Separation anxiety in dogs is defined as dogs becoming excessively stressed and behaving inappropriately (and we will be talking about these inappropriate behaviors and how you can tell them apart from behaviors unrelated to separation anxiety in this article) when left alone and are away from their owners, even if it’s just a for a few moments.
Separation anxiety in dogs mainly happens because dogs are always used to being around and part of a pack, and are just not used to being left alone.
However, one very important fact that must be stressed on (and that many dog owners mistakenly fall for), is that there are two types of separation anxiety, true separation anxiety and stimulated separation anxiety.
In stimulated separation anxiety, your dog could be showing all the symptoms of a dog that suffers from true separation anxiety, but only because they’ve learned that whenever they perform this kind of behavior, they’ve got your attention. This kind of stimulated separation anxiety in dogs is mainly due to mistakes in how dog owners react to their dog’s behavior, and is almost always solved by good practices of positive obedience training.
However, true separation anxiety involves no kind of “faking it” from your dog and is a real problem that happens because of your dog’s instincts, and is somewhat harder to solve than stimulated separation anxiety. But, don’t worry, both cases of separation anxiety in dogs are completely fixable.
Causes Of Dog Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety in dogs can be caused by dozens and dozens of reasons, however listed below are the most common reasons that have been found to cause this state in our beloved canines:
Many times, and just like we humans grieve and are deeply (and differently) affected by the loss of a loved one, dogs can develop separation anxiety if they lose a dog or human friend they greatly cared for.
2) Wrong Owner Behavior
Many times, separation anxiety in dogs is a result of bad practices we make as dog owners.
Despite the fact that we mean well when we do so, the fact remains that we trigger such emotional responses from our dog when we ourselves show excessive love and care for our canines when we’re around them and get all wishy-washy about it and make a huge deal out of things when we have to leave them alone for a while.
And, as Fido sees, Fido does!
Another very common reason that dogs develop separation anxiety is improper socialization.
We dog owners sometimes love our puppies way too much that we become selfish and want them only for ourselves, thus we don’t have them socialize with anyone or any dog other than ourselves.
And, when your dog becomes older, what do they expect?
Yup, you guessed it, they’ll expect you to be there for them at all times, and they wouldn’t want anyone but you by there side.
Boredom and lack of enough exercise in dogs is also one of the most common reasons for the development of separation anxiety in dogs.
5) Sudden Change In Environment
A sudden change in your dog’s environment, such as a change in family and faces around them, moving to a completely new home or shelter are very common causes of separation anxiety in dogs.
6) Sudden Schedule Changes
If your dog is all of a sudden being left alone for longer periods of time then they are used to, all without a proper “warming up” phase beforehand, you can expect your dog to be shocked and develop separation anxiety.
Separation Anxiety In Dogs Symptoms
Some common symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs are:
- Excessive Affection: Your dog showing you excessive and unusual affection and attention when they see you after a certain period of time, such as after a day at work, and make you feel as if it’s been ages since they last saw you.
- No Space: Your dog keeps following you around wherever you go, showing you that they never want to leave your side.
- Behavioral Problems: When you’re not around them, your dog goes crazy and starts howling, whining, crying, barking, digging, panting, licking, refusing to eat, destroying items, and scratching and chewing away at everything that comes to sight.
- Bladder And Bowel Problems: Many times, dogs that suffer from separation anxiety start to excessively urinate and defecate.
- Coprophagia: Some dogs pass stool and eat some or all of it when left alone. If your dog truly suffers from separation anxiety and isn’t just doing this to get your attention, they will only perform this action when left alone and not alongside you.
- Attempting Escape: If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, they might desperately try to escape from the room or crate they are in, or even from the house, which can become extremely dangerous if you live in an an apartment and your dog tries to jump through a window. If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, this behavior only occurs when your dog is by themselves, and not when they’re with you.
- Signs Before You Leave: Dogs which suffer from separation anxiety will often become agitated, depressed or anxious when you’re preparing to leave them for a while, and may even try to stop you from leaving.
Wrong Ways People Try To Treat Separation Anxiety In Dogs With
Before we get into the details about how to properly solve separation anxiety in dogs, let’s first talk about the WRONG ways people go about treating this disorder:
- Punishment: If you physically punish your dog after you come home and see that they have done a complete mess or scream at your dog and tell them to get lost when they won’t leave your side, that will do no good to the situation, will make your dog very afraid of you, will ruin your relationship with them and will only lead to worsening their separation anxiety problem.
- Dog Friend: Now, this is not necessarily a completely wrong approach per se, it’s just a hit-or-miss. In some cases, dogs that suffer from separation anxiety see great improvement when a second dog is introduced into the household. In other cases, the introduction of another dog into the household makes absolutely no difference at all, due to the fact that your dog becomes anxious when separated from YOU and YOU only, and the only thing that will solve this is YOUR presence, not that of another dog. And, sometimes the introduction of a second dog just makes everything worse, simply because the dog that suffers from separation anxiety will affect the new dog with their behavioral problems, and the new dog will play a simple game of monkey-see-monkey-do, which will now leave you with two problematic cases instead of just one. So, given that this is a grey, risky area to experiment in, you’re better off trying to solve your dog’s separation anxiety problem with one of the many other time-tested methods out there.
- Crate Use: Some dog owners, and out of despair, will resort to putting their dog in a crate, thinking that they can solve the problem this way. However, this will solve nothing and will only aggravate the situation. Your dog will still exhibit all the behavioral problems mentioned above, except that this time they will be doing them from inside a tightly-spaced crate that they will do all they can to get out of.
