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For weeks now, you’ve been stuck at home with your buddy. You have spent quality time with each other, been good companions, and kept each other sane during these unfamiliar times. Maybe you captured a few precious moments on camera. However, like every good movie, there’s always an end. And you’re concerned your dog might not handle the separation well.
You are not the only one with this concern.
One of the most common problems pet parents have is dealing with separation anxiety in dogs. And, when this quarantine is over, there’s bound to be a display of disruptive and destructive behavior from our pets. Especially as we resume our duties and slowly wean them of the companionship and attention they enjoyed during the lockdown.
Your pet might defecate, urinate, bark, howl, dig, chew, or try to escape. Most times, these problems are indications that your dog needs to be taught house manners. But they can also be symptoms of distress.
When a dog displays these problematic behaviors and other distress behaviors, such as drooling, blocking your path, and showing anxiety when you prepare to leave the house, these are indications that your dog has separation anxiety.
So, what exactly is separation anxiety, and what triggers it? Are some dog breeds prone to separation anxiety than others? What are the techniques or medications that can help you deal with separation anxiety in a dog?
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a series of erratic and destructive behaviors displayed by a dog when it is upset. This often happens because their guardians, parents, or the people they’re attached to are absent.
When a dog with separation anxiety attempts to escape, the results are often extreme. The consequences include self-injury and household destruction, especially around doors and windows.
Some dogs with separation anxiety seem anxious or depressed just before their owners depart or when their caregivers are absent. Others become agitated when their guardian prepares to leave the house. Some make a move as if to stop the parent from leaving.
Shortly after being left alone, a dog with separation anxiety will start barking and displaying other distress behaviors. These behaviors still qualify even if the action lasts for a couple of minutes. When the parent returns, the dog acts as though the guardian has been gone for years.
Symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs?
Dogs thrive on predictability and consistency, just as we humans do. That’s why an abrupt change in its routine can cause stress in the dog. Here is a list of behaviors that may indicate your dog is having separation anxiety:
Barking and Howling
When separated from its owner, a dog with separation anxiety might bark and howl to get the owner’s attention. This kind of barking or howling can go on for a long time and only is only triggered when the pet is alone.
If your dog has been barking all night for no reason, then it likely has separation anxiety.
Urinating and Defecating
If your dog urinates or defecates in your presence, then it probably needs to be taught proper house manners. However, if it soils the house only when left alone, he might be suffering from separation anxiety.
A dog with separation anxiety might attempt to escape from its confinement when he’s separated from the owner. And the results are often quite severe.
For instance, digging or chewing through doors and windows can result in self-injury such as cuts and scrapes on front paws, broken teeth, gum injury, and damaged nails. If these behaviors do not happen when the parent is present, then it could be separation anxiety.
Some dogs separated from their parents walk quickly or trot along a specific path and fixed pattern. This movement could be in circular patterns or back and forth along straight lines. A pacing behavior caused by separation anxiety often occurs when the dog’s owner is away.
Some dogs may not know which objects are appropriate for play in the absence of their owner. However, if you occasionally return to find the pillow torn, your footwear chewed on, and scratches or damage done to other objects, then your dog likely has separation anxiety. Other than exposing the dog to possible injury, this behavior will cost you a lot if not treated.
Sometimes, dogs with separation anxiety will defecate and then proceed to consume all or part of their excrement. If this only happens when the guardian is absent, then it’s a strong indicator of a dog with separation anxiety. Here’s how to stop the behavior.
Are some dog breeds prone to develop separation anxiety?
No, all dog breeds can suffer from separation anxiety.
Though there isn’t enough evidence to tell the exact reasons why dogs develop separation anxiety. It is believed that this behavior stems from the loss of an important person or people from a dog’s life.
The reason being that separation anxiety is mostly observed in dogs adopted from shelters or pet shops.
Here’s a list of changes or situations that can cause the development of separation anxiety.
Change of parent or family.
