Understanding Separation Anxiety in Your Dog
Troublesome behaviour doesn't always indicate separation anxiety but when it does, it is important to take steps to help your dog overcome their stress. Therefore, you need to use behavioural clues to establish whether or not your dog is anxious. Once you are sure, there are a number of things you can do to help combat it.
How to spot separation anxiety
A dog who isn't showing any symptoms of anxiety will be calm when you leave the house. They may fall asleep or play happily with toys. Inactive anxiety is hard to spot because there will be no visible signs of stress when you return home. Whilst you are out the dog will remain still but vigilant. They might have ears flat to their head, drool excessively, tuck their tail under their tummy and lick their lips repeatedly whilst panting and trembling. To detect this type of fear it may be prudent to set up a camera on a tripod or shelf so that you can become aware and take action.
A more active sign of stress that a camera would pick up but you may not when absent, manifests itself in a dog running between rooms and looking out of windows for you to return. The most obvious symptoms of stress are hard to miss and include the following:
- Barking and howling, triggered by the guardian leaving.
- Urinating and defecating when alone.
- Destroying furniture and chewing shoes and carpets - this can cause self-injury like broken teeth, cuts and damaged claws.
- Digging to try and escape - this can also result in injury.
Some of these behaviours can be caused by poor or incomplete house training, the key is usually that the animal is displaying these signs only when the guardian has left the house. Dogs are deeply attached to their owners and their absence can cause real stress.
Dogs may even start to show symptoms of anxiety before their guardian has left home. They may have distinguished between the trappings of work and trappings of home. Whilst wellies may trigger delight at the prospect of a walk, work shoes can bring on stress. As soon as an anxious dog realises you are leaving without them they may begin following you around, attention seeking or even attempting to block the door.
Why do dogs develop separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a common problem for dog owners. It is seen more regularly in dogs who have been adopted from shelters rather than dogs who have been in the same family since they were puppies. Adopted dogs have experienced the loss of an important person and this can trigger anxiety going forward.
Other reasons may include:
- Change of owner - this could be a result of abandonment, being given to a shelter or given away to a new family.
- Change of schedule - this may be caused by a change of jobs that requires a former home worker to be out of the house for long periods.
- House move - this can be unsettling for a dog.
- Changes within the family - perhaps caused by a death or someone moving away.
- Medical condition - such as urinary tract infection, old age, bladder stone, kidney disease, diabetes or a neurological condition.
How to treat separation anxiety
An adult dog may be anxious because they were never taught to settle on their own as a pup. The most common treatment involves retraining the brain to understand that being alone isn't frightening and can be rewarding. This is called counter conditioning.
A common way to do this involves giving the dog a food toy filled with a tempting treat that will take 20 or 30 minutes to finish. Give this to the dog in a safe place such as their bed. Move a little way away and don't actively engage with their activity. Repeat this process a number of times moving further away on each occasion so that the dog doesn't react to your movement. If at any time the dog panics and tries to follow you, the process has to begin again.
The dog should never get to the point of full-blown anxiety, this is a low-intensity task that doesn't frighten him otherwise he won't understand that he can be calm and comfortable in his safe place in situations that would usually worry him, such as you leaving the house.
For dogs who get anxious at the first sign of you getting ready to leave the house, it may help to wear outdoor clothes inside for periods of time. It might seem funny to watch TV in your coat but this can work to desensitise your dog.
It's important to remember that telling your dog off or getting angry won't work to stop the undesirable behaviour. The dog won't associate the reprimand with behaviour of several hours ago and will be made further anxious and confused by your unexpected response to him. Empathy and understanding of the anxiety is the best way to find a resolution.
If you have any concerns that the behaviour is being caused by a medical condition then it is always best to speak to your vet. It is possible to prescribe anti-anxiety medication and that may be necessary for your dog. However, there are other options that you may want to try first.
- If possible take your dog to work so that they aren't left alone.
- Ask friends or family to stay with the dog.
- Employ a dog sitter or doggy daycare.
- Try using behavioural products such as adaptil.
You could also try using activities to boost your dog's mental well-being by:
- Walk, swim or run.
- Play interactive games such as tug of war or fetch.
- Take your dog to different places to experience unusual scents.
- Find dog walking buddies to stimulate your pet further.
- Puzzling food toys.
- Food hunts around the house.
- Training classes.
Knowing the signs and methods for treating separation anxiety should mean you’re well-equipped to cope should your pet begin to suffer – but if in doubt, always seek advice from your vet.