Do you worry about leaving your dog home alone because you feel guilty, get all mushy for those big sad eyes, or worried about the condition of your home once you return? Separation anxiety in dogs can tear at your heartstrings but it has many solutions.
Most dogs can be left home alone during the day and lead happy lives. There is a small population of dogs that can be destructive, house soil or be miserable. However, these are not necessarily signs of Separation Anxiety.
It’s important to determine if you have a serious behavior problem or just a bored dog who lacks house manners. Separation Anxiety is a common problem and we may see much more of it since the COVID-19 crisis.
What are the signs of True Separation Anxiety in your dog?
- Whining/pacing as you are getting ready to leave or long after you have left home
- Dilated Pupils, Fixed Stare, Panting, Drooling
- Trembling, Shaking
- Non-stop barking or howling while you are gone
- Destructive chewing around entrance and exits (door frames/window frames/carpet at doorways). This can lead to self-inflicted injuries, bloody paws, or jumping out windows.
- House Soiling as a result of non-stop pacing (the constant exercise stimulates a bowel movement)
- Some dogs can’t be consoled even by another family member who is home
Case Study of the Signs of Separation Anxiety in a dog
My dog, Gator, was my first journey down the rabbit hole of Separation Anxiety. He was a rescue dog at four months of age and was very sick when we got him. He quickly became my doggie soulmate. He is 14 years old now and has slept in my bed every single day of his life.
One day, when at work, my neighbor called me. She said my dog was on my roof. I was in disbelief and thought she had to be mistaken. I rushed home, and yes, Gator was on the roof. He had broken out of his crate, busted out the screen of an open window, and made it onto the roof.
I later found out he had been howling while I was at work. Luckily I was able to start working on a solution immediately, took him to daycare more often, and other than escaping out of his crate at agility trials; we made significant progress.
What causes a dog to develop separation anxiety when an owner leaves?
There are many reasons for this, some known and some unknown. Dogs are social creatures generally, so being left alone is often something that needs training. Unfortunately, many owners don't pay enough attention to this part of their training.
"Velcro" dogs tend to continually follow the owner from place to place and always have to be touching them or laying on them. These dogs seem to be pre-disposed to anxiety when left alone. These dogs can often be off-leash, don't run off, and can be suspicious of new people or things.
Owners can struggle to help their frightened puppy. The puppy becomes unable to cope when the owners are not around.
Rescue dogs may be anxious from being transferred from home to home or shelter to home. Causes for relinquishment are often destruction of the home. Then this poor unsocialized-untrained dog is placed in the loud unfamiliar, and sometimes scary, shelter. When they get to their new home, the new family lavishes them with attention (with very few boundaries) they never received before and the dog becomes anxious when his newfound fortune leaves the house.
Some basic rules and manners should be taught from day one when your new little rescue bundle arrives home. Some rescue dogs like greyhounds live constantly in packs of other dogs so living alone may be scary for them. (Rescuing dogs is wonderful, I have five of them!).
Finally, a traumatic event when you were not home can trigger anxiety (thunderstorms, new neighbors, or attempted burglary).
What kind of solutions is available for separation anxiety?
If you think your dog has actual separation anxiety, then contact a Wags & Wiggles Behavior Consultant so that you can develop a plan. This plan will take careful guidance and often last over weeks or months. Working with someone you can trust is essential. There are usually a lot of emotions involved when finding a solution to separation anxiety. It can really hurt to see your dog struggle.
Do a complete medical workup to eliminate a medical cause. You need to identify the dog's triggers for anxiety and then use desensitization and
counter-conditioning techniques to reduce them. However, most dogs just have mild to moderate anxiety that can be helped by the following measures:
Stay is a solution for separation anxiety
If your dog can't sit and stay, get into a training program right away. It's vital to teach self-control through positive reinforcement training. Here are some samples of things to work your way up to in practice:
- Sit/stay while the owner takes three steps away and returns to reward the dog.
- Sit/stay while the owner takes five steps away, clapping hands, and returns to reward
- Sit/stay while owner jogs in place for 10 seconds.
- Sit/stay while the owner walks a large circle around the dog, returns to reward
- Sit/stay while the owner bounces their favorite toy, returns to reward with food.