Dogs thrive on predictability and consistency. Being surrendered to a shelter, abandoned, or adopted by a new parent or family can trigger the development of separation anxiety. Especially when the dog has bonded with the new custodian.
Change in routine.
A sudden change in a dog’s routine (when, how often, or how long a dog is left alone) can trigger separation anxiety.
For instance, you’ve been stuck at home with your pet for the past couple of weeks. Your dog has gotten used to having you at home, but suddenly you return to work after the quarantine. And the dog has to stay alone for six or more hours. This abrupt change in routine may cause the dog to develop separation anxiety.
Change of location.
A new house can trigger separation anxiety in a dog since it is not yet familiar with the new environment. You can quickly cure the dog’s separation anxiety by introducing it to the rooms in the new house.
Absence of a household member.
The sudden absence of a household member, either due to relocation or death, can cause dogs to develop separation anxiety.
We’ve seen the symptoms as well as the possible causes of separation anxiety. So, how do you go about helping a dog with separation anxiety?
How to help a dog with separation anxiety?
Before helping your dog get over its separation anxiety, you have to rule out some things that trigger similar symptoms.
Lack of self-restraint due to medical problems
Sometimes medical conditions can cause the bladder and bowel contents to leak out involuntarily. Dogs that have this problem are often unaware that they’ve soiled themselves, sometimes leaking urine while sleeping.
Some medical problems such as a weak sphincter in an aging dog, urinary tract infection, kidney disease, abnormalities of the genitalia, diabetes, bladder stones, hormonal issues after spay surgery, Cushing’s disease, and neurological problems, can cause a dog to soil itself involuntarily.
Consult your dog’s vet to rule out medical problems before you attempt any dog separation anxiety solutions or training.
The side effects of some dog medications might cause house soiling and frequent urination. If your dog is on any medications, and you’ve noticed it frequently soil or urinate in the house without warning, then you need to discuss with your dog’s vet to find out if the drugs are responsible or might be a contributing factor.
You can do even better by asking your dog’s veterinarian about possible side effects of prescribed drugs before your pet takes them.
Diagnosing if a dog has separation anxiety or not, isn’t as straightforward as looking out for unwanted behaviors. That’s because these can also be caused by other behavior problems. Which is why you must rule out the following behavior problems before concluding that your dog has separation anxiety:
Incomplete House Training
A dog that urinates in the house once in a while might not have mastered its house training drills. Maybe his house training drills may have included punishment that induced fear of excreting when the owner is around or watching, or the drill may have been inconsistent and it failed to absorb important house training lessons.
Territory marking with urine
Some dogs mark the house with their scent by releasing small amounts of urine at strategic locations in the house. When a dog is scent marking, you’ll notice the dog raise its hind leg to spray a few drops of urine on a vertical surface.
Submissive or Excitement Urination
Some dogs may urinate during physical contact, play, greeting, or when being punished or reprimanded. This type of behavior is often preceded by submissive postures during interactions. For instance, flattening the ears back against the head, rolling over and exposing the belly, crouching, holding the tail low.
Excessive Barking or Howling
A dog might respond to various triggers in its environment, such as loud sounds, unfamiliar sights, smells or faces, or other animals, by bark or howling. If this is the case, then the dog will bark or howl whether you’re at home or not.
Young dogs with excess energy like to engage in digging or destructive chewing and scratching in the absence of their owner. I found a well-written article that covers dog destructive chewing in great detail.
Lack of mental stimulation.
Just like humans, dogs get bored easily if they don’t have mentally stimulating games or activities to engage their brains. These dogs don’t appear anxious at all and can be very disruptive when left alone as they search for activities to kill the boredom.
What to do if your dog has separation anxiety
Counterconditioning might help reduce or cure your dog’s separation anxiety if your dog case is a mild one. Counterconditioning works by replacing an animal’s anxious, fearful, or aggressive reaction to a relaxed and pleasant one instead.
