Separation anxiety is a disorder that causes dogs to panic at the idea of being left home alone. The panic is so overwhelming that when you leave, dogs tend to become destructive, bark like crazy, and have housebreaking accidents. When you return home, their greetings are often frantic. This condition is stressful for both dogs and owners, especially because regular obedience training does little to ease it.
Does Your Dog Have Separation Anxiety?
Does your dog freak out when you leave him home alone? Have you ever gotten complaints from neighbors about him barking, whining, or howling when you're gone? Do you return home to find that he has caused major damage to your home? Does your dog seem to forget all housetraining when you're away? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then it's possible your dog is suffering from separation anxiety.
The good news is that you can help your dog. There are ways to reduce your dog's anxiety. One of the most effective methods is called systematic desensitization. It involves gradually allowing your dog to get used to being left home alone.
Boredom Vs. Separation Anxiety
First things first: is your dog just bored? People often mistake boredom for separation anxiety. Both are accompanied by problem behaviors, such as destructive chewing and excessive barking. The difference is that boredom can be overcome by adding more exercise and mental stimulation to your dog's day. However, these things have little or no impact on separation anxiety. Try adding an extra walk, games of fetch or tug-of-war, an obedience class and a variety of toys. If boredom is the reason for the barking and chewing, you should see a big change in your dog's behavior. If none of these things help, then you should continue to follow the steps to treat separation anxiety.
Change Your Behavior
Most of us have a routine we follow before we leave the house: shower, dress, put on a coat, grab keys, walk out the door. Once he has recognized your routine, your dog's anxiety may start building from the first step. This means his anxiety is not just beginning when you walk out the door. Instead, it starts when your alarm clock goes off or you turn on the shower. By the time you leave the house, he is in a full-blown panic.
To prevent this building anxiety, make some changes to your own behavior. Pay attention to the things you do before you leave the house, and begin doing them randomly throughout the day. For example, you can grab your keys and sit down to watch television, or put on your coat and feed your dog. Within a few weeks, your dog should no longer see these things as signs that you are about to walk out the door, and some of his anxiety should be eased.
Keep Coming and Going Uneventful
Most of us hate leaving our dogs almost as much as they hate seeing us go. This often leads to us lavishing our dogs with affection and attention right before we leave home and immediately when we walk in the door. Unfortunately, this can add to your dog's anxiety. To prevent this, the best thing you can do is to ignore your dog before you leave and for several minutes after your return. In this way, you are telling your dog that your coming and going is really no big deal.
For mild to moderate cases of separation anxiety, these small changes may be enough to reduce your dog's anxiety. However, in more severe cases, you will need to do some extra work.
Work Your Way Up to Long Periods Away
This step can be time-consuming and requires a real commitment on the part of the dog owner. Once this process is started, it is important your dog is never left alone for extended periods until his anxiety is completely gone. It can take up to several weeks to get to this point, so you may need to take some vacation time, hire a pet sitter, or find a doggie daycare until you have finished this step.
Once you have a plan in place to make sure your dog is never alone, it is time to start getting him used to your being away. Plan on spending at least 30 minutes on each training session. To start, step out the door for a short amount of time, and step right back inside. You cannot step out long enough for your dog's anxiety to begin building, so in cases of severe separation anxiety, you may only be able to step outside for a second. When you step back inside, keep things quiet, and give your dog a few minutes to relax. Once he is relaxed, step back outside again, and repeat this step until your dog is showing no signs of anxiety: no panting, pacing, drooling, shaking, or vocalizing.
Next, it is time to slowly increase the amount of time you are gone. Again, this might mean only moving up to two seconds, then three, and so on for severe cases. Once you start adding time, you can mix up the lengths of time you step out during a training session. For example, if you are able to step outside for five minutes, step out for five minutes and then three minutes. Change it up, but do not go beyond the five minutes until your dog is showing no signs of anxiety.
Once you have worked up to leaving your dog alone for about 45 minutes, you should be able to begin adding time more quickly. In this way you can work your way up to leaving your dog alone for an hour, then two, and then for an entire workday.
If you are able to devote an hour or more each day to training, your dog's anxiety should be greatly improved within a few weeks. If you have followed all the steps, and your dog is still showing signs of anxiety, you may need to seek more help. Your veterinarian can help you decide if its time to try some medication or hire a behaviorist.
What If Your Dog Doesn't Get Better?
If you try the above methods and your dog is not making major improvements, then you should seek professional help. In fact, if your dog's separation anxiety is very severe, it's probably best to get help from the beginning. Talk to your veterinarian about your dog's behavior. In some cases, medication can be used in conjunction with behavior modification. Any dog in a heightened state of anxiety cannot learn new things. Medication can help "take the edge off" so you can get through to your dog more easily. It is also a good idea to get help from a dog trainer or animal behaviorist. These professionals are experienced with dogs just like yours and may be able to offer valuable insight. Remember to be patient and consitient throughtout the process. It may take a long time, but most dogs will eventually show improvement.
Edited by Jenna Stregowski, RVT