Does your pup act like an angel at home with you but a terror as soon as you leave the house? All too many pet owners are familiar with the apprehension that precedes opening your front door after your pet has been alone all day. When left alone, some dogs will chew up your favorite slippers; some may dump out your trashcan and spread garbage around your house; others may leave smelly presents on your carpet. One thing is for sure: separation anxiety in dogs isn’t fun for anybody.
What Is Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
Separation anxiety in dogs is triggered by being alone when their owner leaves the house. Dogs with separation anxiety will resort to destructive behaviors that they otherwise wouldn’t do. Some of these behaviors can lead to self-injury in dogs as well as household destruction. Your first hint that your dog has separation anxiety will be that they seem distressed before you leave the house by whining, barking or even trying to prevent you from leaving.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety
Below are some symptoms of separation anxiety. Dogs with separation anxiety may exhibit all of these symptoms or just one or two. Be sure to note whether these behaviors occur all the time or just when the dog is left alone. If your dog exhibits these behaviors while they are with you, they simply need to be trained. If the behaviors occur only when youare gone, your dog likely has separation anxiety.
Some dogs will pace around the house or yard when left alone. Some walk in circles and others back and forth. Setting up a camera when you leave the house can show you whether or not your dog is pacing in your absence.
Barking and Crying
Some dogs just like to make noise, such as when the mailman stops by or when the doorbell rings. If your neighbors complain that your dog barks or cries all day while you’re at work, they likely are experiencing separation anxiety.
Urinating or Defecating
Some dogs urinate or defecate when left alone even if they have been housebroken for years. If your dog is urinating or defecating when you are home, they may not be adequately trained, but if accidents only happen when you’re gone, it’s likely a symptom of separation anxiety.
Some dogs turn into Houdini when left alone, escaping from crates, pens or yards. If the dog feels confined or abandoned, they might dig try to dig their way under a fence or open the latch of their crate. In severe cases, this can cause the dog harm such as a scratched up nose, broken teeth, and damaged claws.
Separation anxiety in dogs may cause them to chew up shoes, scratch up door frames or break into cabinets. Pay attention to whether this behavior happens all the time off if it’s just while your dog is home alone.
Simulated Anxiety or Separation Anxiety?
It is important to note that for dogs with separation anxiety, they are not “being bad” when you are away to get revenge by destroying your house, and they are not acting naughty for attention. Rather, they are feeling anxious and do not know how to deal with their stress. True separation anxiety is an emotional reaction rather than learned behavior.
Simulated separation anxiety occurs when your dog lacks leadership and self-control. In this scenario, the dog acts out because they know they will get attention. For cases like these, even being reprimanded will feel like a victory for the dog because they feel noticed. This is why it’s important not to acknowledge bad behavior; also, severe scolding may just cause more anxiety and worsen behaviors.
Why Do Dogs Experience Separation Anxiety?
Veterinarians and dog behavioral specialists have identified some trends that can lead to separation anxiety in dogs. For example, the majority of dogs with separation anxiety are those adopted from shelters after puppyhood as well as those who have lost somebody close to them. Dogs raised from puppyhood in a single family household rarely experience separation anxiety.
Causes of Separation Anxiety
While there are many possible causes of separation anxiety in dogs, below are some of the more common ones.
Change of Guardian
If a dog has been raised by one owner or family and is then abandoned or surrendered to a shelter, every time their new owner leaves the house, they might feel like they’re being abandoned all over again, triggering an anxious response. This can also be true if the owner goes on vacation and leaves the dog in the hands of another caretaker.
Change of Environment
Dogs may experience separation anxiety after their owners move to a new home. Being left alone in a new environment can cause stress for your pup.
Change of Schedule
If your dog is used to doing things a certain way, then changing up the schedule may cause separation anxiety. For example, if an owner gets a new job and changes from a working swing shift to the graveyard, it could make the dog feel uneasy.
