My dog has separation anxiety. What should I do?
Being alone can make dogs feel unsafe. They are pack animals by nature, and being in a group offers strength and protection. Being alone can trigger emotional issues. No dog likes being alone, but for some, it can cause major problems. Separation anxiety may develop at a young age, due to neglect or other traumatic experiences. It can also manifest later, after a particularly stressful experience, such as the owner being away on holiday for a prolonged period, a house move or a rehoming experience.
You can help prevent separation anxiety by getting your dog accustomed to being alone from an early age. Always start with just a few minutes at a time, and gradually build up to several hours. However, you should never leave your dog alone for an entire day - even dogs that don’t exhibit problematic behaviour are unhappier alone than in a group. If you regularly leave your home for prolonged periods, then arrange for a dog sitter to come and keep your four-legged friend company.
Dogs that are unaccustomed to being left alone from an early age sometimes go on to develop separation anxiety. It’s important therefore to recognise the symptoms and address the root cause of the problem.
Recognise the symptoms
Whining, barking, destroying furniture, self-harming, pacing and peeing in the home are typical symptoms of anxiety. As are your dog’s refusal to eat or drink when alone, or excessive excitement and hyperactivity upon your return. It’s important to be able to recognise these symptoms, especially if you happen to be a dog sitter! Sometimes a well-behaved dog will suddenly exhibit destructive behaviour or symptoms of stress. This can indicate separation anxiety and must be tackled as such – it’s important to note that this type of behaviour is never intended to be 'annoying'. So, whatever you do, do not punish your dog for his or her actions, and instead, be patient and reassuring.
Whilst building up alone time is important, the key to success when it comes to separation anxiety is somewhat more complicated. Dogs that suffer from severe separation anxiety tend to lack self-confidence. This might be as the result of a traumatic or stressful experience. The trick to solving separation anxiety is to, therefore, rebuild their trust. They need to feel reassured that they are living in a warm 'nest' with a 'pack' that won't simply abandon them. So, your number one priority is to provide that warm, reassuring nest. Assign your dog a quiet place of refuge in the home, somewhere you know they feel safe and relaxed. And take your dog for plenty of long walks, engage in lots of play and generally shower them with affection.
Tired and content
Make sure that your dog is both tired and content before leaving them alone. Go for a long walk interspersed with plenty of play to expend energy beforehand. Only leave your home once your dog is thoroughly calm and relaxed.
Check your own behaviour
Grabbing your keys, swapping your slippers for your shoes, dashing from one room to the next: you likely exhibit specific behavioural patterns when you’re preparing to leave your home. Your clever canine companion, therefore, thinks: Help! My pack leader is leaving! So, try performing these same actions when you’re NOT about to leave the house: grab your keys, put your coat on and then simply stay at home. If you 'disassociate' your behaviour from your dog’s separation anxiety, the panic around your leaving will diminish. Only leave the house if your dog is totally relaxed and at ease.
If your dog tends to go overboard with excitement upon your return, then greet them in a calm, yet friendly manner. Make it clear that you’re happy to see them, yet avoid encouraging the hyperactivity. Never get angry, but instead offer the reassurance that they crave.
Getting your dog accustomed to being alone
Dogs with severe separation anxiety must get used to your absences gradually. Disappear for short bursts throughout the day by going to another room and returning after a few minutes. Act like nothing’s wrong and reward your dog with a treat if they remain calm and relaxed. Keep repeating this until you actually leave your house for a short period. If your dog finds this too stressful, stop the exercise and begin the process again in a few days. Your dog must learn that being alone is nothing to be afraid of and that it’s not a punishment for any problematic behaviour. Again: it's about trust. And building a good rapport with your dog can really help.
Dog sitters can be the ideal solution for providing your dog company when you’re not at home. However, there’s a catch.
Sometimes separation anxiety doesn’t only mean that your dog cannot be left alone; in some cases he or she simply cannot bear to be parted from you, the ‘pack leader’. Your dog may, therefore, become confused if they are suddenly left with someone 'new'. If you fail to introduce your dog to your pet sitter in the right way (by gradually building up feelings of security and trust), then it can prove a traumatic experience.
Make sure that you perform an intensive intake and get your dog thoroughly acquainted with the new dog sitter. Take your dog for a long walk with the dog sitter, and subsequently explore the dog sitter’s home together. If you’ve arranged home boarding for your dog, then bring your dog's favourite basket, blanket and other cherished items to make them feel at home. And, make sure that your chosen dog sitter showers your pampered pooch with as much love and affection as you do. That way your dog will rapidly feel confident and at ease.
Note: If your dog suffers from acute separation anxiety, then it’s wise to engage the services of a dog behaviourist.