One of the greatest joys of dog ownership is the tight bond we experience and encourage with our dogs. However, if your dog becomes too reliant or dependent on you, dog separation anxiety can occur when you and your dog are apart.
One of the most common complaints of pet parents is that their dogs are disruptive or destructive when left alone. Their dogs might urinate, defecate, bark, howl, chew, dig or try to escape.
Although these problems often indicate that a dog needs to be taught polite house manners, they can also be symptoms of distress. When a dog’s problems are accompanied by other distress behaviors, such as drooling and showing anxiety when his/her pet parents prepare to leave the house, they aren’t evidence that the dog isn’t house trained or doesn’t know which toys are his to chew. Instead, they may be indications that the dog has separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is triggered when dogs become upset because of separation from their guardians, the people they’re attached to. Escape attempts by dogs with separation anxiety are often extreme and can result in self-injury and household destruction, especially around exit points like windows and doors.
Some dogs suffering from separation anxiety become agitated when their guardians prepare to leave. Others seem anxious or depressed prior to their guardian’s departure or when their guardians aren’t present. Some try to prevent their guardians from leaving. Usually, right after a guardian leaves a dog with separation anxiety, the dog will begin barking and displaying other distress behaviors within a short time after being left alone-often within minutes. When the guardian returns home, the dog acts as though it’s been years since he/she has seen their mom or dad!
When treating a dog with separation anxiety, the goal is to resolve the dog’s underlying anxiety by teaching him/her to enjoy, or at least tolerate, being left alone. This is accomplished by setting things up so that the dog experiences the situation that provokes their anxiety, namely being alone, without experiencing fear or anxiety.
Separation anxiety in dogs is an enormous problem for around 10% of all puppies and older dogs. Somewhat ironically, problems related to separation anxiety are the major cause for dogs ending up in animal shelters. I wish I could say canine separation anxiety is an easy fixed, but in many cases it is a very difficult problem to overcome. However, some simple training ideas can help.
Let’s First Identify the Common Behavioral Signs of Separation Anxiety:
Urinating and Defecating: Some dogs urinate or defecate when left alone or separated from their guardians. If a dog urinates or defecates in the presence of his/her guardian, the house soiling probably isn’t caused by separation anxiety.
Barking and Howling: A dog who has separation anxiety might bark or howl when left alone or when separated from their guardian. This kind of barking or howling is persistent and doesn’t seem to be triggered by anything except being left alone. Tough one to identify for new schnauzer-parents since barking is so much a part of our dogs – but over time, we all learn what the different barks of our own dogs are all about.
Chewing, Digging and Destruction: Some dogs with separation anxiety chew on objects, door frames or window sills, dig at doors and doorways, or destroy household objects when left alone or separated from their guardians (remember that destructive chewing can also occur in basic puppy-teething times, so the key difference is that this is happening when left alone only). These behaviors can result in self-injury, such as broken teeth, cut and scraped paws, and damaged nails. If a dog’s chewing, digging and destruction are caused by separation anxiety, they don’t usually occur in their guardian’s presence.
Other possible signs:
Licking, Chewing, Panic Attacks (panting, drooling, fearful face), Digging, Self Mutilation, Escaping, Diarrhea, Loss Of Appetite, Excessive Salivation, Vomiting, Jumping Through Windows, Crying
Why Separation Anxiety Might Occur:
Change of Guardian or Family: Being abandoned, surrendered to a shelter or given to a new guardian or family may be associated with separation anxiety.
Change in Schedule: An abrupt change in schedule in terms of when or how long a dog is left alone can trigger the development of separation anxiety. For example, if a dog’s guardian works from home and spends all day with his/her dog but then gets a new job that requires them to leave their dog alone for six or more hours at a time, the dog might develop separation anxiety because of that change.
Change in Residence: Moving to a new residence can trigger the development of separation anxiety.
