Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Separation anxiety in dogs is a condition that can cause a huge amount of distress for both dogs and their owners. It is a behaviour that occurs when the dog is separated from their owner and in many cases this is because they are feeling severely distressed.
Separation anxiety in dogs can range from mild to severe; When looking for help and advice it can feel overwhelming and confusing. In this article we have incorporated as much information and detail as possible in an easy to understand and straight forward manner which we hope will help you and your dog overcome this distressing condition.
We look at the differences of separation anxieties, the signs and symptoms, the potential causes and ways to manage the dogs behaviour and of course yours. We know how overwhelming separation anxiety can often feel for the dog owner. Not able to leave the room or house without feeling a level of guilt, sadness and distress knowing the dog you are leaving will be suffering.
We hope this guide will help you understand the condition and provide you and your dog the tools to a calmer, healthier and happier life.
Signs and symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs
Dogs suffering from separation anxiety often become agitated when their owners leave or are preparing to leave. Others seem anxious or sad prior to their owners leaving or when they aren’t present. Usually immediately after an owner leaves their dog with separation anxiety, the dog will begin barking and displaying other distress behaviours within a short time of being left alone—often within just seconds. When the owner returns, the dog acts as though it’s been years since he’s seen either his Mummy or Daddy!
There are a number of signs that may show that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, which include:
Whining or barking
A dog who has separation anxiety might bark or howl when left alone or when separated from their owner. This kind of barking or whining is constant and doesn’t appear to be triggered by anything except being left alone.
If a dog drools or pants excessively, it can be a sign that they are having a stress response to being left alone or isolated. Your dog will most likely not display this behaviour when you are in their presence if they do not suffer from separation anxiety.
Some dogs will walk up and down the same path when left alone whilst others may move around in circles. This behaviour usually doesn’t occur when the owner is present.
Some dogs with separation anxiety will display destructive behaviour where they will chew on objects, furniture and door frames and attempt to dig at doorways. 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, usually the dog will not display this behaviour when the owner is present.
A dog with separation anxiety might try to escape from an area where he’s confined when he’s left alone or separated from his owner. As with destructive behaviour the dog may try and dig and chew through doors and windows which could result in injury. If the dog’s behavior is caused by separation anxiety, it doesn’t occur when his guardian is present.
Some dogs with separation anxiety will cause themselves injuries from harming themselves. This normally occurs when a dog licks or bites itself excessively. This behaviour normally will not be present in a dog when they owner is at home.
Urinating/defecating and/or Coprophagia
Some dogs urinate or defecate when left alone or separated from their guardians. Some dogs will even defecate and then consume all or some of their excrement. If a dog does any or all of these in the presence of their owner then the problem is unlikely to be caused by separation anxiety.
Why Do Some Dogs Develop Separation Anxiety?
There are many reasons why dogs develop separation anxiety. The following is a list of situations that have been associated with development of separation anxiety:
Natural Pack Behaviour
Dogs in their own natural habitat live as a pack; they are always together, they always follow someone or they always wait with someone. They don’t have this understanding of living separately like we do. When a dog lives with someone his natural tendency is to follow, and to be with someone always. Of course we can’t always have someone following us, whether that is a dog or a human. Dogs are known as man’s best friend for a reason, after all they will follow us to the end of the earth. This natural behaviour in dogs can become problematic when their behaviour causes them severe anxiety and distress in the home when left alone.
Change of Guardian or Family
Being abandoned, surrendered to a rescue shelter or given to a new guardian or family can trigger the development of 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 owner works from home and spends all day with his dog but then gets a new job that requires him to leave his dog alone for six or more hours at a time, the dog might develop separation anxiety because of that change.
Moving to a new residence can trigger the development of separation anxiety.
Changes to a household
The sudden absence of a family member, including another dog or pet, either due to death or moving away, can trigger the development of separation anxiety.
Ruling Out Medical Problems
There can be many reason for incontinence in dogs, this is not necessarily due to separation anxiety. This could be a medical condition in which a dog leaks. A number of medical issues—including a urinary tract infection, a weak sphincter caused by old age, hormone-related problems after sterilisation, bladder stones, diabetes, kidney disease, Cushing’s disease, neurological problems and abnormalities of the genitalia—can cause urinary incontinence in dogs. Before attempting behavior modification for separation anxiety, please see your dog’s veterinarian to rule out medical issues.
Medications can also be a cause of frequent urination. Please contact your veterinarian to seek advice as to whether this may be a contributing factor.
Incomplete House Training in a dog may also lead to frequent urination. Your dogs house training may have been inconsistent or it might have involved punishment that made him afraid to urinate whilst in the presence of his owner.
Managing and Treating Severe Separation Anxiety
When treating a dog with separation anxiety, the goal is to resolve the dog’s underlying anxiety by teaching them 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 his anxiety, namely being alone, without experiencing fear or anxiety.
Treatment for separation anxiety is not always easy and will require hard work, dedication, patience and understanding from the dog owner. It really will be worth it in the end! We do understand it can be particularly distressing for dog owners and frustrating too.
The following counter conditioning management tools can help your dog accept being on their own:
Keep arrivals and departures as low key as possible
Depart and arrive as quietly and calmly as possible. Dogs with moderate to severe cases should be ignored or just get a “See you tonight” as you walk out. When you return, greet your dog only after they have calmed down. By doing this you are communicating to your dog that the time apart is no big deal. It’s just business as usual!
