The most common signs of separation anxiety include:
- scratching at doors or windows
- barking and crying
- urination and defecation (even house-trained dogs).
Why do dogs suffer separation anxiety?
The reasons for separation anxiety are not fully known. Some dogs suffer this condition while others do not. It is important to realise that the dog has a behavioural condition and is not punishing the carer for leaving. Destructive behaviour and soiling the house are a response to panic, and many dogs that are brought into shelters suffer this condition.
When does separation anxiety occur?
- When a dog is accustomed to constant human contact and companionship, and is suddenly left at home alone for the first time
- Following a long interval such as a vacation where the carer and dog were constantly together
- After a period spent in a shelter
- After a change in the family’s routine or new house/environment
- When a new pet or person moves in.
How do I know if my dog has separation anxiety?
- The behaviour occurs primarily when the dog is left alone
- The dog follows you from room to room whenever you’re at home
- They display frantic greeting behaviours
- The behaviour always occurs when they are left alone regardless of length of time
- The dog reacts with excitement, depression or anxiety to your preparations to leave the house
- They dislike spending time outside alone
Training your dog to become independent
- When you first bring your dog home it is important to spend time showing them the rules of the house. But it is equally important to teach them that spending time alone is also enjoyable.
- Start with short time periods and give them food, toys, bones or food dispensing toys to chew and play with. Make being alone fun and positive, and before they even realise they were alone you can come back. Start increasing this time period so even when the dog has finished his bone or food, he knows you will always be back.
- Make sure to not come back to the dog if the dog is whining or vocalising; only reward calm behaviour. You can do this while you watch TV or prepare dinner, making sure that at least once or twice a day your dog is separated from you and not constantly shadowing you.
- Provide your dog with a safe space. A space that is just theirs. It could be a kennel, a room, a crate or their dog bed. Place an article of your clothing that smells like you in this space.
- Using food, toys, chews, games and relaxing music you can make certain room or area a place where the dog loves to go because there are always fun, positive things happening there.
- The more you encourage your dog to go there and be alone while you’re at home, the more he’ll go there when you’re away.
- When you leave for the day keep departures as low key and boring as possible. You can say goodbye in a calm, quiet tone and leave the house like no big deal. Even if you prepare a food-dispensing toy or scatter treats you can do this without paying him too much attention.
- Make coming home especially low key. No touching, no talking, no eye contact while your dog is excited and running around. When he is calm, and when you’re ready and settled then you can ask for a ‘sit’ and give him attention.
- The more boring our presence, the less horrible being alone may seem to the dog.
- The more mentally and physically tired your dog is, the more likely he is to sleep and relax while you’re out. Take your dog for a decent walk in the morning and do some short training interludes. Before leaving, scatter some food and hide a peanut butter stuffed Kong for your dog to work on after you leave. You could consider having other people walk, feed and spend time with your dog if you are away from home for long periods.
Severe cases of separation anxiety
Use a systematic approach and practice leaving and returning:
- Begin by leaving as normal (getting car keys, grabbing your bag or coat, etc.) then sit back down. Repeat this step until your dog does not show signs of distress
- Next leave the house by stepping outside, leaving the door open, then return
- Finally step outside and close the door, then return immediately
- Proceed gradually step by step until your dog is not distressed by these steps. If anxiety occurs return to the previous step
- When your dog can tolerate you being on the other side of the door for several seconds, begin with short-term absences and return
- Make your leaving and returning low key
- If your dog shows no sign of distress gradually increase the length of time you are gone
Practice as much as possible and scatter the training throughout the day. Once your dog can handle short absences (30–90 min) they should be able to handle longer intervals.
Other methods and short-term solutions
- Teaching your dog to ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ using positive reinforcement will teach your dog that they can stay in one place while you go into the next room. When you return praise them quietly
- For interim solutions consult your veterinarian about medications that may be helpful
- Take your dog to doggy day care
- Leave your dog with a friend or neighbour that they know
- Let your neighbours know you are working on the condition if they have complained to you about it
What not to do
- Do not punish your dog. This may lead to an increase in anxiety as they are getting the attention they want
- Do not get another pet as a companion. Your dog is anxious because of the separation from you, not because of being alone
- Do not lock your dog up. Your dog will still have an anxiety response and may injure itself trying to get out.
Lort Smith Dog Behaviourist Mia Shaw shares tips and training techniques to help prepare our pets for a post-COVID world.
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Workplaces wishing to arrange a private dog behaviour webinar for their employees, including a Q&A, should contact Lisa Westphal.
This webinar has been proudly sponsored by Hill’s Pet Nutrition.