Change in Household Membership: The sudden absence of a resident family member, either due to death or moving away, can trigger the development of separation anxiety.
I always believe that preventing an unwanted sign/symptom is better than treating an actual problem.
Here are some basic habits to make sure you are doing to help your dog before any signs of separation anxiety (and especially if you have a new puppy/dog in your home):
1. Ensure that your dog feels safe and comfortable when you are away from them. Provide plenty of fresh water and clean, warm bedding for your dog.
2. Be sure to give your dog plenty of exercise when you are around. On leash walks, a run at the park, and some obedience training will all ensure your dog is happy and stimulated. Importantly it can also mean your dog will rest while you are out, instead of tearing up anything in your home.
3. Provide some appealing dog toys to help occupy their time. Kongs stuffed with frozen treats are a favorite for many dogs — Caesar has an array of kongs and toys that we leave around our main floor for him to find and explore – I will post pics of my regular practice with him soon. But here is one picture of his kongs that I prepare daily before we leave for the day.
4. Leave your dog a blanket or piece of clothing that has your scent on it – an old sock works well, just tied in a tight knot is often good. This may comfort a distressed dog – make sure it is something you don’t mind being torn up though (just in case).
5. If you’re going to be away for many hours, try hiding some of his/her normal meal in a kong – remembering that this counts as part of his/her total food intake for the day.
6. If you often have the radio on when at home, leave it on while you are away. This can be soothing and comforting in mild cases of separation anxiety in dogs.
7. Leave your dog in a safe and secure crate or room. This has a two fold effect, it provides a comfortable “den like” area where your dog will feel comfortable, and it means your dog won’t be able to act out many of the problem behaviors listed above. Be sure that your dog is completely happy in this area before you go and leave him/her for any length of time. I’ve never crated Caesar for separation anxiety treatment purposes, but many dog trainers and owners recommend this training technique. Crating your dog is not recommended for extended periods day in and day out. As a puppy, we did leave Caesar’s open crate with comfy bedding and toys in his blocked-off section for him and he enjoyed the coziness of his crate (which we called his “den”)!
8. Give your dog some obedience training. Teach and practice some basic obedience training commands like sit, down and stay. When you establish yourself as the trusted leader, your dog will respect your right to come and go as you please.
These last two tips are the toughest ones, but I believe they are the 2 most important tips that used since early training days with Caesar:
9. Don’t let your dog become too “clingy” and dependent on you every second you are together. Little by little teach your dog to be on his/her own when you are home. Put him/her in a crate, outside, or just in the next room. Prove to your dog that it’s not a bad thing to be separated from you, give your dog their favorite treat in another room and leave them there for a while. When he/she is quiet and calm go and give them some praise, make it clear you are happy with them. You can also practice your down-stay obedience training command for this purpose.
10. Pay little or no attention to your dog when preparing to leave the house. Calmly and casually slip out the door with no fuss. Same thing when you arrive home, just go about your business for a few minutes, with no major reaction (other than calm verbal greeting if you must). When your dog is calm, you can initiate some contact with them. You don’t want your dog to believe that their behavior (barking, whining etc.) has contributed to bringing you back home. Don’t inadvertently reward your dog’s behavior by giving a big over the top greeting every time you arrive home and don’t give those apologetic “poor baby” comments or sorry looks to your dog as you’re leaving. Dogs can sense our energy and will start feeling just as sad as they perceive you are feeling with the separation.
I have to admit #10 was (is) the hardest for me to do… but I always force myself to create a light, casual atmosphere before we leave and when we return home. I had read so much about separation anxiety in dogs before we even got Caesar that I was determined to try to prevent this in our baby. Many times I’ve cried on the drive in or back from work with my own worry of how Caesar is doing, but each time, I am pleased to see he is just fine.