Give your dog an item of your clothing
Your scent is calming to your pet and may help soothe their anxiety when you’re away. Make sure that the clothing you leave your pet with is not valuable; an old T-shirt will do just fine.
Leave your dog a special toy
Make sure you give your dog a mentally stimulating toy such as a stuffed ‘kong’ toy, a meat flavoured chew or a treat ball. Make sure that this is a ‘special’ toy that they only get when you’re not there. Remember to put away this toy when you return. We recently reviewed 5 indestructible toys.
Exercise your dog
A tired dog is a happy dog. Provide your dog both mental and physical exercise. Try to exercise your dog right before you have to leave him by himself. This might help him relax and rest while you’re gone. Have fun with your dog. Play games such as tug of war or fetch. Take your dog on daily walks and change routes or visit new places to keep him stimulated and used to experiencing new situations.
Provide your dog with a place of safety
Make sure your dog has an area he feels comfortable and safe. This can be a dog bed, a dog mattress or a crate. Training your dog to feel comfortable in their place of safety is incredibly helpful not just for separation anxiety but also for their general well being.
Crate training can be helpful for some dogs if they learn that the crate is their safe place to go when left alone. A crate can however cause additional stress and be harmful mentally and physically to the dog, especially if they try and escape it.
Moderate to severe cases will not respond to management alone
Desensitisation which is exposing your dog to gradually increased periods of being alone without panicking will be required.
Practice at a time when your dog is calm and ideally not at a time when you would normally be leaving the house.
The aim of the following process is to help your dog see you going into a different room or outside as completely normal behaviour and accepting this as a non stressful event that will not cause them harm or distress:
- To begin you will go outside and then come back in. Do not pause, do not stand outside. Go out and come in.
- Wait a minute or so and repeat.
- Do this as often as you wish but be mindful of your dog’s responses. Don’t push them to the point of being stressed. It is much better to do four five-minute sessions throughout the day than one 20-minute session.
- When your dog is repeatedly comfortable with this go out and wait two seconds before going inside.
- Again, repeat until your dog is calm a number of times, then remain outside for three seconds.
- Continue to gradually increase your absence by one or two seconds at a time.
- Once you reach 20 minutes you can increase your absence time from one or two seconds to about 10 or 15 seconds.
- At 40 minutes you can jump to adding one minute for a few sessions.
- If all goes well, add on five minutes. Most likely, when you attain 90 minutes for a few sessions your dog will be okay for a few hours so it shouldn’t be necessary to keep building by a few minutes at a time up to six or eight hours.
If your dog is anxious when you are just out of his sight you will need to start indoors with simply going into the next room. Follow the same steps as above to build up time gradually.
Move to leaving your home, starting from step one, when your dog is comfortable with being apart for about 15 minutes within the home
It is so tempting during this training to move ahead to the next step too quickly. But this process really is best not rushed and erring on the side of caution. Moving too quickly can foil all of your hard work. There is however no right number of times to practice each step. Generally, if your dog remains calm for about ten repetitions at a given duration you can add on time for your next trial. If at any time your dog becomes anxious, go back two steps and build up again.
During desensitisation process it is really important your dog does not experience any type of fear and is essential that your dog never experiences the full-blown version of whatever provokes his anxiety or fear.
He must experience only a low-intensity version that doesn’t frighten him. He must learn to feel comfortable and calm in situations that upset and stress him. Otherwise, he won’t learn to feel calm and comfortable in situations that upset him.
You must therefore not leave your dog alone during the desensitisation process and alternatives must be made such as:
- Taking your dog to work if possible
- Arrange for a family member, friend or dog sitter to come to your home and stay with your dog when you’re not there.
- Find a dog day care centre or a dog sitter.
Prevention of Separation Anxiety
It’s important to establish a routine for your dog from the moment you welcome them into your home so that they are prepared for when you do need to leave the home.
While there is no silver bullet when it comes to preventing separation anxiety, there are things you can do in advance to prepare your dog to being left alone. One of the most important things dog owners can do is establish a routine that includes ‘dog alone time’ when their dog is left alone.
Allow your pet to have some alone time. You have your space, and they have theirs. even if you don’t have anywhere to go outside of the house, you can put your dog in a separate room or go into the garden for a while.
You should leave your dog alone in the house on occasion, particularly if they have not struggled with separation anxiety in the past. Use the time out of the house to do essential shopping, take a walk, or sit outside with a book for an hour.
We do recommend always seeking advice from your vet to rule out any other medical problems as well as for cases of separation anxiety. In severe cases medication may help alongside the desensitisation process.
Some dogs are so distressed by any separation from their owners that treatment can’t be implemented without the help of medication. Anti-anxiety medication can help a dog tolerate some level of isolation without experiencing anxiety. It can also make treatment progress more quickly.
On rare occasions, a dog with mild separation anxiety may benefit from medication alone, without additional behavioural therapy. The dog becomes accustomed to being left alone with the help of the medication and retains this new conditioning after he’s gradually weaned off the medication. However, most dogs need a combination of medication and behaviour modification.
- Your dog’s separation anxiety will not be resolved overnight. It’s important to remember to remain calm and patient throughout this process.
- Your training must be consistent and gradual and take place in a calm environment.
- Act confidently around your dog when you are about to leave, your dog is going to sense this, and it will help calm them down.
- Do not get cross with your dog for destructive behaviour! Your dog is upset at being left alone and struggling to cope with a huge amount of stress. By getting cross or using punishment will upset your dog further and could even make the problem worse.
- Do not rush the desensitisation process.