What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety occurs when dogs are separated from their owners and become distressed, unable to relax while alone. Dogs are social creatures, and bond closely to their owners. When dogs are stressed, they will often attach to the person they spend the most time with or feel the most comfortable with. Often, dogs with separation anxiety will follow their owner from room to room when at home, and rarely spend any time on their own, either outside or indoors in one of their comfort spots (such as bed, crate, etc.). Anxiety, defined as a feeling of uneasiness, worry or nervousness, often with a sense of impending doom, can be the root cause of many behavior issues and affects about 20% of dogs.
Separation anxiety manifests itself when, as the owner makes their cues to leave (gathering keys, putting on coat and shoes, etc.), the dog associates those cues with the impending absence of their owner, which then invokes their panic response. A dog’s panic response can be pacing, barking, whining, crying, urination or defecation, destructive behaviors, digging, and even depression. These behaviors continue when the dog is left alone, and when the owner returns, the dog often shows exaggerated welcoming behaviors.
Why do dogs experience separation anxiety?
Dogs can experience anxiety for a number of reasons; dogs that have been through shelters or recently been taken into a new home are much more likely to experience separation anxiety. The stress of being in a shelter, or taken from one home and brought into another, can cause the dog to strongly attach to their new owner for security. Dogs can also experience anxiety when changes occur within the household that are distressing to the dog, if they experience something while at home alone that is stressful, or as dogs mature and become increasingly attached to their owners. It is also more common in single-owner households.
How you can help your dog
The first thing you can do to help your dog deal with his separation anxiety is to understand that punishing your dog for any actions or behaviors that are the results of anxiety will only reinforce to the dog that he had reason to be afraid or nervous in the first place. Separation anxiety is a physiological response to fear, and working with your dog to modify his behavior should help him overcome his anxiety. Training tips to help your dog change his behavior are:
- Do not pay attention to your dog when he follows you around the house; he will learn that is not an effective way to get your attention.
- Have your dog sit and wait before you interact with him; this sets up a predictable, structured relationship and helps your dog to understand the proper way to get attention from you. Make sure you are meeting your dog’s need for social interactions- that you are spending enough time playing, walking, and exercising with your dog, so they are not feeling neglected or left out.
- Spread caring and feeding responsibilities between family members, so the dog does not get overly attached to a single individual.
- Train your dog to lie down and stay in a designated spot for relaxation, like a bed or rug, placed in a fairly busy part of the house, and accept periods of inattention while you are home. Your dog will learn to relax and be content with seeing members of the household as they go about their activities, without having to be directly involved. Reward this quiet, relaxed behavior, so he learns that this is what will attract your attention. Gradually lengthen the periods of inattention, and your dog will become increasingly independent.
- Train your dogs that the ‘departure cues’ they associate with your leaving – picking up keys, putting on coats, etc.- do not always lead to your departure. Do these things randomly, when you are not planning to leave, and your dog is relaxed and quiet. Repeat those actions 3 or 4 times a day, always when your dog is lying quietly on his bed or rug. They may respond initially to the cues with anxious behaviors, but seeing you put the items away without leaving will reduce the reaction they bring out in the dog. Eventually, your dog should disassociate those actions with your departure, and they should not invoke a reaction.
- Before your departure, provide rigorous play and exercise, so when you leave, the dog is ready to settle down.
- Keep your dog busy and distracted when leaving, preferably out of sight of the exit point, perhaps with a long-lasting treat after that lively play, to discourage panic responses. This will also help your dog to associate your leaving with something good.
- If you ultimately decide to confine your dog while you are away in a crate or kennel, you can also confine your dog to their crate when you are at home, with toys or a bone, so they learn crate time is a fun and relaxing time, not a punishment.
- When you return, if the dog is overly excited to see you, ignore your dog until they settle down. He will learn that the fastest way to get your attention is to settle down.
Remember, separation anxiety is based in fear, and consistently working with your dog to change his behavior should help your dog to overcome his anxiety. If you don’t feel your efforts are working, speak to your vet about alternative treatments to help your dog.