Here’s the catch: Caesar is now excited when we leave… (what?!) – yes, he gives us his excited bark — the “you should go now” bark because he’s so excited to see what I’ve left him and what he’ll find during our absence (food/treats of course!). And when we come home, he’s usually stretched out on the couch, casually getting up, and yawning as he reaches us… then the “I need to got potty” barks start :) Why is this a catch? Because we all love that excited greeting when our dogs meet us at the door – with their happy faces and wagging tails. And this is not what we normally get with Caesar. But we do get a happy baby that is comfortable when we’re away from him and even happier when we’re back — and who we believe will not be very likely to struggle with our absence for the day. We know how happy he is when we’re together but preventing the excess enthusiasm upon our return comforts us in knowing he is not heart-broken without us for the day (although I must admit that I still miss him like crazy every minute I’m not with him!). We need to remember that a calm greeting at the door is just as loving as an excited greeting – but probably much healthier in the long term.
I believe that the happiness of seeing our dogs super-excited to see us pales if/when we understand there is super-sadness in our absence. And separation anxiety might develop years after having your dog — it may not be present from the first year you have your dog, but may gradually develop over time (often years). As I said earlier, I always think that prevention of such a possible state is always preferable to un-training a worrisome behavior.
What to do if your dog is already showing signs of separation anxiety:
I came across a 4-step plan that has helped several dogs overcome separation anxiety that I believe would be quite useful to most. Of course, patience and love will help you get the best results.
Step 1: Slowly teach your dog that he/she doesn’t always need to be close to you. First you need to ignore attention seeking behavior (jumping up, barking etc.) and then do work with some solid practice of down-stays. Little by little you can extend the time and distance you spent apart, until your dog is happy to be on his own (not right beside you) for up to 30 minutes. Beyond this, you do need to still spent lots of fun time together.
Step 2: The next step is to get your dog used to being in one room as you go to another. Again, do start off with very small periods apart (just step outside the same room) and gradually lengthen the time and distance over a couple of weeks. If you try this, make sure that you don’t just leave your dog inside a room to get all worked up and stressed. The trick is to start out leaving your dog for a few seconds (use stay command), then going out and reuniting before he/she shows any signs of separation anxiety. Give your dog a treat or dog toy to keep his/her mind off missing you from the room. And only initiate contact with your dog when he/she is calm and quiet.
Step 3: The next step is to eliminate the distress caused by you getting ready to leave the house. You can write a list of all the triggers that starts your dog’s anxiety. Then you need to set about desensitizing them to these triggers. You can put your shoes on, and not go anywhere. Put your coat on, then sit down to read the paper. Pick up your car keys and just carry them around with you, jingling them as you go about your business. After a while (anywhere from 1-5 weeks likely) – your dog will not pay attention to these behaviors that used to be triggers.
Step 4: When your dog is completely calm in situations that would have unsettled them in the past, leave the house. At first you can just step outside, shut the door and came back inside within 20 seconds – before your dog can make a sound. Again this needs to be a slow process, similar to step 2. Then extend the time outside the front door and then graduate to starting the car, then driving around the block before coming back inside.
You can provide a tasty treat to your dog on your way out the door, something that he/she can work on for a while. This is Caesar’s favorite part of our departure – we get him to “go to bed” on his dog bed near the kitchen, and hand him a kong before heading out the door. Remember that when you return home, don’t make a huge fuss. Come inside, get changed, pour yourself a nice hot coffee, then greet your calm dog. When you feel confident that your dog is comfortable in your absence, you can greet your dog earlier! :)
This 4-step program can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. If unsuccessful with your dog, it may be time to work with calming natural remedies (like Rescue Remedy – a Bach Flower treatment that helps to calm anxiety for humans and animals in many situations), herbal remedies, or vet-prescribed medications. Remember that none of these choices is really treating the root of the problem, but can often give good relief from distress symptoms.
I hope this information has been helpful.
Remember: “Love is when the other person’s (or dog’s, in this case) happiness is more important than your own.” - H. Jackson Brown Jr