The process involves associating a situation, object, animal, place, or person that your pet doesn’t like with something good that the dog loves. Over time, the dog learns that the things or situation he fears actually predicts good things are coming. This changes his fearfulness or anxiety to anticipation.
Here are the steps to do it right.
Change Your “Going Away” cues.
If your dog starts following you around whenever you pick up your keys, apply makeup, reach for your purse, put on a coat, or any other action you perform before leaving the house, then it means the dog has associated these cues with your absence.
You can try using a different door, change the location of your keys, shoes, or purse, put on your coat, or apply light make up, but proceed to sit on the couch and watch TV instead of heading out.
The goal here is to trigger mild separation anxiety in your dog by making it anticipate your absence, but immediately break your dog’s association of these actions with your departure.
Gradually train your dog to be alone while you are in the house
If your dog normally follows you around from one room to another, make them sit or down in a room by themselves while you go to a different room.
Start by making them sit outside the bathroom door, lie beside the couch while you go to the kitchen to grab a glass of water. Offer them a treat for being obedient each time you return from your short trip.
You can gradually increase the interval spent apart from seconds to minutes, then build up enough obedience to stay hours.
Since each dog reacts differently to separation, there’s no standard timeline to follow. This means it’s up to you to judge when your dog can handle a lengthier separation.
This is the tricky part where many pet parents make errors. They try to speed up the treatment process by subjecting their pets to longer separation durations. However, this will only worsen the problem.
So, what are the cues that can help you adjust the time your dog spends alone?
The key to success is to watch out for signs of stress in your dog. Some of these signs include pacing, dilated pupils, salivating, yawning, panting, trembling, and exuberant greeting when you return.
If you detect these signs of stress, then you need to reduce the time spent away from your pet to a number they can tolerate without getting stressed. Then start to progress slowly from there.
Since most of your dog’s anxiety response to being separated from you occurs within the first 40 minutes spent alone, you need to slowly build up your dog’s absence tolerance to this level.
Initially, you’ll have to slowly increase the duration of your departures by a few seconds each session over a couple of weeks.
Once your dog can stay 40 minutes without being stressed by your absence, you can then increase the duration of your departures by larger chunks of time, maybe 5-10 minutes per session.
When your dog can tolerate 90 minutes of your absence without being anxious or upset, it’ll probably do just fine without you for three to six hours. Remember, the key is to gradually increase departure time while watching for signs of stress.
Conduct “goodbyes’ and ‘hellos’ with calmness.
The graduated absence exercise will not be very effective if you do not conduct all greetings, both hellos and goodbyes, with calmness. What does this mean?
When you’re leaving your dog, don’t get all emotional petting and stroking it before leaving or when you come back. No! Instead, give your dog a simple pat on the head, say goodbye, and leave the house. Do the same when your return. Say hello then move on to do something else until the dog is calm and relaxed.
The length of time it takes your dog to calm down when you’ve returned home will be determined by its temperament and level of anxiety. To quickly get your dog calm and relaxed when you return, distract it from its excitement by going over simple behaviors your dog has already learned, such as shake, sit, or down.
Provide lots of activities to occupy your dog while you’re away.
One vital part of treating behavior problems is providing lots of physical and mental stimulation, especially those involving anxiety. You can greatly enrich a dog’s life, reduce stress, as well as provide outlets for normal dog behavior by exercising your dog’s mind and body. Other than keeping your dog sharp and fit, a dog that is tired from exercise doesn’t have much excess energy to commit to destructive behavior when left alone. Here are some suggestions:
- Play fun games with your dog, such as tug-of-war, fetch, and other interactive games.
- If your dog likes to play with other dogs, and they aren’t aggressive, let it play off-leash with his canine friends, but make sure to treat for fleas after.
- Help your dog through 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily, this includes running and swimming.
- Take your dog on brisk walks and outings every day. Use different routes and frequently check out new places so it gets to experience new smells and sights.