- Positive Training: Just like we talked about in the first section of this article, the only type of separation anxiety in dogs that can be solved by positive obedience training is simulated separation anxiety, and not true separation anxiety. True separation anxiety isn’t a result of poor training in dogs, and hence that won’t make any difference.
How To Treat Dogs With Separation Anxiety
Now that we’ve covered the WRONG ways to go about solving your dog’s separation anxiety problem, let’s talk about the RIGHT ways to do it.
1) Professional Help
Probably the best way to solve your dog’s separation anxiety problem is to have them receive professional help.
A dog trainer or behaviorist that knows exactly what they’re doing and has experience solving this problem in other dogs is the best option you could go with.
Medication is available out there for dogs that suffer from separation anxiety, however this isn’t the route you want to go with ideally.
It’s simply a “quick fix” for your dog’s situation and doesn’t solve the deep cause of the separation anxiety.
This means that as soon as the medication is cut off from your dog, they’ll get back to suffering from this problem.
Before giving your dog any sort of medication to help them with their separation anxiety, always consult with your veterinarian first.
An ideal scenario is one where you give your dog medication they need for separation anxiety as well as proper behavior modification (by a professional animal behaviorist who knows what they’re doing) to go along with it. This will make the behavioral modification process a whole lot faster and easier, and will make sure that your dog doesn’t relapse as soon as they get off the medication, because they’ve actually learned how to deal with issues for themselves now.
3) Positive Reinforcement Training
Ever since your dog is still a puppy, you have to properly train them on a few things.
The biggest mistake dog owners do when their tiny puppies are crying when left alone is they go and show them all the love, care and attention in the world, and this is plain out BAD.
This way, you’ll only be telling your dog “hey, every time you cry your lungs out when I leave you alone for some time, you’ve got all my attention and you can bet that I’ll be there for you!”.
This is why it’s essential that we refrain from rewarding our dogs when they cry/whine when they are left alone, and reward them if they act like good boys/girls and don’t make a big deal out of it.
4) Exploring The World
Ever since your dog is a little puppy, don’t let all their world be centered around you.
Let them explore the world for themselves!
When you’re home, let your dog roam free in your backyard and play with their toys and games, don’t let the only form of interaction they get be with you.
When you’re out with your dog in the park, let them explore the world and have fun with other dogs in the park and make friends, don’t let all the walk be about you two only.
5) Crate Training
Start crate training your dog as early as possible in their life, because the earlier you do this the easier it is to achieve, and the less the chances of them developing separation anxiety when put in a crate.
When crate training your dog, one of the most important things you must do right is making your dog feel that the crate is a safe place they can be in, and not somewhere they are locked in that they should try to get out of.
6) Work On Your Exit Routine
Whenever you want to leave your dog, try to do so as quietly and secretly as possible, and without telling your dog any overly-emotional goodbyes.
It’s better if you don’t even say anything and just go about your way.
Then, when you come back home, don’t give your dog any overly-emotional hello’s either, just come back like the normal, usual and calm self you are
This way you’ll be making it loud and clear for your dog that it’s no big deal if you two are apart for some time.
And, don’t worry, you won’t upset your dog if you don’t say goodbye, they couldn’t care less about it (unless you’ve spoiled them to the degree that they now expect it from you each and every time you leave them).
When preparing to leave your dog, if you notice one specific action gets them stressed out, anxious or depressed about you leaving (such as the sound of you picking up your keys, opening a door or getting dressed and all ready), then you can greatly benefit your dog with positive reinforcement techniques that teach them to accept these events by means of rewards.
In some dogs, leaving the TV, radio or music player on for means of background sound can help them overcome separation anxiety and feel like they’re not all alone.
8) Get Them Used To You Not Being There
What better way to treat separation anxiety in dogs than to get your dog slowly and gradually used to you not being there around?
Start off by leaving your dog alone for a very short period of time, say 5 minutes, then gradually work your way up to more and more time as they progress.
You’ll notice that it might take a while to get there, but eventually your dog will be able to normally sustain long periods of time (such as 8-9 hours at a time) without you by there side. Talk about progress!
9) Counter-conditioning & Desensitizing
Counter-conditioning your dog is the process where you change your dog’s aggressive, anxious or stressful reaction to an event to a relaxes and pleasant reaction instead.
The theory is really simple and has nothing too complex to it. All you have to do is change your dog’s anticipation to a certain situation (where they anticipate something bad will happen) to them anticipating something good instead.
In the case of dogs that suffer from separation anxiety, you have to counter-condition your dog so they start anticipating good things (such as a reward) with you not being around at certain times, which will ultimately serve to reduce their anxiety.
The more serious your dog’s case of separation anxiety is, the more gradual you have to move with this system and the slower you have to take it, all so your dog doesn’t get rushed too fast and get stressed out.
You must also make sure that when desensitizing your dog to whatever stimulates their anxiety, you subject it to them in small, gradually increasing bouts as you go. The last thing you want to do is to give your dog the full blown stimulus, because that will do nothing but get them very stressed out and they won’t be able to learn anything.
10) Exercise And Activities
The more physical activities and exercise you give your dog, and the more mental stimulation you have them engaged in, the less chances they have of getting affected by separation anxiety.
Physical and mental exercise is also a great way to help treat dogs which suffer from separation anxiety.
A physically tired and mentally stimulated dog will just not have enough energy to cause problems, or even care about, when they’re left all alone by themselves.
They’ll just want to get some peaceful rest! 🙂
As a general rule, giving your dog around 30 minutes of exercise (gradually work your way up to 45-60 minutes to reap all the benefits exercise has to offer your dog) a day is an excellent guideline to follow.
If your dog already suffers from separation anxiety, giving them a good session of exercise right before you leave them by themselves is an excellent idea to help ease the situation.