- Sit/stay while the owner leaves the room for 2-30 seconds, returns to reward
- Sit/stay while the owner opens the front door and walks through, returns to reward
Confinement can mean a crate, laundry room, kennel area in the garage, etc. Get a complete crate training guide in the Online Crate Training Course. Don't use the crate as a punishment and care must be used to ensure the dog feels secure and content. You should start this when you are at home. Don't attempt this for the first time and then just leave.
A lot of dogs have confinement distress and not separation anxiety. Often they don't like to be handled or restrained and this general personality type lends itself to developing a companion problem, separation anxiety. Even a really nice big house isn't enough to make a dog like this feel secure. It takes a specially formulated training plan to help this dog and crate training probably isn't the solution for this dog.
Desensitize your Departures
Some people feel overwhelmed with guilt themselves when they leave. It may help to realize you are leaving them with comfy beds, great toys, and wonderful snacks while you sit in the heat in traffic to drive to a stressful job so you can afford to pamper them. I definitely want to come back in the next life as a dog!
It will be easier on the dog if you simply say "Love ya!" and leave. However, in some cases, you need to do some training to undo some of the anxiety that has been created. Write down the triggers that start the anxiety. Putting on your shoes or shutting the bedroom door may be a trigger.
Sometimes it's the garage door. Consider parking in the driveway. Now you want to practice those things a couple of times a day over a few weeks but don't really leave. This way the dog never knows when you are actually leaving. Contact a Wags & Wiggles Behavior Consultant immediately if this accelerates the dog's anxiety.
Counter Condition your Departures
Most of my clients have heard of the Kong Toy. However, the Kong may now just be a backyard toy, is lost somewhere, or the usual peanut butter isn't working anymore. Get the Kong back out!
Wags & Wiggles Dog Daycare & Training Facility also carries a whole section of interactive toys. Many dogs will need 3-4 of these interactive toys to get them through a long period of isolation from you.
Puzzle time should become a wonderful game you play at home to start with. Otherwise, the puzzles just become another predictor of you leaving and the dog won't touch them.
Using a Tie-Down is a solution for separation anxiety
In your house, teach your dog, it's okay to be away from you for a few minutes at a time. The tie-down should be placed in a central area of the home. It's great to practice this while the family eats dinner. You may need to provide a Kong at this time as well or come back and reward them with food when they are calm. Here is a complete guide to tie-down training. Never use a tie-down when your dog is alone.
Build a better work ethic
Many times as life goes on and the dog stops all the obnoxious puppy behaviors, they don't get the time and training they used to. Don't free-feed your dog by leaving food in the bowl. Use it for training and games and interactive toys. Consider an agility class, rally obedience class, Obedience class, or some daycare training to get your dog out of the house.
Will Corrections or Punishment be a solution for separation anxiety?
Not generally. There are so few cases where it worked, and most of the time it will make your problem much worse. When the owner returns to punish the dog, they are reinforcing the anxiety since it brought the owner back to the dog.
Can medication be a solution for separation anxiety?
Every dog is different. Some may not take well to medicine, but others may benefit greatly. Some medicines are also only meant to be used long-term, while others are only-as-needed.
It is always best to seek the advice of a veterinarian before giving your dog any medication.
Just as there are many remedies for anxiety in people, there are different types of anxiety-reducing solutions for dogs. Some medicines are prescribed or available over the counter, while others are considered natural remedies. For something perhaps less extreme, relaxing treats may be enough to help your Wagger rest when you leave them home alone.
Popularly prescribed separation anxiety medications for dogs include Clomicalm and Reconcile.
Natural remedies include:
- Rescue Remedy - drops
- Adaptil Spray - spray on bedding or color
- CBD Oil - we highly recommend you contact our local source
Using daycare as a solution to separation anxiety
We aren't suggesting your dog live at daycare seven days a week. However, with the use of a proper treatment plan, daycare can be used to prevent the dog from practicing the anxious behavior.
Separation anxiety in puppies and dogs isn’t always preventable, despite your best efforts. And once anxious behavior has taken hold, it can be a complicated process to treat. However, as serious as this condition may be, behavior rehabilitation has a high rate of success. With patience and a positive attitude, you may be able to reduce your dog’s suffering and put separation anxiety behind you.