Most dog owners, at one point or another, will experience frantic, destructive behavior from a dog who is left alone in the house. Destroyed shoes, urine on the floors and carpets, and scratched doors and windows are just some of the signs that your dog might be suffering from separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is extremely common, especially in city dogs who are used to having one or two primary caregivers and are often confined to small apartments. But repeat after me: You’re not alone. We got this.
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What are the Signs?
Dogs are pack animals that thrive in social environments and naturally do not have a propensity for being alone for prolonged periods. Separation anxiety in dogs occurs when their guardian or pet parent is away from their joint habitat, causing them stress. Dogs see their humans as pack leaders and rely on them for the sense of security.
Separation anxiety in dogs is involuntary, and your dog is not acting out with bad behavior to spite you. It is a strong sense of distress, where a dog is fearful of being left behind by his pack leader and ultimately fearful for his survival. These are the many signs that your dog might be suffering from separation anxiety.
Urination and Defecation
First off, it is crucial to make a clear distinction between inadequate house training and urination and defecation caused by separation anxiety. Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety might urinate or defecate in the house when left alone, but will not display this behavior when you are home.
Also, bear in mind that your dog can only handle a specific amount of time before he needs to go. If your dog is left alone for more than eight hours every day, he will break house training and urinate/defecate for relief.
Barking and Howling
When alone, a dog suffering from separation anxiety will often engage in excessive barking and howling. In this case, barking and howling is not a response to outside stimuli, but rather a consistent sound echoing stress and frustration.
This pattern is easy to identify if you are living in a building or close to neighbors that might be home while you are away. If they can hear your dog barking and howling persistently day after day, the chance is that your dog has anxiety over being left alone.
Destructive behavior can manifest in the form of digging, chewing, and scratching of different items around the house, especially if connected to various exit points in the house. They will scratch, chew, and dig markings around door frames, windows, and other openings.
Once again, if your dog does not engage in destructive behavior while you are home, odds are that he is suffering from separation anxiety.
Dogs who are suffering from separation anxiety will often go to incredible lengths to escape their confinement. They do it with a disregard for their health and injuries, as they might attempt to dig themselves out of the playpen, chew through, and escape through a window or door.
This behavior often causes injuries such as chipped and broken teeth, bloody gums, and various physical injuries and marks on their body. Pay close attention to your dog's health and appearance if you suspect separation anxiety.
This one is tough to spot when you are away. Still, dogs suffering from separation anxiety tend to pace back and forth or in circles when their pet parent is away. The best chance of catching this symptom is by seeing your dog do it just before you leave home, as a sign of distress. Alternatively, set up a nest cam or similar filming device while you’re away and observe your dog’s behavior from a distance.
Coprophagy or eating of excrements is a condition that can be triggered by separation anxiety in dogs. This behavior almost exclusively happens when the pet parent is away, and the dog is alone in the home.
Before jumping to conclusions and putting forward a diagnosis of separation anxiety, it is crucial to eliminate the other causes of the mentioned symptoms. Dogs can often display changes in behavior or suffer anxiety that is unrelated to separation from their pet parents.
Try to rule out any other factors such as underlying medical conditions, side effects from medication, lack of house training, or sudden changes to the environment.
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Separation Anxiety Treatment Tips
If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, first and foremost: do not blame yourself or the dog for the situation. The condition might develop for a variety of reasons and external factors you can’t control. To help you navigate this new terrain, we prepared some general tips that should slowly ease separation anxiety and get you both back on track.
Change Your Departure Routine
Most of the dogs dealing with separation anxiety begin to go into distress when they see you preparing to leave. Certain behaviors - the jiggling of keys, tying of shoes, and putting on a jacket - are triggering and signal that you are about to leave. Mix up your routine for a few days in a row. Don’t always depart after you get dressed. Maybe next time, get dressed and just go hang out with your dog in the living room. This change in routine will help the dog understand that these tasks are not a sign that he will be left alone and cause less stress. They’re just tasks separate from outcomes.
