Separation anxiety is fairly common and can result in destructive behavior. In this guide, we share how to break a dog’s separation anxiety based on our personal experiences.
- How do I know my dog has separation anxiety?
- What can cause separation anxiety?
- Tips for dealing with a mild case
- What should I do if my dog has extreme separation anxiety?
- If I get another dog, surely this will solve the problem?
- Will using a crate help with Separation anxiety?
- What else can I do whilst we are working on the problem?
How do I know my dog has separation anxiety?
Have you come home one day to find that your dog has scratched all the paintwork off a door, or maybe they have chewed the corner of your favorite rug or the leg of your dining room table. Perhaps your neighbors have posted you a note to let you know they have been disturbed by your dog howling for long periods of time.
Whilst this is not ideal and a cause for concern, it is important not to get angry with your dog. If they have been showing these behaviors, there is a reason behind it. It could just be that they are bored and you will need to work on giving them more to keep their minds busy and stimulated.
Ask yourself the following:
- Could they benefit from a longer walk before you leave them on their own?
- Are you leaving them frequently for prolonged periods?
- Would they benefit from a dog walker visiting them during the day?
- Would they enjoy the challenge of a safe toy, perhaps a filled Kong or some other treat dispensing option, that can keep them occupied whilst you are out?
- Do you have a puppy that could still be in the chewy/teething phase?
- Does your dog bark a lot, even when you are in the house? Could it be alert/attention barking more than as a result of distress?
If the answer is yes to any or all of the above, then perhaps your dog is just lacking in stimulation and their destruction or barking may lessen if you work on alleviating their boredom and ensuring that they are getting adequate exercise and stimulation.
Puppies do need support to get them through the chewy phase. Keep them occupied with appropriate and safe chew toys
If you are doing all the above and still finding that your dog is showing these behaviors then it could be a sign that your dog is not bored but, instead, that they are distressed at being left on their own.
Perhaps these behaviors are accompanied by heavy panting, drooling, urination or pacing.
Maybe your dog is normally extremely foody, but when you are giving them food or treat toys when left on their own they don’t touch them until you return to the house.
If you are seeing these signs, then it is likely that you are dealing with a case of separation anxiety and that your dog becomes distressed when being left on their own.
If you are finding that your dog is suddenly urinating in the house or drooling a lot, we would always recommend seeking veterinary advice to rule out any medical issue.
You may also wish to consider installing a doggy monitor to allow you to observe their behavior when you are out.
You may wish to install a remote monitor to allow you to observe your dog when you are out
What can cause separation anxiety?
There are a whole host of things that can contribute to this issue, often it relates to a sudden change in routine or circumstance. Some of the common reasons include:
- A dog has been abandoned in a shelter (please note, this does not mean all rescue dogs will have separation issues).
- If an owner or doggy companion has passed away
- If you have gone from always being around for your dog, to having to work longer hours
- Moving home can be unsettling for a dog
- Some breeds are more predisposed to enjoying the company of others
Tips for dealing with a mild case
If your dog is only mildly anxious when you leave them, it can be relatively easy to overcome this with a little patience and planning.
Keeping your dog occupied and also having them associate your leaving with something they really love can work wonders. This process is called counter conditioning. So, if every time you are leaving your dog you leave them with something super tasty, with a bit of repetition, this can result in your dog starting to become excited when you leave, rather than frightened.
We would always recommend something safe and long lasting, a quick treat is not usually enough. Our go-to suggestion is to provide them with a stuffed Kong, or another safe treat dispensing toy, with their favorite stuffing.
Along with stuffed Kongs, Sam loved his “babies”. He had lots of soft toys that he found comforting that he always had access to when left on this own (don’t leave your dog unsupervised with plush toys if they are destructive chewers to minimize the choking risk)
If you are using this technique, consistency is key. Make sure they get this super tasty treat every time you leave them and only give them this when you go out, not at other times.
It is important to remember that this tip will only work if your dog is just a little worried when you leave them. For dogs that are extremely anxious, they will be too stressed to eat when on their own.
You may also want to consider the use of a product like ADAPTIL. This comes as a plug-in,collar or spray. It emits pheromones which are meant to aid keeping your dog relaxed and calm. There are mixed reviews on the efficacy of these types of products, and if your dog is extremely stressed they are not likely to be effective, but they usually can’t do any harm and may be worth a shot.
