Does your dog seem distressed whenever you leave the house? How often do you return home to destruction? These are signs that your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety, a fear disorder that causes them to act out of character.
Probably the worst things you can do are to punish them for behavior that is out of their control or make it a big party every time you arrive home, just because they are so happy to see you.
Read on to learn everything you need to know about separation anxiety in dogs and what you can do to handle it.
What Is Dog Separation Anxiety?
Dog separation anxiety is an overarching term used for the distress or anxiety felt by dogs when they are left alone.
The source of their fear could either be being left alone or fear of being separated from you. This means that you don’t actually have to be out of the house for separation anxiety to kick in. Some dogs can become stressed when you go to bed at night and close the door with them on the other side.
Principal signs that your dog might have an issue with separation anxiety are that they seem very worried when you leave the house and are also overly excited when you return. Howling and whining at either time or clawing at the door to get closer to you more quickly are both possible symptoms.
Destructive behavior while they are at home alone, and forgetting their toilet training and doing their business inside the house when you are out, are also symptoms. They are not “punishing” you for not being there, but their anxiety causes them to forget their training and makes it difficult for them to control their behavior.
They might also do other things, such as follow you from room to room when you are at home. This is them keeping an eye on you and making sure you don’t sneak out while they aren’t looking.
The source of separation anxiety seems to be pack behavior, and some breeds are more prone to it than others. This is why you should always research your dog breed before bringing them home, as some just aren’t suitable to be left alone for long periods of time.
But separation anxiety can also result from trauma, such as something happening to your dog when they were left alone in the past.
It can also result from a change in routine. Perhaps you have changed your work schedule and now they are spending more time alone, or it could be the loss of a family member, human or animal.
It is also not uncommon for separation anxiety to develop in older dogs if they start to develop cognitive dysfunction. This can leave them confused about many things and therefore craving the comfort of your closeness.
How To Manage Dog Separation Anxiety
Part of dealing with separation anxiety is training your dog about what to expect, normalizing both your coming and going, and spending extended periods of time alone.
Never make a big deal when you are leaving or entering the house. Your dog might be excited, but you need to remain calm and show them that this is normal behavior. When they start to respond by calming themselves, then you can reward them.
Teach them to be more independent when you are together. Encourage them to play in another room and to get used to being alone in a room while you are around, in another part of the house.
Wear Them Out
Separation anxiety is only made worse if your pup has a lot of pent-up energy from not getting enough exercise. This combination can be one of the key factors when it comes to destructive behaviors.
So, if you know you will be out and about for several hours, take the time to thoroughly exercise your dog first, so they are happily tired when you leave.
This also gives you an excuse to take them out for a bathroom break, which can reinforce their house training and make it less likely that they’ll have a full tank to go inside when you aren’t there.
Create A Safe Space
Creating a safe space for your dog to use when you aren’t home is not just about limiting their access to the rest of the house and what they can destroy, though this is certainly part of it.
Safe spaces are most effective when their fear is based on being alone rather than separation from you. If they see it as a domain they are in charge of, they won’t feel the same level of stress.
Fill the safe space with things they consider their own, which could be their toys, their bed, or their crate if you did crate training with them.
It can be worth investing in a bed specially designed to help your dog manage anxiety. The Original Calming Bed allows them to burrow into a warm space, which is a de-stressing behavior for dogs.
As well as their favorite toys, it is worth investing in puzzle toys that are safe for your dog to play with alone. So skip the games that have any small pieces, and choose a toy they need to physically manipulate to get their paws and mouths on food or treats. Having something to do will help to distract them while you aren’t around.
What Not To Do
While there are things you can do to reduce your dog’s separation anxiety, there are also several things that you shouldn’t do.
Don’t buy into their anxiety by comforting them excessively when you leave or making a big deal when you get back.
Don’t punish them for bad behavior while you weren’t around. Not only could they not help it, but when you punish them after the fact (rather than in the moment), they probably won’t realize what they are being punished for. So, you will have traumatized them with punishment without necessarily teaching them anything.
Don’t assume that getting another dog will solve the problem. This is especially true if they are anxious about being separated from you rather than about being alone. A second dog might just mean having two destructive pups on your hands.
Only use over-the-counter calming remedies in consultation with your vet. They can advise you on whether it is likely to help the situation and the unexpected effects it might have on your dog.
What can I do if my dog is anxious when I’m not at home?
If your dog suffers from anxiety when you aren’t at home, you need to identify the cause of their anxiety and take steps to make them feel safe, and train them to feel comfortable when you are not around. This can be a lengthy process and doesn’t offer a quick fix if your dog is suffering or indulging in destructive behaviors.
Steps you can take while trying to figure out a long-term solution include creating a space in your home that feels safe for your dog and making sure there isn’t anything important they can destroy. You might also consider asking a friend or a pet sitter to pop in once or twice during the day while you are out, to minimize the amount of time they are isolated.
If these interim techniques don’t prove effective, then there are also over-the-counter sedatives that might help. But always consult your vet before giving your dog any kind of sedative.
Do you have experience dealing with a dog suffering from separation anxiety? What did you do? Share your experience with the community in the comments section below.