Understanding Separation Anxiety

Everyone needs a little alone time now and then – unless you are a dog who suffers from separation anxiety. Dogs with separation anxiety exhibit behavioural problems when they are left alone. They usually exhibit a dramatic anxiety response within a short time (20-45 minutes) after their owners leave them.

Typical anxiety responses include:

  • Digging, chewing, and scratching at doors or windows in an attempt to escape and reunite with their owners.
  • Howling, barking, and crying in an attempt to get their owner to return.
  • Urination and defecation (even with housetrained dogs) as a result of distress.

Why Do Dogs Suffer from Separation Anxiety?

We don’t really know why some dogs suffer from separation anxiety and others do not. It is important to know that when a dog is destructive or house soils because of separation anxiety; it is not the dog’s attempt to punish or seek revenge on his owner for leaving him alone. These responses are part of a panic response.

Separation anxiety can occur:

  • When a dog is accustomed to constant human companionship and is suddenly left alone for the first time.
  • Following a long interval, such as a vacation, when the owner and dog are constantly together.
  • After a traumatic event (from the dog’s point of view), such as a period of time spent at a shelter or boarding kennel.
  • After a change in family routine or structure (such as a child leaving for university, a change in work schedule, a move to a new home or a new pet or person).

What to Do If Your Dog has Separation Anxiety?

For minor separation anxiety, the following techniques may be helpful by themselves. For more severe problems, these techniques should be used in combination with the desensitization process in the next section.

  • Keep arrivals and departures low-key. For example, when you arrive home, ignore your dog for the first few minutes, then calmly pet him. This may be hard for you to do, but it is important!
  • Leave your dog with an article of clothing that smells like you, such as an old t-shirt that you have slept in recently.
  • Establish a “safety cue” – a word or action that you use every time you leave that tells your dog you’ll be back. Dogs usually learn to associate certain cues with short absences by their owners. For example, when you take out the garbage, your dog knows you come right back and does not become anxious. Therefore, it is helpful to associate a safety cue with your short-duration absences.

Some examples of safety cues are playing a radio, playing a television, or a toy (one that doesn’t have dangerous fillings and cannot be torn into pieces). Use your safety cue during practice sessions with your dog. Be sure to avoid presenting your dog with the safety cue when you leave for a period of time longer than he can tolerate, otherwise the association will be lost.

Desensitization Techniques for More Severe Cases of Separation Anxiety

The usual treatment for more severe cases of separation anxiety is a systematic process of getting your dog used to being alone. You have to teach your dog to remain calm during “practice” departures and short absences. Try using the following steps:

  • Start by engaging in normal departure activities (getting your keys, putting on your coat), then sit back down. Repeat this step until your dog shows no distress in response to your activities.
  • Next, engage in your normal departure activities and go to the door and open it, then sit back down.
  • Next, step outside the door, leaving the door open and then return.
  • Finally, step outside, close the door and then immediately return. Slowly get your dog accustomed to being along with the door closed between you for several seconds.
  • Proceed very gradually from step to step, repeating each step until your dog shows no signs of distress. The number of repetitions will vary depending on the severity of the problem. If at any time in this process your actions produce an anxiety response in your dog, you have proceeded too quickly. Return to an earlier step in the process and practice this step until the dog shows no distress response, then proceed to the next step.
  • Once your dog tolerates you being on the other side of the door for several seconds, begin short-duration absences. This step involves giving your dog a verbal cue (for example, “I’ll be back”), leaving and then returning within a minute. Your return must be low-key. Either ignore your dog or greet him quietly and calmly. If he shows signs of distress, repeat the exercise. If he appears anxious, wait until he relaxes to repeat the exercise. Gradually increase the length of time you are gone.
  • Practice as many absences as possible that last less than ten minutes. You can do many departures within one session if your dog relaxes sufficiently between departures. You should also scatter practice departures and short-duration absences throughout the day.
  • Once your dog can handle short absences (30 to 90 minutes), he will usually be able to handle longer intervals alone and you will not have to repeat this process every time you are planning a longer absence. The hard part is at the beginning, but the job gets easier as you go along. Nevertheless, you must go slowly at first. How long it takes to condition your dog to being alone depends on the severity of the problem.

Teaching the Sit-Stay and Down-Stay

Another technique for reducing separation anxiety in your dog is practicing the common “sit-stay” or “down-stay” training exercises of positive reinforcement. The goal of this practice is to move out of your dog’s line of sight while he “stays.” This teaches him that he can stay in one spot calmly and happily while you go to another spot in the house.

Gradually increase the distance you move away from your dog during normal daily activities. For example, if you are watching television with your dog by your side and get up for a snack, tell your dog to stay and leave the room. When you return, give him a treat or praise him quietly. Never punish your dog during a training session.

In the Meantime…

Because these treatments can take time and because a dog with separation anxiety can cause significant harm to himself and/or your home in the interim, you may want to consider some other options:

  • Talk to your veterinarian about drug therapy. A good anti-anxiety drug shouldn’t sedate your dog, but reduce anxiety while you’re gone. Medication should be a temporary measure only and must be used in combination with behaviour modification.
  • Take your dog to a dog day care facility or boarding kennel.
  • Leave your dog with a friend, family member or neighbour.
  • Take your dog to work with you–even for a half day, if possible.

What Will Not Help a Separation Anxiety Problem

  • Punishing your dog. Punishment is not an effective way to treat separation anxiety and may in fact increase his separation anxiety if you punish him when you return home.
  • Getting another pet as a companion for your dog. This will not help the anxiety your dog is feeling. It is a result of separation from you, his person, not because he’s lonely.
  • Crating your dog. He will still engage in anxiety responses within the crate and he may urinate, defecate, howl or injure himself in an attempt to escape from the crate.
  • Leaving the radio on (unless the radio is used as a ‘safety cue’ as described above).
  • Training your dog. While formal training is always a good idea, it will not directly help with separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is not a result of disobedience or lack of training. It is a panic response.