What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a condition in dogs where emotionally and physiologically, the dog becomes panic stricken when he’s apart from his owner or people in general. Typically it manifests itself when a dog is left home alone.
- Behaviors that occur when a dog is suffering from separation anxiety:
- Urination (a normally housebroken dog will soil within minutes of being left alone)
- Self-mutilation (licking his/her own paws excessively till the fur is gone and the skin is raw)
- Destroying objects (pillows, shoes, door trim, trying to eat the door)
- Barking or howling
Some physiological signs include:
- Sweaty paws
- Glazed eyes
- Excessive pacing
Why does it develop?
There are many reasons why a dog may develop separation anxiety. It has been observed that puppies that are transported by air cargo during puppyhood (specifically, around 8-11 weeks) have a higher likelihood of developing separation anxiety. It also develops when a dog never has the opportunity to practice being alone, especially when growing up as a puppy (for example, an owner who takes time off from work and is with the puppy 24/7 for weeks at a time). Major lifestyle changes such as a work-from-home person suddenly having to go to an office 9-5, or moving to a new home can also cause separation anxiety to appear later in life.
Regardless of the reason, it is a major reason why dogs end up in shelter (Dogs can bark and howl loudly – if they have separation anxiety, the owners get eviction notices).
Don’t confuse Separation Anxiety for Boredom
A dog that chews your shoes when you’re gone may just be bored and wanted to chew your shoe. Similarly, a dog that soils in the house when left alone may just not be housebroken – or you left them at home for longer than their bladder could handle. Look for sweaty paw prints, drool puddles, glazed eyes, etc. as signs that it is separation anxiety and not a general training issue. Recording your dog with a camera when you’re gone is a good way to tell.
Managing Separation Anxiety
Solving separation anxiety, after its developed, may take months or years. So you’ll need management strategies while you implement treatment strategies. Here are a few:
- Confine the dog to a small room, leaving only chew toys and dog items in the room (kongs stuffed with food, hard, safe chew toys, etc.) This way he can’t eat your shoes or destuff a pillow. He may ignore the kongs when you’re gone (too panicked to touch them) but that will change over time.
- Crate train your dog and create him when left alone – leave toys/chews inside. Again, this is about minimizing damage to the house and the dog when you’re gone.
- Leave the dog with a friend when you’re gone.
- Leave the dog at dog daycare if you need to be away for long durations.
- Have a dogwalker come mid-day to give him a break – have the dogwalker return the dog to the crate or room and resupply with new kongs.
- Use “natural” anti-anxiety products like Rescue Remedy in his water
- Try a product like a Thundershirt
- Consider using a DAP Diffuser in the small room (pheromones for calming anxious dogs)
- Consider prescription anxiety drugs from your vet as a short term solution (to lower the anxiety to a level that treatment strategies become effective) – discuss this with your vet. In the case of severe separation anxiety, this may be the only way to start making inroads in addressing the problem.
Treating Separation Anxiety
- Exercise the dog before departure (30-40 minutes, offleash, running – playing fetch, etc.) and then give them some time to rest and recover.
- Leave home from different doors, wear different coats and shoes, don’t always get your wallet and keys in the same order – mix it up – sometimes put your coat on and go sit in the living room. You’re trying to randomize the predictors of departure so that anxiety doesn’t build up as you get ready to leave.
- Feed your dog when you leave (i.e. give breakfast in a food dispensing toy such as a Kong Wobbler when you leave for work, and dinner when you go out for the night)
- Leave stuffed kongs and other food toys in the crate or room your dog is left in.
- Most importantly – practice PLANNED DEPARTURES
What is a Planned Departure?
A planned departure is leaving your home for a set amount of time strictly for the purposes of desensitizing your dog to being left alone. If you pack up and leave, you may find your dog is silent for 1 minute at first, then the barking or urination starts at 1:01. If that’s his threshold, you leave for 55 seconds, and then return. Repeat at 56 seconds, then 57, and slowly move your way up. Doing as many as you can sporadically through the day is the best way to do this.
Over days and weeks you’ll move from increments of seconds to minutes – over time your dog will be able to tolerate being alone and loose for longer and longer periods. Once you get up to about the 10 minute mark, it’s easy to integrate this practice to your daily life – 10 minutes is enough time to go to the corner store to pick up milk, or walk to the video store to return a movie, go to the bank ATM, etc. The more reasons to leave and come back the better.
After weeks and months of work, you’ll break the 60 minute mark – at that point you’ll be able to leave your dog alone to go to the gym, eat at a neighbourhood restaurant, etc. By that time your dog should be OK to be alone for 3+ hours at a time.
Just make sure the dog is well exercised, has been opportunities to relieve himself, and you’ve left lots of chew toys and stuffed kongs (and hidden your prized pair of shoes or other at risk objects) to set your dog up for success.
Use webcams and audio recording software to help you collect useful data about whether your dog’s anxiety is getting better over time.
It is important as you work up on your departure durations to avoid leaving the dog home alone for longer than they can handle. This may mean heavy reliance on dog daycares, friends, family, and a severe impact on your social life in the short-term.
Here’s a video of a beagle that suffers from Separation Anxiety. Notice that the dog ignores food that is left behind – he is too stressed to eat – a sign that he suffers from moderate to severe separation anxiety (mildly anxious dogs will still eat when left alone).
Further resources to help: