common problem among dog owners, separation anxiety can show itself in many forms, from barking, to chewing, or pottying in the house while the owner is away. However it shows itself, it’s not fun – for owner or pet, and should be dealt with so your pet doesn’t have to go into panic mode every time you leave the house. Dealing with separation anxiety will help your best friend to live a more happy and content life.
There are a lot of reasons why a dog might develop separation anxiety – a major change in the dog’s life, a traumatic event, or the loss of a family member. In my case, I’m certain my dog developed separation anxiety because of me. I coddled him to no end as a pup, carrying him here and there (seriously, I’m surprised he learned to walk), constantly doting on him and solving all of his little doggy world problems before he had a chance to figure them out himself. Combine with that, a genetic predisposition for high anxiety, and I had created a monster before I knew it…
Dealing with my dog’s separation anxiety was tough. SO tough. There were times when I just wanted to give up, and being patient seemed like a luxury I didn’t have. The anxiety that I felt leaving him at home made dealing with the issue in an objective way next to impossible. I’d call my veterinarian half in tears, asking him what I could try next (that man is a Saint for dealing with me). I’d come home to wood trim ripped off the walls, or chewed up window sills (yeah, it was bad). Crating him didn’t help either, because he was extremely anxious about being in the crate. I was in a rough spot. It broke my heart to know the trauma my guy was going through on a daily basis, just because I left the house, and I was terrified he was going to end up hurting himself in my absence. But this only made my determination to fix this problem even greater.
I went on a mission. I tried everything. I mean everything. Different anxiety medication, anxiety wraps, DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone), and the list goes on. After trying a barrage of techniques, I found a combination of things that worked best for my dog. I did a lot of reading, a lot of trial and error, and most of all, practiced a lot of patience. Below is a list of some of the key things I learned during my quest for resolution. Before we get to that, here are a couple housekeeping items to keep in mind.
Be sure your dog actually does have separation anxiety.
There could be other reasons as to why your dog is doing the things he does while you’re away. The ASPCA has a great article on separation anxiety, in which they detail different medical conditions or other behavioral issues that could be the cause of the undesirable behaviors.
Your dog is not punishing you.
A lot of people don’t recognize separation anxiety for what it is, and think their dog is “punishing” them for leaving him home. This is not the case, and I’m sure results in a lot of frustration on the dog’s side of things. Think of it – if you were that poor little guy, in a total panic every time your best friend left the house, and they come home and yell at you for God knows what, how would YOU feel? So try not to get angry. Dogs with separation anxiety will benefit much more from a little more patience and tender loving care on your part, than they will yelling.
All that said, here are some of the key things I learned that helped me get a handle on my dog’s separation anxiety.
Getting A Handle on Separation Anxiety
Don’t say goodbye.
Dogs don’t need to say goodbye; it’s a human thing. Making a big scene out of your leaving only draws attention to it, and makes the dog think that something to be concerned about is about to happen, i.e., your leaving. This part was definitely harder on me than the dog. I know it’s crazy, but I have this burning desire to shower my dog in hugs and kisses before I leave the house. I think learning not to do that helped him out a lot. My departure became no big deal, because I didn’t make it a big deal.
Don’t make a big deal about your return.
On the same token as saying goodbye, you don’t need to make a big to-do out of your return. Doing this will reinforce your dog’s belief that you being away was something to fret over. I worked with a 10 minute rule. Upon my return, I would completely ignore my dog for the first ten minutes, giving myself a chance to settle in, and him a chance to settle down. Rather than the usual ‘OH MY GOD I MISSED YOU SO MUCH’ greeting, I’d just calmly walk in and go about settling in. Once things calmed down a bit, and he went about his business, we could go about our business as usual, and my homecoming became increasingly less of something to go crazy over.
Vary your routine.
A lot of dogs with separation anxiety become attuned to their owner’s habits and routine. For a dog with separation anxiety, that routine can become a nightmare of overwhelming anticipation. Oh no, she’s putting on her coat, she’s getting ready to leave. Uh oh, here comes the travel mug, etc., etc. Varying your pre-exit routine can break up that building anticipation, and help to curb it a little. Some things you do before you leave are impossible not to do just before you leave, so it can help to do those things when you don’t need to. For example, I always put on my coat and grab my keys before leaving the house. So, when I was home and not planning on going anywhere, I’d put on my coat and walk around with my keys and do laundry, or cook dinner instead. That way those triggers become less of a trigger, because they are not always an indication of what’s about to happen next.
Give your dog a reason to enjoy alone time.
This one is key. Giving your dog a reason to want to spend time by himself will be your best friend. With this, you have to find what motivates your dog most. Maybe it’s a certain toy, or a particular kind of treat. Leaving your dog with something he absolutely goes crazy for will help take the focus off of your departure, and put it onto something he loves. For me, it was chicken. I’d buy a roast chicken from the store once a week, eat off of it for one meal, and then shred the rest for stuffing a Kong toy. Every time I left the house, we played a little game. I’d show him the stuffed toy, and then make him stay where he couldn’t see what I was doing. Then I’d hide the toy, and just before I shut the door on exit, yell “Find it!” (Find it was a game he knew already). This turned my leaving into a fun game. Leave so I can go find my toy and eat that chicken! This worked so well, because it not only took the focus off of my leaving, but it also tired him out mentally (having to find the Kong, and then working to get the food out), so he would take a nap afterwards. I know this because I would also frequently videotape him upon leaving to see our progress.
When you use this tactic, you’ll want to keep a few things in mind:
- This should be something that your dog only gets when you’re gone. If he gets it the rest of the time, what’s so special about it? When I first started doing this, Berkley would leave the toy until I got home, and upon my return, go and get it. But, I would take it away, so he quickly learned that if he wanted to eat that chicken, he was going to have to do it while I was gone, or he wouldn’t get any.
- If your dog’s number one motivator is something he shouldn’t be left unsupervised with, you’re going to have to find something else. Don’t be leaving your dog with something like a rawhide or something that could cause him harm unattended.
Practice when you have the time.
One nice thing about separation anxiety, is that you have the ability to control the stimulus (i.e., you leaving), so it’s something you can practice when you have time. For me, my dog got anxious even if I was just behind a closed door, so I’d have “alone time practice” when I had time. I’d put him in a room by himself with a really yummy treat. When time’s up, the treat goes away. You never want to put your dog under major duress to do this. The point is to do it to a point where he doesn’t get too anxious, and then keep increasing the time so he gets increasingly more able to deal with your absence.
Tire him out!
A tired dog has less mental energy for worrying. Leaving your dog good and tired can do wonders for curbing separation anxiety. Get up earlier and have a good play session, or work on tricks you’re learning together. I used to take Berkley for a half an hour walk before work, where we’d practice all his healing commands and whatnot. I knew this really tired out his brain, and was a great way to start the day for him.
Talk to your Veterinarian.
Speaking with your vet or a behaviorist is a must, especially in extreme cases. Plus, they most likely know your dog a lot better than you think, and will probably have some good tips to offer. So don’t be afraid to tell them what you’re dealing with and ask for their expert opinion! I don’t know what I would’ve done without the guidance of mine.
Out of everything, this one’s the toughest, but believe me, it’s worth it. After a lot of hard work and patience, I can now leave the house with the confidence of knowing that it, and my dog, will be in one happy piece when I return.
Separation anxiety is rough, and one tough nut to crack. But it’s not impossible. With the right attitude, and a whole bunch of patience and determination, it won’t be long until your dog barely notices that you’ve left the house.