One of the most common complaints when owning a dog is that the dog can become destructive when left alone. In young dogs, this may just be disobedient behavior they will eventually learn to control. Sometimes, this is even the case for older dogs with a lack of training. However, if these behaviors are extreme and specifically occur before you leave and while you are gone, your dog most likely has separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is anxiety that is induced by the fear of being apart from their owners. Dogs typically feel most connected to their owners. Their owners provide them with food, attention, and love. When an owner is about to leave, dogs are unable to note that the owner will return and begin to become agitated and anxious. This leads to the end result which is displaying the destructive behavior. Trying to escape is usually a symptom and can easily destroy your property or result in injury the dog accidently afflicts on themselves. Therefore, finding options to help your dog cope better with the anxiety that they are facing is extremely important.
- Urinating and defecating – One of the most common symptoms of separation anxiety is going to the bathroom in the house when the owner is about to leave or has left. However, if your dog does this even when you are home and not about to leave, this is probably not an issue of separation anxiety and more of a training issue.
- Barking or howling – Barking and howling is something dogs do often for multiple reasons. However, for this to be considered a symptom of separation anxiety, it must be persistent and only seem to occur because the dog is alone.
- Pacing– Dogs often pace to calm their nerves or release pent up energy or frustration. Some dogs walk back and forth, usually on the same path. Other dogs walk in circles. Again, to be considered a symptom, this behavior can only occur when the owner is not present.
- Chewing/digging/destroying – Many dogs with separation anxiety develop destructive habits such as chewing and destroying items in the house. This can be anything from household objects to doorways and window sills. Like pacing, this behavior is a sign of pent up frustration and nerves. It can also be a sign of the dog attempting to escape. This behavior can lead to harm to the property and the dog, and is one of the more serious symptoms of separation anxiety.
- Coprophagia – Some dogs with separation anxiety tend to develop this nasty habit. After defecating, some dogs will choose to eat and consume their own excrement. If done in the presence of the owner often, there may be another issue at work. However, if the dog often does this before the owner leaves or while they are away, it is typically seen as a symptom.
- Family/owner change – Most of the time, the dogs who develop this disorder were previously in a shelter and adopted. If the dog was adopted or given to a family or friend, they often will develop separation anxiety. This stems from losing a significant person to them or not being raised in a stable environment their entire lives.
- Change of house – Moving can cause this type of anxiety in dogs due to the change of environment and the dog being overwhelmed.
- Change of household members – If a member of the household is suddenly absent, due to whatever the reason may be, this can bring about anxiousness in the dog resulting in the disorder.
- Schedule change – If the owner is adopting a new schedule due to a life change such as a new job, this disorder can easily be brought about in dogs. The dog is now unsure of when you will be back or how long you will take, and the anxious behavior becomes induced.
What to do to overcome separation anxiety in dogs.
- Pre-departure training –If your dog becomes easily anxious when he sees you are about to leave, such as putting on shoes or grabbing keys, this is one of the easiest parts of the battle to overcome. A great way to go about this is by doing the things that make your dog anxious about you leaving and then not leaving. For example, try putting on your shoes and then sitting to watch TV. Grab your keys but then sit and eat a meal. Teach your dog that just because it looks like you may be leaving, doesn’t always mean you are. Likewise, it takes a lot of time for your dog to figure out the steps you take before you leave. Therefore, it will take some time to undo this understanding as well.
- Counterconditioning – Pick out a toy you know your dog will like. Toy’s that can be stuffed with food work best. As you are leaving, give your dog this toy. Again try to pick a toy that will give your dog something to do for a good period of time. You can even put food in a toy and freeze it to make the challenge more difficult for the dog. What does this do to help? Your dog is being counter-conditioned. Instead of associating your absence with sadness and anxiety, they will associate it with receiving their fun toy. As soon as you return home, it is important to immediately take the toy away. Therefore, your dog will learn this is their reward every time you leave and no other time. Likewise, the result will be a happier household for you and your dog.
- Desensitizing – For dogs that are more severe in their disorder, this method works best. If you notice your dog displaying the symptoms of this disorder, it is important to train them to be good while you are gone before creating more stress. Therefore, you want to tackle this issue and start training as soon as possible. Before you get started, your dog must know the command “sit and stay.” As they have mastered this command, you want to try having your dog perform this command in an area where they can no longer see you. For example, have your dog go into the bathroom and tell them to sit and stay. Once they do, close the door and train your dog to remain in the spot until you return. At first, a few seconds is enough and as time goes on, you can increase the length. However, you never want to wait long enough for your dog to get upset because this will only make the process harder and could increase their symptoms of the disorder. In time, you should notice results of this training. Although while the training is taking place, it is important to not leave your dog alone until you are close to or have solved the problem. This is due to the fact that the training can be easily reversed if the dog begins to associate you leaving as something bad again. Try taking your dog with you or having a loved one watch them until you have the issue better under control.
It is okay to crate train your dog with separation anxiety. A crate can become a safe place for them every time you leave. It can also help avoid the destruction your dog may cause while they are out and about alone for a few hours. However, if your dog seems distressed or anxious while inside the crate, (crying/yelping/panting/drooling) it is important to avoid this method as it could make your dog behave even worse and harm your relationship with the dog.
Other tips to help
- Take your dog for a run every morning before you leave to tire them out
- Play with them for 20 minutes each morning to put them in a good mood
- Take your dog with you places when you can
- Provide new and exciting games and toys to keep them stimulated
- Add another furry friend to the house or let your dog have puppy play dates
Avoid punishing your dog for acting out if they have separation anxiety. They are not misbehaving because they do not respect you, but because they are stressed out and are trying to manage their emotions the way they know how. Your dog does not want to act badly but is just displaying a stress response. Therefore, punishment will most likely not change anything other than make your dog more stressed and the problem worse.