Most pet parents who have a pup with separation anxiety are painfully aware of what it is. However, in order to understand it more fully and to alleviate it, knowing exactly what the causes are is key.
Common Causes of Separation Anxiety
Veterinarians and dog experts are not always certain as to why some dogs suffer when their pet parents leave home and others do not. Common identified causes of separation anxiety include a change in guardian (a puppy being originally taken away from their family, a dog being left at a shelter, abandoned or given away to a new family); a new residence; an extreme schedule/routine change; or a traumatic event, such as the death of an important family member or other family pet. Experts agree that the distress, heightened emotions and subsequent bad behavior that a dog suffering from separation anxiety exhibits is a direct result of angst and stress.
As the companion of a dog that shows signs of anxiety when you (and yours) prepare to leave home, your goal is twofold. First, identify the signs of separation anxiety, and second, implement training that will hopefully lessen your pup’s tension, distress and subsequent acting out when you are away.
Common Signs of Separation Anxiety
Your dog will let you know just how much being apart from you is bothersome by acting out in some of the following ways:
An anxious dog will urinate and defecate inside the home (despite being well house-trained), scratch at doors and windows, chew up furniture and other items, bark, whine or howl constantly, pace continuously in an obvious pattern, have excessive salivation, and even attempt to escape the home. Your dog may become depressed and might even try to stop you physically from leaving the house.
Any one or more of these behaviors indicates separation anxiety. Since most of us cannot take our dogs everywhere we go, the answer to this frustrating problem is to condition your dog slowly to stay calm when you leave, and to understand that you will return.
Alleviating Separation Anxiety in your Dog
Experts agree that the way to lessen your dog’s distress is first to rule out medical causes, especially when it comes to urinating and defecating. This can be the result of incontinence, medications or a number of diseases, so a vet visit is important to consider any medical issues that may be causing the problem.
Once you have established that it is indeed separation anxiety, there are a number of training techniques you can use to help your dog cope better when you leave. Counterconditioning is one way to ease your dog’s mind by shifting his reaction to a happy, relaxed state when you leave. Help your dog associate being alone with something positive, like getting special food. Fill a Kong toy with something that takes time to eat, like peanut butter, and give it to him when you leave, then remove it when you return. Only give it to him when you go, so that the special treat is associated with being alone – and relaxed and happy.
You can do the counterconditioning needed to counteract your pup’s anxiety, but remember that you will need to keep up the training, doing it consistently to eventually elicit change. Begin with changing up the cues that your dog reads. When you get your coat, keys, purse or shoes, your dog recognizes that you are going out. In order to retrain him to understand that doing those things doesn’t necessarily mean you are going, you can don your coat, pick up your keys and, instead of leaving, sit down to watch TV. Repeat variations of this until you can see that your dog is letting go of the anxiety that those things once triggered.
Next up are short-term leaving exercises. Train your dog to sit and stay, while you go out of sight inside your home. Leave the room, be sure the dog stays behind, allow some time separated and then return. Reward him with a treat if he has remained calm. Repeat this training often, but do not pile on these exercises. Allow your dog to relax and feel calm before trying again.
Another technique is always to be calm and quiet when you are leaving. This teaches the dog that things at home remain level and the same whether you are there or gone. Always avoid anger and punishment, for any dog with separation anxiety is acting out of emotional distress, not disobedience.
Use crate training as a way to keep your dog calm, by making the crate his “cave,” — a place where he can rest and feel safe, even when you are at home. When you do leave, locking the door won’t bother your pooch anymore, as he will feel like it is his special place.
Whichever technique you try, remember that your dog also needs plenty of exercise and mental stimulation every day — provide that and his stress level will decrease, along with his anxiety.
Why not ask a question to a dog trainer here on Lovepets? It's free and they are always happy to help.
Content reviewed by a veterinarian.