Change in Household
If a member of the household dies or moves away, the dog may miss them and feel anxious when nobody else is around to provide comfort.
Dogs who have suffered from trauma at a shelter, boarding kennel or past home may feel anxiety when separated from their owner and protector. They may associate their owner with safety, and their absence can make them feel afraid.
Ruling Out Other Problems
Certain behaviors may look like separation anxiety but are actually related to other aspects of your dog’s health and wellbeing.
House Training/Weak Bladder
If your dog is not fully house-trained or if they are old and experiencing incontinence, it may lead to accidents when you are away from the house. The reason your dog doesn’t experience these symptoms when you are home could be because they are let out more frequently when you are there whereas they must hold it for long hours when you are away.
As most dog owners can attest, puppies are destructive. You can prevent destructive behaviors when you are home, but when you are gone there is less you can do to prevent puppies from being puppies.
Some negative behaviors come not from being anxious, but from being bored. Dogs need mental stimulation throughout the day; a brilliant dog may be especially prone to destruction when there is nobody around to entertain them.
Dealing with Separation Anxiety in Dogs
No matter how severe your dog’s separation anxiety, there are strategies to help with symptoms. You may want to try identifying the most likely cause of the separation anxiety to pinpoint where to start treatment. Below are several tips for dealing with separation anxiety.
Discreet Departure and Arrival
Many pet owners make the mistake of creating a big scene when they leave or get home by giving lots of cuddles and verbal assurance. What this does is feed into your dog’s existing anxiety. By doing this, you create an inconsistency between when you are home and when you are away. Instead of a smooch-fest before you walk out the door, remain calm in your departure and arrival. In fact, experts recommend ignoring the dog for 15 minutes before you leave and 15 minutes after you get home.
Many dogs will show symptoms of anxiety during your morning routine as you’re getting ready for work. Even during this time, ignore your dog’s symptoms and resist reassuring them.
Familiarize Departure Cues
As stated above, your dog knows your routine and what clues point to when you leave the house, such as making your lunch, putting on your coat and picking up your keys. Do these things at several points during the day but without leaving the house. Perform one activity at a time until the dog no longer reacts, then work on another trigger.
If your dog is anxious when you leave the room, you can only imagine how they feel when you leave the house. Discourage your dog from following you around the house by practicing behaviors like “down” and “stay.” At first, some dogs may not stay if they lose sight of you, so work in intervals and reward your dog especially when they stay after you’ve left their line of sight.
In the meantime, you can also teach your dog to be more comfortable while alone by creating a safe space in the house, usually in a crate, and leaving them there for increasing intervals while still being in the house. Make sure this safe place is a positive experience. Keep toys there as well as some clothing you’ve recently worn, and reward with treats each time they go there.
In severe cases of separation anxiety where the above tips provide no relief, and the dog’s behaviors are harmful, medication may be prescribed. This medication is similar to Prozac and helps ease your dog’s anxiety. This strategy is typically intended only for short-term use until the dog unlearns anxious behaviors.
What Not to Do
While learning new strategies for your dog is helpful, some dog owners must unlearn certain behaviors that contribute to a dog’s separation anxiety.
Again, if destructive behaviors are truly caused by separation anxiety, punishing your dog through loud scolding, hitting or other aggressive behavior will only worsen symptoms.
Don’t Get Another Dog
At least, not as a means of curing separation anxiety. Most dogs are anxious because they are separated from their owner, not simply because they are alone. Choosing to get another pet should be a decision that is made independent of your current dog’s separation anxiety.
Don’t Crate Without Training
For pets who have been crate trained, the crate can be your dog’s safe space for when you’re gone. However, if your dog has no experience with a crate, putting them in one with no training can cause even more severe anxiety, leading to attempted escapes and often self-injury. Consult with a vet or dog trainer to determine the best way to get your dog acclimated to a crate.
We love our pets and want what’s best for them! If your dog is exhibiting symptoms of separation anxiety, talk with a specialist to determine the best course of action to treat their symptoms.