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Dealing with Separation Anxiety in Dogs

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If your dog exhibits destructive behaviors whenever he’s left home alone, it’s possible that it’s not just an issue of bad manners—especially if he’s house trained and generally knows which toys he’s allowed to chew on. If your pup turns your house into a scene of total chaos when you’re gone, this may be an indicator that he’s acting out due to separation anxiety. 

What is Separation Anxiety? 

Separation anxiety is more than just mischievous behavior due to boredom or a need for attention. Instead, separation anxiety is the result of your pooch feeling legitimately stressed out due to being left alone; many dogs with separation anxiety act as though they are absolutely terrified to be without their owner for any period of time. According to Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Patricia McConnel, separation anxiety can be considered to be the equivalent of a panic attack. 

Separation anxiety generally affects puppies, but it can develop in dogs of any age. Fortunately, there are steps any loving pet owner can take to help put their canine’s mind at ease… because unfortunately, it’s just not feasible to spend 100% of our time with our furry friends, no matter how much we may want to!

Causes of Separation Anxiety 

Causes of separation anxiety vary from dog to dog. Some are simply more prone to mental health issues than others, while others may have experienced a traumatic event which contributes to their fear of being left alone. Commonly associated factors leading to separation anxiety include:

  • A change in owner. A previous traumatic separation such as being surrendered, abandoned, or re-homed can cause a pooch to develop a fear of abandonment.

  • A change in household members. This could include the death of a family member, or someone moving out of the house.

  • A drastic schedule change. If you begin leaving for work every day when you used to work from home, your dog may have a tough time adjusting to the new routine and increased alone time.

  • Moving. A change in environment may cause your canine to rely on you extra heavily for a sense of stability and consistency.

  • Personality. Some dogs are naturally more independent than others, which means that some dogs may just have a natural tendency for clinginess.

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety 

Not all dogs exhibit the same symptoms of separation anxiety, but common signs to look out for include:

  • Appearing anxious, agitated, or depressed whenever you are preparing to leave the house. This could take the form of pacing, whining, trembling, drooling, or even excessive panting.

  • Consistent barking shortly after being left alone. If you can hear your pup from your driveway, there’s a chance his barking is going to continue for a while.

  • Bathroom issues. If your pooch is potty trained and doesn’t generally have problems with urinating or defecating indoors when you’re home, this is likely a symptom of separation anxiety.

  • Chewing, digging, and destruction. Similar to bathroom issues, this is a sign of separation anxiety if it only occurs when you’re not around.

  • Escape attempts. A dog with separation anxiety may try to escape from the house/area where he is confined when left alone. This can often be evidenced by signs of chewing or scratching around doors and windows.

  • Acting TOO excited to see you when you come home. We love a happy reunion between pet and owner, but it could be a cause for concern if your pooch acts as if you’ve been gone for days when you’ve really only been out for, say, an hour. 

Before you self-diagnose your pup with separation anxiety, be sure to rule out health issues such as incontinence due to a medical problem, or negative side effects of a medication; behavioral issues should also be ruled out such as a lack of proper training, boredom, or stress from causes other than separation anxiety. It never hurts to consult your vet for an expert opinion.

What To Do About Separation Anxiety

Because there’s not just one cause for separation anxiety, there’s not just one solution. Essentially, it’s important to help your dog learn to enjoy (or at least tolerate) being alone, and work to establish a sense of trust so your dog knows you’re going to come back after that trip to the grocery store. Some helpful courses of action include: 

  • Crate training. While some pet owners may think of crate training as cruel confinement, it’s actually the opposite. When done correctly, crate training can help your canine to establish a safe space that he can retreat to whenever he’s feeling stressed.

  • Desensitization. Teach your pup to form positive associations with experiences that he may otherwise find less than ideal. For example, condition him to welcome alone time by giving him a treat or toy limited to times when you’re gone. You can also try desensitizing him to your “getting ready to leave” routine by picking up your keys or putting on your shoes, but then doing something at home such as making dinner or watching TV.

  • Encourage independence. Don’t be overly emotional when leaving or coming home, because this will only encourage your dog to do the same. Spend some time training your dog commands such as “stay” when you go into another room, and gradually increase the length of time that you’re out of sight until he’s more comfortable being alone.

  • Establish a routine. Help your pup understand that even if there are times when he’s left alone, he’ll still be sure to get his quality time with his favorite person. Be sure to incorporate plenty of exercise (mental and physical!), since a happy, busy, tired dog is less likely to be stressed out when left alone—especially if his social needs are met through plenty of playing and training.

  • Incorporate medications and/or natural supplements. Depending on the severity of your dog’s separation anxiety, your vet may recommend anxiety medications. Otherwise, consider natural calming supplements, such as Pet Honesty’s Premium Hemp Calming Chews

Never punish your dog for his anxiety-induced behavior—this will only make the situation worse. Additionally, do not try to resolve bad habits related to separation anxiety with obedience training. If the issue doesn’t stem from disobedience, then obedience training isn’t the answer.

For more severe cases of separation anxiety, it may be worth investing in a professional behavior specialist.