All Things Dog

Dealing with separation anxiety

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If you've ever come home to find that your otherwise well-behaved dog has destroyed furniture, had "accidents" on the carpet or whose howling is disturbing the neighbors while you're away, your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety is often hard to diagnose, and solving the issue can be complex. If your dog is experiencing significant behavioral change, it is best to consult with your veterinarian to rule out any medical issues. Hiring a dog behaviorist can help you develop the right plan to treat your dog. With some time and a lot of patience, your dog will have a renewed sense of confidence—and you can be confident knowing that you can leave the house without making your dog anxious.

Dogs are one of the most social creatures on earth. They just love spending time with you, whether they're playing a game with you or just curling up next to you on the couch. So when it comes time for you to go to work or leave the house for long periods of time, it can make your dog lonely or anxious.

There are a number of reasons why dogs suffer from separation anxiety:

  • Fear of abandonment. This is especially common with rescued strays and dogs that have been adopted from animal shelters.
  • A change in your dog's daily routine. Perhaps you've gone from not working or working part-time to a full-time job that keeps you away from the house for longer periods of time.
  • Moving to a new home. A big change in your dog’s environment, such as moving, can sometimes trigger symptoms of separation anxiety.

The symptoms

There's one main difference between a dog with separation anxiety and a dog with isolation distress, or even with one who is just behaving badly. Dogs with separation anxiety only act out when they are apart from their owner(s). A dog with isolation distress may benefit from daycare or a pet sitter during the transition period.

One thing is for certain, the symptoms for separation anxiety are far from subtle. As soon as your dog realizes you're about to leave the house, he may start whining. After you leave, he'll start barking, or even howling - you may not hear this for yourself, but you may end up hearing about it from your neighbors!

When you do come home, you may find that your dog has chewed your favorite shoes, soiled the floor, scratched the door or window screen, or even destroyed pieces of furniture. Most of this damage will occur shortly after you leave the house.

You may also find that your dog has become very clingy, following you around the house and never letting you out of their sight. In some extreme cases, dogs will even resort to self-mutilation, chewing excessively on their tail or paws.

Breaking the pattern

Separation anxiety is not the same as simple bad behavior and cannot be treated as such. Getting angry at your dog isn't the solution - in fact, it will create even more anxiety because your dog will associate your absence and return with punishment.

Here are a few ways you can help your dog deal with separation anxiety:

  • Review the 'sit' and 'stay' commands. First, practice the 'sit' and 'stay' commands with your dog as you move from one place to another. Reward your dog with a treat if he obeys. If he doesn't obey, try it again for a shorter time and distance. As your dog obeys, slowly increase the time and distance.
  • Alter your habits. Do you have a set routine each day before you leave the house? Perhaps you jingle your keys, put your bag or briefcase near the door or kiss your spouse and kids. Your dog picks up on these cues, and associates them with your leaving. Try to mix up your normal routine by doing your usual activities in a different order.
  • Practice leaving. Using the 'sit' and 'stay' commands you practiced with your dog earlier, do the same exercise again only, this time, go out the door and come back. Stay away for a couple of minutes at first, then increase the amount of time. You may have to take it slow for the first while. If your dog starts to get upset, go back to shorter periods of time. Repeat this exercise until your dog starts to trust that you will always return.
  • Go for a walk. Taking your dog for a long walk before you leave will give your dog a reason to look forward to your departure. It will also help make him too tired to howl or destroy your home after you leave.

Working with a professional may be the quickest and safest way to help a pet that is suffering from separation anxiety.

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