Preventing and Controlling Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Most of us love our dogs dearly and are lucky to get the same degree of affection in return. This mutual admiration society is a large part of why so many people choose to have dogs as part of their families. But, as with most relationships, time spent apart is a normal and necessary component. Dogs are superbly social creatures. Add to this that the typical pet dog spends the vast majority of their time with a small group of people (their family) and it should come as no surprise that it can take some effort to ensure that ther is a sense of calm when your dog is left alone. Unfortunately, many dogs suffer from some degree of separation anxiety. This can range from a dog who follows you around the house and is mildly distressed when left alone to a dog who is essentially a ‘velcro dog,’ unable to leave your side for even a moment, and who is extremely anxious when you leave. This anxiety can result in destructive behaviors such as inappropriate chewing, house soiling, excessive barking, and theexactchoice even self mutilating behaviors (such as chewing at their own fur and skin and creating irritation and raw spots). Separation anxiety can be heartbreaking and frustrating as you witness your dog’s suffering and try to deal with the potential for complaints from neighbors or a landlord. It can also do serious damage to the canine/human bond and ultimately result in a dog’s banishment from the home or surrender to a shelter.

Some cases of separation issues are really just the dog suffering from boredom and being destructive (i.e. inappropriate chewing, excessive barking, etc.) as a result. Each case of true separation issues is unique. But, as a general rule, some or all of the following are likely to be observable when a separation issue exists:

-The dog seems to become distressed at signs of your departure (such as turning off the lights, or reaching for keys or a coat).

-The dog barks excessively throughout the day, usually most often immediately after your departure and/or just prior to your return.

-The dog salivates excessively prior to and during your absence.

-The dog is unlikely to eat or play with otherwise favorite toys when you are absent.

-The dog is destructive in the home when you leave and may focus this destructive behavior near exit areas such as windows and doors.

-The dog is wildly excited, to the point of being stressed, when you return home.

-The dog consistently follows you around the house.

-The dog demands your attention by jumping on you, whining, barking, muzzle nudging, and/or scratching at your legs.

-The dog eliminates inappropriately in the home when you leave.

-The dog chews inappropriate items only when you leave.

Helping a dog overcome separation issues can be challenging. Not the least of which is due to the fact that so many people inadvertently play a large part in the development and escalation of this issue. While some dogs may be more genetically prone to suffering from separation issues, those dogs which are not taught to spend time alone during their most formative early months will most surely suffer most gravely. As social group oriented creatures, dogs need to start learning the skill of spending time alone calmly as soon as they join their new family. This lack of early preventative measures is a sure fire way to set the dog up to fail in this regard. As with all behavior issues, prevention is easier than cure. So, if you have just welcomed a new dog into your home or are planning on doing so soon, be sure to focus on helping your dog to learn to spend time quietly alone on a consistent basis every day using some or all of the suggestions outlined below.

If your dog is already suffering from some degree of separation anxiety, one of the first hurdles to overcome in regards to successfully helping your dog, it to realize that your dog is counting on you to lead the way and do what is necessary to help him or her. In the short term, it might take your dog some time to become accustomed to some of the tools and new daily routines you establish. But, failing to stick with a plan due to guilt or misdirected kindness will only result in your dog and you continuing to suffer. So, take a deep breath as you endeavor to set your dog on a new course to becoming equipped to spend time calmly, quietly and safely alone. Depending on the severity of your dog’s issues, you should plan on strict adherence to some or all of the following guidelines for a minimum of anywhere from 3-6 months. When you are confident your dog can handle a slackening of the rules then you can gradually reduce the use of some of them. But, be careful not to go back to your old ways of interacting with your dog that may have caused or exacerbated the problem. In most cases, it is advisable to err on the side of caution and help your dog to maintain his or her new ability to spend time alone by sticking with the course.

1. Keep Greetings and Departures Short and Sweet: Few friends are likely to greet us with the same enthusiasm as our dogs. A wiggly body, wagging tail and woofs of happy excitement are sure to make most pet parents feel they are truly missed and loved by their canine buddy. However, for each time you enter your home and interact with your dog while he or she is in the throws of this canine love fest, you are reinforcing or rewarding your dog for an over the top expression of their happiness to see you, but also for their relief from their time without you. Doing so surely makes time spent without you that much harder for your dog to bear (especially those with a predisposition for separation issues) the next time you leave, if only for the fact that they must be spending some of their time in eager anticipation of the ‘happy fest’ that will ensue when you walk through the door.

When you get home, spend the first five minutes ignoring your dog. Don’t spea, pet, talk to or even make eye contact. It may seem extreme, but separation anxiety can be an extreme problem and requires gentle, but tough love to resolve it. Don’t worry about hurting your dog’s feelings. Your efforts are intended to do all you can to ultimately protect your dog’s feelings. That is, to ensure that he or she won’t be crushed, anxious and possibly even panicked when you aren’t around.

The same holds true for departures. No need to draw it out. Simply provide your dog with some food stuffed chew toys at random times prior to your departure (i.e. sometimes 30 minutes prior, others 15 or 5 minutes prior), set them up in the chosen long term confinement area (more on that below) and leave. If you make a big fuss when you leave, odds are your dog will pick up on your intense behavior and respond accordingly for a dog who has separation issues. Look at leaving the house as no different than leaving a room. You wouldn’t try to ‘comfort’ your dog in the latter so don’t do so in the former.

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