We all know our dogs miss us when we leave – especially for long periods of time. We can tell by their extreme excitement when they greet us at the door. And while many dogs are okay with being left alone for a certain amount of time, what happens if they aren’t? Separation anxiety is not uncommon in dogs. It can be stressful and destructive for both them and us. Here is your guide on managing separation anxiety in dogs.
Before we go into how to manage separation anxiety, let’s look at what it is and what causes it. Some dogs are naturally stressed out when their owners leave. They may bark, chew, dig, or urinate in the house. But, when those behaviors are accompanied by other behaviors of distress like anxiety or drooling before you even leave the house, there is a good chance it’s separation anxiety.
Dogs can develop separation anxiety for a number of reasons. A change in family dynamic – such as being surrendered to a shelter, abandoned, or given to a new family – is one factor. Another reason is a change in schedule. Dogs are very routine animals, so a change in their normal schedule can cause extreme anxiety. Moving to a new house can also be a factor.
Before you know for certain that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, we recommend you consult your veterinarian to rule out any medical issues.
Typical signs of separation anxiety in dogs is barking or howling, digging, chewing and general destruction, trying to escape, and pacing. They could exhibit these signs before you even leave the house or after.
For mild cases of separation anxiety, the best way to manage it is through counterconditioning. Counterconditioning is when you take a dog’s negative reaction to something and turn it into a positive one. You do this by associating the disliked situation with something extremely positive – like your dog’s favorite treat or toy. With time (and patience), the dog will begin to learn that the fearful situation (you leaving) means they are getting something delicious (like a treat).
To begin counterconditioning, start by giving them a delicious treat or puzzle toy stuffed with food or treats. You can try giving them a Kong toy stuffed with peanut butter or low-fat cream cheese that will take them a while to finished.
Start with short trips to build up your dog’s confidence. Once your dogs’ anxiety starts to subside, you can begin taking longer trips.
Counterconditioning tends to only work on dogs with mild cases of separation anxiety as severely anxious dogs won’t even eat when their owners aren’t home.
To manage moderate to severe separation anxiety, a more intense form of counterconditioning and desensitization are needed. This often requires the help of a trainer since one wrong move can backfire and send your pup into an anxious spiral.
In general, though, since dogs with severe separation anxiety are anxious even before you leave, you need to desensitize them to your pre-departure rituals. That means teaching them that not every time you pick up your keys or put on your coat you are leaving. Try grabbing your keys or putting on your coat and then sit on the couch. This will show them that keys and coats don’t always mean you’re about to leave them! It may take weeks but doing this throughout the day – everyday – will allow you to move on to the next step.
The next step is gradual departures. Depending on how severe their separation anxiety is, you may have to start with just being in a separate room in your house. Start with short leaves and gradually work your way up. Again, this may take weeks but it will be worth it when your dog is no longer anxious when you walk out the door!
If your dog is suffering from severe anxiety and nothing you are attempting is working, contact your veterinarian and consider medication or other methods to help them cope.
With enough time and patience, your dog will be separation anxiety free!
If your dog is suffering from mild separation anxiety, why not consider a midday dog walker? They’ll provide some human interaction as well as a way to release some of that pent-up energy. For all your dog walking needs, make sure to check out For Your Spot. Learn more about our services here.