Take Your Dog Out for a Walk
After taking an active walk with play, running, and other fun (but tiring) activities, your dog is more likely to go into a rest mode when you’re back home. Taking your dog for a walk before you leave for work in the morning will tire her out so that she’s less likely to stress about you going.
A Dog's Personal Place
Make sure your dog has a place in the home that is exclusively theirs. That spot provides a sense of security and tranquility for the dog. Reinforce this spot through training, making this the place that you will leave your dog in when you leave the house. It should help with reducing the stress and anxiety that your dog suffers if they know they have a place that’s entirely theirs and entirely safe.
No Hugs, Kisses, and Goodbyes
It’s super important not to make a big deal of departures and arrivals, as they are the primary triggers for separation anxiety. When you leave the house, avoid saying goodbye to your dog. Painful as it might seem, no eye and physical contact is the best way to go. Holding back affection signals that there’s nothing out of ordinary and that your departure isn’t a big deal.
The same applies when you return home. Don’t show affection to your dog who is obviously excited to see you. Instead, let your dog calm down before you greet him or her and before you spend time together.
Provide Welcome Distractions
A busy dog is a happy dog. Providing your dog with unique toys and puzzles for entertainment will make the alone time seem shorter. Toys that take a long time to chew through work best and have an extra calming effect on the dogs. Chewing calms dogs nerves.
Provide Comfort with Music, TV or Audiobooks
If your dog is used to a particular type of music playing when you are home or loves to watch TV, it might be a good idea to leave it on when you’re gone.
Tasty Treats and Special Rewards
One way to help your dog associate your departure with a positive, rewarding experience is to give him or her a special treat just before you leave. It can help keep their mind off of your exit and focused on a tasty treat. Let them really be special treats though - only use them for this exact purpose.
Provide Your Dog with a Companion
If you have the resources and space to get another dog (WHAT A DREAM), that might do wonders for your dog that’s suffering from separation anxiety. Make sure to get a mature, calm dog that will have a positive influence (another reason why rescuing is a great way to go). The dog will have a companion and play buddy while you are away.
Ask Someone to Check Up on Your Dog
If you have family, friends, or neighbors that you trust, it might be a good idea to ask them to drop by your place while you are away. Most of the dogs that suffer from separation anxiety react positively to the company, even if the companion is not you.
Help Your Dog Weather the Initial Storm
Research has shown that most dogs experience separation anxiety in the periods leading up to and shortly after your departure from home. To be precise, the first 30 minutes is when most of the anxiety happens and the destructive behavior associated with it.
Keeping your dog occupied with toys, treats, or relaxation during the first hour of separation might help eliminate some of the symptoms of separation anxiety.
Use Pet Pheromones
Dog pheromone products can help relieve the stress and anxiety in dogs. They come in a variety of forms, from sprays to collars to plug-in dispensers. The pheromones used in these products come from dogs and provide a sense of calm and relaxation when used. Make sure to check with your vet for a recommendation and ask about problems that might arise if your dog is already taking medication.
Take Your Dog to Work
If your workplace allows it, you may want to consider taking your dog to work with you. It’s not something that you have to do all the time - as much as we love bringing our dogs to the office, it’s also a huge distraction. But if you can swing it a few days a week, it will help your dog feel more comfortable in new environments and think that your departure in the morning does not mean you will be apart the whole day.
Use Dog Daycare
If your dog is suffering from more severe separation anxiety, it might be a great idea to use dog daycare facilities near you. Your dog will get a lot of attention from the trained staff, and socializing with other dogs will probably only help while you’re gone.
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Tips on How to Treat Minor Separation Anxiety
Minor or mild separation anxiety is usually transitional, and it happens mostly in young dogs or dogs that are experiencing a transition into a new home or family. This type of separation anxiety does have similar symptoms to more severe cases. Still, the extremity of the symptoms is lower, and it usually goes away within 4-6 weeks.
The most common steps for treating mild separation anxiety include counterconditioning steps.
Replace the Anxiety Trigger with a Positive Stimuli
This step is the core component of the whole process. You want your dog to associate otherwise stressful triggers with an enjoyable reward. By reinforcing this conditioning, over time, your dog will feel more at ease when you are about to leave.
