Separation anxiety is an emotional condition that can have a significant impact on the life of both dog and owner. Separation anxiety manifests as severe distress in the dog when left alone, which can present itself in a variety of different ways, such as barking and howling, pacing the house, inappropriate toileting, and destructive behaviour such as chewing the furniture or biting and chewing at the coat.
Separation anxiety can be triggered in a variety of different ways, and some dogs may be happy to be left for short periods of time before becoming anxious, while others will react negatively if you even leave the room for a couple of minutes and they are not permitted to follow.
Establishing how separation anxiety begins can similarly be variable, as you may potentially inherit pre-learned separation anxiety in an adopted adult dog, or have inadvertently caused the problem yourself by not getting your dog used to spending time alone and not being able to go everywhere with you.
Regardless of the cause or how sensitive your dog is to being left without company, serious separation anxiety can be highly problematic, and have a negative affect on the happiness and wellbeing of dog and owner alike.
If your dog massively overreacts to being left alone and you’re running out of ideas on how to tackle this, don’t despair. Read our ten step system to reduce and eliminate separation anxiety in your dog.
Making sure that your dog is walked enough and spends enough time with you getting attention will not on its own cure separation anxiety in the dog, but failing to do these things will almost certainly make it worse. Before you can tackle a specific problem such as separation anxiety, you must first make sure that everything else in terms of your dog’s lifestyle and day-to-day routine is stable, and sufficient for their needs.
Poor training and a failure to reliably obey the basic commands will make separation anxiety almost impossible to resolve, so you may need to take some time working on your dog’s obedience and understanding. If your dog will not sit, stay, and come when called, you will find it difficult to tackle any other problems. As well as the specific commands themselves, it is also important to teach your dog that you are in charge and need to be obeyed, in order to direct your dog through the process of tackling separation anxiety.
It is important not to rush separating yourself from your dog, and before you can even leave your dog alone in the house for a few minutes at a time, you will have to work towards getting used to your absence and not being able to be with you in the same room at all times!
Try sectioning off another room with a baby gate, so that your dog can see and hear you but not get to you. This may prove confusing and frustrating for your dog at first, but it is important to begin to get some physical distance between you. When your dog will settle down behind a partition, you should be able to move on to being able to leave their sight for a short while and building upwards from there.
A dog that is bored or has nothing to divert their attention from the fact that they are on their own is likely to get anxious much more quickly. Make sure that your dog is left with a range of toys and activities that they can get on with when left, such as a Kong toy filled with something delicious that your dog will have to work at getting to!
Don’t turn leaving and coming back into a huge drama, with effusive greetings and prolonged partings. By all means let your dog know that you are pleased to see them and say goodbye to them when you are going out, but make sure that this is done calmly and without excitement, so that your dog does not receive cues from you that something unusual is occurring.
It is all to easy to become frustrated with a dog that will not let you leave without making a big fuss or causing problems in your absence, and this can undoubtedly have a big impact on your life. But part of working to resolve separation anxiety in your dog means not rewarding acting out with attention- even negative attention- or providing any additional stimulus to create new associations in your dog’s mind with being left.
Crate training is one of the best ways to avoid separation anxiety from developing in the first place, but you should never attempt crate training on a dog that is already stressed about being left. This is counter productive and will seek to ensure that if you do decide to crate train later on, the process will be significantly harder to achieve.
Desensitisation therapy involves repeatedly exposing your dog in a safe, non-threatening manner to the source of their distress, until your dog becomes so used to it that they no longer react negatively.
This can take quite some time to achieve, so you might have to dedicate several hours on several different occasions to doing this. For instance, leave the house, close the door, then immediately come back in. Your dog will probably begin to kick up a fuss the first ten or twenty times that you do this, but their reactions will gradually diminish. When you can manage to do this without your dog reacting, start building up the time that you are outside for, beginning with just a couple of minutes, before returning.
DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) is a calming aid for dogs that is available as a collar, room diffuser or spray. It can help to calm your dog down and put them in the right frame of mind to be amenable to being left alone.
Addressing serious separation anxiety in dogs is not something that can be rushed, and it is counter-productive to try to expedite the process. It will probably take you several weeks or even months to get your dog used to being left without their overreacting, and you must be prepared to be in it for the long haul in order to be able to eventually leave your dog alone without incident!