Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Separation anxiety is a serious emotional problem. Unfortunately, normal canine behavior is often misdiagnosed as separation anxiety. A dog with true separation anxiety is absolutely terrified by his owner’s approaching departure.
Dogs can express separation anxiety and panic in many ways. Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D. lists the following as the most common signs:
- Whining and pacing as you prepare to leave
- Dilated pupils
- Panting and/or drooling
- Sweaty pads
- Trembling or shaking
- Non-stop barking or howling
- House soiling
- Destructive chewing or digging, especially around entrances and exits
- Appetite suppression
- Desperate and often injurious attempts to get out of the crate or house
Before you begin treating your dog for separation anxiety, first be sure that your dog’s behavior isn’t just a result of a lack of training. More common than separation anxiety is a dog with bad habits.
What Separation Anxiety ISN’T
- House Soiling
More than likely inappropriate elimination is a result of insufficient housetraining. If your dog shows no other signs of distress upon your departure, try going back to housetraining basics: invest in a crate.
- Destructive Chewing
Dogs chew. If you don’t give them something yummy to chew on, they will find something on their own. The vast majority of chewing behavior is absolutely normal; chewing is exercise and entertainment for dogs. Provide your dog with plenty of Kongs, Buster Cubes or hollow bones stuffed with peanut butter, cream cheese, kibble, etc. Destructive behavior that suggests separation anxiety occurs mostly around entrances and exits.
- Dislike of Crate/Den
It is important that your dog associate his crate with comfort, safety and feeling good. Set the crate up with blankets and toys and never use it as a punishment. Entice your dog by tossing a few treats into your dog’s crate, and he will happily go in after them.
Initially, let him come and go as he pleases, eventually closing the door for a few seconds while he is otherwise occupied with a treat. As with all training, repetition, consistency and a gradual increase of what you expect from your dog, will result in a dog that is happy being confined.
Preventing Separation Anxiety
When you bring your new dog home, whether puppy or adult, there are several steps that you can take to prevent separation anxiety from developing.
- Avoid emotional overload. It is very tempting to spend 24 hours a day with your new companion during his first weekend home, and then leave him alone for eight straight hours on Monday. It is important to acclimate your dog to spending time alone, even while you’re home. During his first few days at home, periodically put him in his crate or den area for several minutes at a time, gradually lengthening his time alone. Don’t forget to provide him with something yummy to chew on while he’s crated!
- Keep your arrivals and departures low-key. When you are arriving home, ignore your dog for the first few minutes, and then calmly pet him. Be loving without being overly dramatic or emotional. If you are overly emotional about leaving your dog alone, your dog will be too.
- Exercise. Make sure that your dog is getting enough exercise. Go for several walks throughout the day–before and after work at the very least. Play fetch in the back yard (or in the house if you have to). Remember, a tired dog is a good dog!
Treating Separation Anxiety
While preventing separation anxiety involves training and routine, treating true separation anxiety is an attempt to influence your dog’s emotions. We want to change how your dog feels during your approaching departure.
- Do not punish after the fact. Imagine the dog who is greeted with screaming and yelling when you come home to a destroyed couch. What has your dog learned? He’s learned to associated your coming home with severe scolding. You now have a dog that is afraid of you. Instead, get used to walking through your door with no emotion, regardless of what greets you.
- Desensitize and counter-condition. The key is to desensitization is to create situations where your dog is happy while you’re getting ready to leave. Dr. McConnell outlines the following steps that will influence your dog’s emotions:
- Pinpoint what behaviors on your end trigger your dog’s anxiety. For many dogs this may be putting on your jacket or picking up your keys.
- Desensitize the triggers. For example, if picking up your keys initiates a pacing behavior from your dog, pick your keys up randomly throughout the day, but go nowhere. This will teach your dog that, in fact, picking up your keys really doesn’t mean much.
- Counter-condition. Find something that your dog loves. (Kongs or bones stuffed with peanut butter work particularly well.) Give him the treat and when he’s drooling over it, act out one of his triggers (i.e. pick up your keys). You’ll be picking up your keys while he’s already happy. The next step is to pick up your keys, THEN give him the treat. Repeat this over and over again, and soon you’ll have a dog who associates key jingling, and ultimately your leaving, with getting his favorite treat!
- Time-line. Expect to spend around two months working with your dog to alleviate his separation anxiety. Taking it slowly during the early stages–getting your dog comfortable at the moment of your departure–will allow the later stages of lengthening your time away to much more quickly.
- What about real life? You’re slowly trying to get your dog to be comfortable being alone by leaving him for seconds at a time. So what do you do when you have to go to work and be away from the home for eight hours? During the eight weeks of conditioning, try to find a way of leaving your dog in a situation where he is not anxious. A dog sitter, doggy daycare, or a good friend who works from home are possible solutions. Remember, this part is only temporary.
- Another dog? Only consider another dog if you want another dog. While a canine companion might keep separation anxiety at bay in a dog whose fear is being alone, it will do nothing for the dog whose terror comes from the departure of his human companion.
- Medication. If you have tried everything else, but your dog’s separation anxiety is putting his health at risk, you might consider discussing medication options with your veterinarian. Be sure, however, that the medication your veterinarian prescribes is one that works to alleviate panic and anxiety, not one that is simply a sedative. Furthermore, medication works best in conjunction with the desensitization and counter-conditioning described above.
Resources: McConnell, Patricia B. 2000. I’ll be Home Soon! How to Prevent and Treat Separation Anxiety. Dog’s Best Friend, Ltd. Black Earth, Wisconsin.