Provide Special Treats
Provide your dog with treats that you will only use for this occasion. Make it a treat that your dog really enjoys, and remove it from any other rewards you might provide during the day.
Track the Progress
Closely monitor the behavior of your dog over the course of a few weeks - make sure you give it adequate time. If the behavior is getting worse, it might be a good idea to consult with a specialist that can help you put together a treatment plan.
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Tips on How to Deal with More Severe Separation Anxiety
Moderate to severe cases can be more complicated. Still, conditioning uses the same approach of exposing the dog to separation in small but increasing intervals to reinforce the new behavior.
Step One: Pre-Departure
This is an especially stressful time for a dog suffering from separation anxiety. Dogs quickly pick up on cues in our behavior and associate them with specific events. So, when you pick up your keys or put on your boots, the dog already knows you are leaving and can act out.
Make sure to break those associations by modifying your behavior. Several times during the day, every day, make sure to put on your clothes or put the keys in your pocket and then proceed to stay at home and spend time with your dog. Do this until the dog is showing no more signs of anxiety for those cues.
Step Two: Departure Increase
Depending on the severity of the case, it’s crucial to start with extremely short departures. In severe cases, leaving for just moments at a time is a good start, before coming back and comforting your dog. Make sure to give your dog time to get used to your constant reaffirming and slowly relax and reduce anxiety in these situations.
Slowly increase the duration of these departures. In the beginning, these intervals can be 10-20 seconds, then maybe minute at a time after you reach five minutes. Once you reach 30 minutes, you can gradually start to increase intervals by five or ten minutes.
If your dog remains anxiety free for 60-90 minutes, the chances are that they will do okay while you're away the whole day at work. Just don't suddenly increase that time from 90 minutes to eight hours. Ease into it. Slow and steady.
Step Three: Reinforce the New Behavior
Always make sure to use the reward system during this process. Sometimes this will be frustrating. In the long term, it will help your dog live a happier and more fulfilled life and provide you with a more healthy relationship with your dog.
During the process, make sure to expose your dog to new stimuli when you are taking them on walks by using different routes, engaging in various games, etc. This stimulation will help your your deal with stress better in the future.
What Not to Do
We already mentioned that separation anxiety is not something that a dog does to spite you. It's an involuntary response to an incredible amount of distress your dog feels due to the separation. Under no circumstances should you scold or punish your dog for their destructive behavior, urinating and defecation or excess barking and howling.
Punishment in these cases can have an adverse effect and cause more stress and anxiety in a dog that is already experiencing a lot of it. Rely on the tried and tested behavioral methods that use the reward system for behavior modification.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Should I Take My Dog to the Vet?
It is always a good idea to take your dog to the vet. The vet can help you eliminate any other medical conditions that might be causing the destructive behavior. The right vet will also provide you with a recommendation for a specialist in behavioral therapy for dogs that can give invaluable advice on the treatment.
Does Medication Help with Separation Anxiety?
There is medication available for separation anxiety treatment. Depending on the severity of separation anxiety, the use of drugs might be necessary. Rarely does the medication work alone, though. A combination of medication and behavioral therapy works best.
Should I Use a Crate for My Dog?
Dogs that often see their crate as their safe, personal space might enjoy staying in one while you are away. However, not all dogs are suited for crates, and putting a dog in one could cause additional stress. Track the behavior of your dog while in the crate. Look for traces of a struggle, chewing, urination, etc. If you notice them, do not leave your dog in a crate.
Separation anxiety is something that both humans and dogs suffer from. It’s never easy leaving your dog at home, knowing that they will hurt while you're away. So, it’s crucial to make informed decisions on the best approach and treatment for separation anxiety.
We hope that this guide has helped you with some tips and information on dog separation anxiety. Hopefully, you can use some of this information to aid your dog in overcoming it. And remember, you’re not in this alone. Millions of dogs in cities experience separation anxiety. It’s absurdly common and you haven’t done anything wrong, so don’t wallow in guilt. We’re in this together..