Does your dog exhibit strange or destructive behaviors when you’re about to leave and while you’re gone? Do they wildly bark, pant, pace, salivate, urinate, defecate, or aggressively scratch or chew on things like window and door frames, often injuring themselves in the process? If so, you could be dealing with separation anxiety, but you’re not alone.
Dogs are incredibly social animals, so it’s not surprising that many don’t want to be left alone or be away from their mother or pack leader (i.e., you).
However, there isn’t one specific cause for separation anxiety, though it could be triggered by previous abandonment, moving, adding or losing family members, or even just a change in their typical daily schedule.
Before you get into the process of trying to overcome separation anxiety, you need to rule out other common problems with overlapping symptoms like medical issues, improper training, not being properly housebroken, boredom, and typical adolescent chewing behaviors. If you’re sure that separation anxiety is the root issue, then begin by counter conditioning, which is helping them associate something positive with their fear, like food, toys, or something mentally stimulating that is given when you’re leaving. For more severe cases, you’ll have to combine counter conditioning with desensitization, where you’ll separate yourself from them in a calm, controlled environment, like through a door to start, for just a few seconds, and then minutes at a time, and very slowly increase for weeks or even months until your dog no longer experiences extreme distress in your absence.
You’ll also want to let them see you perform the behaviors normally associated with leaving like grabbing keys or putting on shoes at multiple points throughout the day without you actually leaving. When you do leave or come back home, keep your hello and goodbye short and calm. This process is long, complex, and must be implemented delicately, so you may want to elicit professional help from a behaviorist or experienced trainer to ensure you don’t rush the process.
Medications exist to treat anxiety in dogs, though they will likely not have enough of a calming effect without also working on the psychological triggers. You may want to experiment with crate training, as dogs can see it as a safe place, but they could also have an intense adverse reaction to the sensation of being “trapped,” so proceed with caution here.
One thing that always works to help dogs overcome their more intense distress is to make sure that you’re keeping them mentally and physically stimulated whenever you can.
Play, go on walks, create a puzzle with hidden treats for them to find, and generally keep them as engaged as possible.
If you don’t have the flexibility to completely stay home while retraining your dog, consider keeping them in a more social situation like with a relative, dog sitter, or in doggy daycamp, as separation anxiety is also relieved when dogs are kept distracted and stimulated.
And most importantly, don’t punish them! These behaviors can absolutely be frustrating, and the solution may not be that easy, but the payoff of making sure your best friend is happy and relaxed is well worth the effort.
Contact us if you’re looking for help with keeping your dog trained or socialized while you’re away.