Some people advocate leaving the TV or radio on for your dog. If you normally have one of them on when you are there, or there is usually a lot of hubbub in the house, this can be helpful rather than your dog being left in a silent environment. It will not be a solution on its own though.
If you do tend to spend most of your time with your dog, perhaps you work from home or they accompany you to work, it can be a good idea to introduce regular short trips out without your dog. This means that if there are times when you have to leave your dog this is less likely to be a shock to their system and can help to ensure they do not develop separation anxiety.
If you work from home, don’t forget to try to give your dog some occasional alone time so they don’t become too dependant on you being around all the time
What should I do if my dog has extreme separation anxiety?
For dogs suffering with a more severe case, we would always recommend seeking the help of a recommended and qualified dog behaviorist (often your Vet can point you in the right direction). The Association of Professional Dog Trainers provide a useful checklist for helping you find a reputable behaviorist.
Usually a more rigorous and detailed programme of counterconditioning and desensitisation will be required.
If your dog has very extreme anxiety, sometimes medications can possibly be prescribed to try to help aid the success of the other plans you are putting in place. This option could be discussed in conjunction with your Vet and Behaviourist.
Some of these techniques can be applied without the help of a behaviorist, but they will be able to keep you on track and offer alternatives and corrections if the techniques are not working as you expect.
If you are working on treating a severe case, please remember it is a process that requires patience and time. You will not see results overnight but it is certainly something that can be overcome.
The key to a more detailed desensitisation plan is to work in baby steps, building up the time you are leaving your dog very, very, very gradually. For this to work you don’t want your dog to get upset at any point when you are gone.
So, to start with you just want to get them used to you leaving the room without them. This may just need to be for a few seconds to start with, with you on the other side of a door/wall. You can use treats to keep them occupied. You want to ensure that you can reliably leave the room for the few seconds every time without any anxiety before moving onto, say ten seconds, and so on. When you have built up to five or ten minutes and they are still relaxed, you may want to start introducing a stuffed treat toy at this point. It will keep them occupied and it is also a positive marker for your departure.
Once you have built up to them being in another room to you for a decent period of time, you can progress onto introducing going out of the front door. Again, start with just a few seconds.
It is very important that when leaving and returning to the room you don’t make a big fuss and get your dog all excited.
If you move from five minutes to ten and this step is just too much, then move back to five minutes for a while longer and then build up the increments a minute at a time. You have maybe just moved onto the next step too quickly.
Don’t forget, don’t scold your dog if they do start exhibiting stress behaviors. This will only confuse them and possibly heighten their anxiety further. The goal is to have them calm and relaxed and having only positive associations with you leaving.
Most importantly, take it slow and be patient. Don’t try to rush things and don’t try to do too many sessions at once. It is all about building things up gradually and setting your dog up for success.
It is all about patience, baby steps and calmness when working on separation anxiety
If I get another dog, surely this will solve the problem?
We often hear people saying that they are thinking about getting another dog as they think the extra company will help. In some cases this may help but generally it is not a solution and we would certainly not recommend this as a solution. One of my dogs Daisy suffered from mild separation anxiety and the addition of another dog did not make any difference to her case. We had to work on this using some of the techniques mentioned above.
Introducing Sam to the family didn’t help resolve Daisy’s mild separation anxiety. We had to work through the steps above
Will using a crate help with Separation anxiety?
Some people will crate their dog if they are being destructive or urinating in the house. Please be aware that in some cases this can make the situation worse.
If you have already worked on crate training and you know that your dog associates the crate with it being a safe space for them then it can be a good addition to your training arsenal. We would suggest that shutting the crate would not be a good idea though unless you know the are super settled and relaxed.
The most important thing is to ensure you are not using a crate just to prevent any damage to the house. In the long run, shutting a stressed out dog in a crate that they are not used to can heighten the problems.
A dog crate can be a safe space for your dog if introduced correctly but, if not, they can create more problems. Consider carefully before introducing.
What else can I do whilst we are working on the problem?
We do appreciate that it can be a long process and, in the meantime, it can make it difficult for you to get out and about while you are working on the issue.
It may be worth considering a pet sitter or doggy day care and calling in some favors from family and friends in the meantime.
Hopefully these tips will help you have a dog that is pleased you have returned home but is not stressed by you leaving