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How to fix separation anxiety in dogs

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Does your dog get nervous when you leave the house? Has he destroyed shoes, cushions and clothes? These are all signs of separation anxiety in dogs.

By Daniel Mar

Separation anxiety in dogs occurs when a dog is not able to cope with being left alone in the house or even just being separated from his owner.

This is not just a little ‘attitude’ towards the fact that you leave him alone. Separation anxiety is a serious behaviour problem. That is why it is very important to learn how to help a dog with separation anxiety.

Signs of separation anxiety in dogs

If your pet has separation anxiety, he will display the following symptoms of anxiety:

  1. Barking
  2. Whining
  3. Inappropriate toileting behaviour
  4. Chewing clothes, shoes or furniture
  5. Digging holes
  6. Scratching at windows and doors
  7. Excessive panting and drooling
  8. Pacing in an obsessive pattern
  9. Attempting to escape

Causes of separation anxiety in dogs

Once you know how to recognise the signs of anxiety in dogs, you must then try to understand what is causing it. 

An important thing to remember is that dogs are pack animals: they are social and being alone is not natural for them. But in today's society, most family members work or go to school full-time , and dogs have no choice but to adapt. So don't be too hard on your pooch! Learning to be alone will take time!

It’s also important to remember that often, dog separation anxiety is unknowingly encouraged by dog owners themselves. Think about it: do you usually make a big fuss when you come back home to your pooch? This might actually give your dog the impression that your absence was a big deal - and because of this, he may start to worry more every time you leave!

However, this problem usually develops in puppyhood when you like to spend as much time as possible with your puppy. At the beginning, you want to be with your pup every step of the way: you are his source of confidence, security, and stability. But what happens when you have to go back to work? Your pup goes from having you around all the time, to not having you there at all. That’s a very big change to his routine! That’s why ideally, it’s best to start teaching your dog how to be alone as soon as possible.

Nonetheless, there are other factors that contribute to this disease like stress, boredom and lack of exercise. Consistency in your pet’s routine is also an important factor when dealing with separation anxiety! You need to make sure that your dog has enough confidence in himself and in your care. Only then will he be ready to face situations such as being left alone, because he knows that you will eventually come home.

How to treat separation anxiety in dogs

Sometimes, vets may prescribe drugs to calm your dog while he is left alone. While in some extreme cases, dogs might need to take medication for the rest of their lives, medical treatment is rarely sufficient alone. It is always necessary to accompany it with a behavioural modification program, which will help change how your dog perceives being left alone.

Here are a few top tips to help combat separation anxiety:

1. Exercise your dog before you leave the house

A dog that is tired will have less energy to wreak havoc in your home while you are gone, and will want to rest instead! The goal is not to exhaust your pet, but to make sure he is as comfortable as possible before you leave. Depending on the breed of dog you own, exercise needs will be different. If you’re the proud owner of a Border Collie for instance, you may have to get up very early before leaving for work!

2. Give your dog something to keep him occupied

You could, for instance, stuff a Kong and give it to your pet to play with while you are gone. This will keep his mind busy for at least the first 20 minutes of your departure. It also has the added benefit of associating something good to your departure, therefore helping your dog actually look forward to you leaving!

3. Don’t make a fuss

Don’t kiss your dog goodbye before you leave and don’t make a huge fuss when you return to the house. Instead, just ignore your dog. If he jumps on you when you come back into the house, just turn your back on him and walk away. Start giving him attention only once he has settled down. This will teach him that he is only rewarded with your attention when he is calm.

4. Desensitize your dog to your departure

Dogs with serious cases of separation anxiety will start feeling stressed the moment you start getting ready to leave the house. To reduce your dog’s stress, you need to show him that these cues don’t necessarily mean that you’re leaving. Pick up your keys, then go sit on the sofa and start watching TV. Put on your coat and start cleaning the house. Open the front door, then close it again. Make these cues as unimportant as possible, until your dog hardly reacts to them at all anymore.

5. Gradually increase time alone

You should start by separating yourself from your dog in the house, with the use of a baby gate or a door, for instance. This teaches your dog independance without leaving him alone completely. Then, start leaving your home for just a few seconds. Don’t come back in if your dog is crying or barking, only come back in when he has been silent (remember, you only reward good behaviour)! Gradually increase the length of time you are gone from a few seconds, to a few minutes, and eventually, a few hours. Increase the amount of time you are gone based on your dog’s comfort. Don’t rush through the steps, this will only make the process more difficult.

The importance of training when fighting separation anxiety in dogs

Many vets believe that the true cure for separation anxiety is consistency. Establishing a routine enables your dog to know what to expect, therefore reducing stress and anxiety. Moreover, this will help him understand that his good behaviour needs to become a habit.
This takes time. You can’t try a routine once and expect your dog to follow it perfectly for the rest of his life! Remember that repetition is the mother of knowledge!

Final thoughts

If you are working full-time, it may be worth contacting a pet-sitter to come walk your dog midday or finding a reputable doggy daycare to watch your pet while you are away. Some owners also consider adopting another pet to keep theirs company. All of these are good ideas, however, you need to make sure they are well suited to your pet's personality - the end goal is to reduce their anxiety, not to add to it!

If you’ve tried everything and your pet still struggles with separation anxiety, you may need to consult a professional. Ask your vet about a referral to a trusted animal behaviourist.