- Dogs naturally love to hunt, so make your dog ‘hunt’ its meals by hiding a handful of dog kibble around the house, or you can provide its food in a KONG® toy, other puzzle toys, and a variety of attractive edible and inedible chew things. These will encourage chewing and licking, which have a calming effect on dogs.
Make sure you remove these special toys when you come home. This way, your dog only gets access to the toys and the treat inside them while alone, and the toys act as a ‘safe’ separation cue for the dog.
Create a safe den or personal space for your dog
If your dog is crate trained, encourage it to sleep in the crate and feed your dog in the crate so it sees the crate as a safe den or hideout and associates the crate as a happy place that it can stay in while you’re away.
If you do not like the idea of putting a dog in a crate or you’ve carved out a corner of the house for your dog to stay, encouraging your dog to sleep in its bed will teach it to be independent of you. This will also help ease their anxiety during your departure.
Provide familiar, comforting items, and background music.
Help your dog stay relaxed and calm by leaving items that have your scent on them, such as dirty laundry to remind them that you will return. If your dog gets visibly stressed when it sees a collar, leash, or chokers, then you have to remove these stressors.
If your dog gets upset by loud noises, such as the sound of a lawnmower, you can drown out these noises by playing some soothing background music while you’re away or simply put the radio on.
Don’t let your dog stay alone for too long!
While it’s possible to train a dog to spend some parts of the day alone, you can structure your day and errands such that you’re separated from your dog for short durations. But, sometimes very pressing issues come up and your pet has to be alone for a long time.
The question now is, how long is too long for your dog?
When you have no choice but to separate from your dog, the rule of thumb is to ensure the duration doesn’t exceed six hours at a time. However, this number isn’t set in stone. You’ll have to consider some things, such as age, level of activity, and temperament.
Puppies can’t be left very long since their bladders are small and they need to eliminate waste very often. The same goes for elderly dogs that need to eliminate and move around more frequently. So for puppies, four hours is the recommended maximum – better if it’s less than that.
Middle-age dogs, however, can stay without any company much longer than four hours, but they shouldn’t be left alone for more than seven hours. If you’ll be away for longer than this and your dog needs to be exercised, then it’s best to hire a dog walker to come in, say, every four hours and walk them.
However, if you work from home and need to dedicate large chunks of time to your work or project, then consider walking your dog every four hours to give your mind time to refresh while also making yourself available to bond with your dog.
Anxiety relievers might help
The use of prescription and nonprescription anxiety relievers, such as medications, nutritional supplements, and pheromone products to treat moderate to severe separation anxiety in a dog can be very helpful.
Some dogs are so disturbed by being separated from their pet parents that separation anxiety training cannot be carried out without the help of medication to soothe their distraught nerves. This will help a dog tolerate some level of isolation without getting anxious and as well as make treatment progress faster.
However, anxiety relievers should be used as a way to enhance the effectiveness of behavioral modification training rather than replace the training entirely.
If you’d like to explore this option, make sure to consult your dog’s veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist who can work closely with your pet before you consider giving your dog any type of medication for a behavior problem.
What NOT to do!
Many pet parents have a misconception that dogs suffering from separation anxiety are actually being vengeful for their absence, but this is not true.
Anxious behaviors (and the destruction that accompanies them) are not the result of spite or disobedience, they’re a dog’s way of responding to distressing emotions, so do not scold or punish your dog. In fact, punishing your dog could even worsen the problem.
To help a dog that is suffering from separation anxiety, you need to resolve the underlying anxiety. You achieve this by training the dog to enjoy, or at the very least learn to tolerate, being left alone.
You accomplish this by setting up events such that the dog experiences the anxiety-inducing situation (being alone), in small doses, without experiencing fear or anxiety until the dog can tolerate being left alone for longer durations.
If all fails, your dog’s veterinarian or a certified Applied Animal Behaviorist can intervene.