Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Causes and Treatments
Just like us, our canine companions can struggle with anxiety. The most common type is separation anxiety: a condition in which dogs become excessively stressed in the absence of their owner. According to a study by Dr. Nick Dodman at Tufts University, 20% of dogs in the USA suffer from the condition – this amounts to around 16 million pooches!
This surprisingly common issue can result in a swathe of negative behaviors when your dog is left alone. Dogs struggling with separation anxiety often whine, bark, destroy household objects, or have accidents on the floor. If you’ve ever come home to an overly-excited dog and a torn-up rug, chances are your four-legged friend has experienced separation anxiety.
Despite its ubiquity, canine separation anxiety is a somewhat mysterious condition. We all want our pooches to be happy and calm while we’re out of the house, but knowing how to curb their stress levels can be a real challenge. Luckily, there are steps you can take to recognize, understand, and mitigate separate anxiety.
Before you think about treatment, it’s important to recognize separation anxiety where it occurs. Below are some common symptoms to look out for:
- Escape Attempts
If a dog is anxious, their instincts will often tell them to run away. Escape attempts can take a variety of forms, depending on the layout of your home. Dogs kept in crates when they’re alone might chew at the bars when they’re anxious, while other pooches attempt to get away by scratching the front door.
- Excessive Barking or Howling
When you need to leave your dog alone, occasional barking is normal – when your dog is disturbed by an unexpected noise, barking is a natural response. However, it’s possible for this behavior to become excessive, and this is a very common symptom of separation anxiety. It can be hard to tell if your dog is barking excessively without being there to observe them, so if you’re concerned it’s a good idea to ask a neighbor, or set up a microphone (perhaps on a laptop or tablet) to record any barking during your absence.
- Destruction in the Home
Anxious dogs will often seek an outlet for their emotions – this outlet can often be one of your possessions. If you frequently come home to chewed up clothing or furniture, this is a clear sign that your dog has experienced anxiety during your absence, and channeled this into the physical act of scratching and chewing. Dogs kept outdoors might express their anxiety by excessive digging.
- Indoor Accidents
When a housetrained dog urinates or defecates in the house, this is sometimes a sign of separation anxiety. When your dog feels insecure, they may be tempted to use urine or feces as a way to mark their territory.
- Excessive Drooling, Panting, and Salivating
Anxiety can increase a dog’s heart rate, causing them to pant more than usual. Increased salivation is another symptom of stress in dogs, unlike their human counterparts, who are more likely to experience a dry mouth in times of anxiety.
Nervous pacing is another symptom of separation anxiety in dogs. Physical movement allows dogs a small outlet for their ‘fight or flight’ anxiety response.
Because these behaviors are triggered by your absence from the home, they can sometimes be difficult to recognise, and you may need the help of a friend or family member. Ask them to keep an eye on your dog while you leave the house for an hour or so.
There is no single cause for separation anxiety in dogs, and a number of different triggers can be at play. In general, separation anxiety occurs when a dog is hyper-attached to its owner, and becomes excessively stressed when left alone.
- Breed Dispositions
As all dog lovers know, different breeds can have very different temperaments. Because of this, it makes sense that certain types of dog are more prone to separation anxiety. Dogs that have been bred to work very closely with humans tend to form the strongest bonds, and are more likely to struggle when their favorite human is absent. These breeds include:
- German Shepherds
- Chow Chows
- Significant Changes
The phenomenon of ‘back to school blues’ isn’t restricted to students – dogs can also struggle to cope with a sudden and significant change to their households or schedules. Perhaps you’ve started a new job, changed your hours, or introduced a new person to the home. This kind of significant change can make dogs feel insecure, and crave the consistency of their owner’s company more than usual. Dogs who have recently been adopted, moved house, or seen their home be redecorated, are also more prone to developing separation anxiety.
Simple boredom can also trigger separation anxiety in dogs. If a dog doesn’t have access to any kind of stimulation in their owner’s absence, they will quickly come to associate these long periods of boredom with separation from this person.
Separation anxiety is most likely to occur at two distinct points in a dog’s life: when they are puppies, newly introduced to your home, and when they get older. Puppies and young dogs have has less time to settle into their new surroundings and schedule, so are less sure what to expect when left by themselves. On the other hand, older dogs are also likely to experience separation anxiety. Like all animals, dogs tend to decline as they age, and become more dependent on their human family – especially if their hearing or eyesight has deteriorated. In this state of increased vulnerability, dogs are more likely to be anxious when their human owners aren’t around.
- Underlying Medical Conditions
It’s worth noting that some cases of anxiety have underlying medical causes, and are not purely psychological issues. For this reason, it’s best to consult with your vet if you suspect that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety – especially if they are otherwise healthy, and the symptoms have come on suddenly.
Working through what’s called ‘independance training’ with your dog at an early age is the best way to prevent them from developing separation anxiety. These training techniques help assure your dog that it’s safe for them to relax when you’re away, and that you will always come back to them.
Give these training and calming techniques a try, to encourage your dog to feel relaxed when they’re home alone:
- Ignore your Dog at Times
Dogs have lived alongside humans for thousands of years, and have evolved to crave our attention. For this reason, ignoring your dog is often the best way to discourage undesired behavior. To help prevent clinginess, ignore your dog when they follow you around the house, or become over excited at your return. Be affectionate towards your dog by all means, but be careful not to reward over-excited greetings, such as jumping up and barking excessively.
- Exercise your Dog first
Before you leave for work, or another relatively long absence, make sure your dog has had some exercise. Tired out dogs are much less likely to be anxious, and will want to rest for a while. You can also use this time to give your dog some mental exercise, by playing a game of fetch, or practicing a new trick.
- Leave the House Calmly
When you need to leave your home, try to do so quietly and calmly. This helps prevent your dog from forming associations between certain actions and your imminent departure. If your dog isn’t sure you’re leaving, they have less of a chance to become stressed by the process.
- Use Distractions
Just like humans, dogs learn by association. If you can distract them with fun activities when it’s time for you to leave, dogs can come to accept this calmly. Ideally, dogs should relax in their safe spot – whether this is a crate or a bed – when you depart. You could leave them a puzzle filled with treats, something to chew, or a selection of toys. Introduce these items a little while before you actually leave, and put them away when you return.
- Consider hiring a Dog Walker
If you work long hours, and there’s no one about to take care of your dog, it’s a good idea to break up their day by hiring a dog walker. Not only will this give your dog a chance to stretch their legs and get some fresh air, it also provides the mental stimulation of a change of scenery, and the chance to socialize with other dogs. Giving your pooch an enjoyable day in your absence will help prevent anxiety when you leave.
If your dog is already suffering from separation anxiety, there is still plenty you can do to help them feel more comfortable when they’re by themselves:
- Practice Leaving
Before you leave your dog alone for real, practice leaving the house calmly. Start by putting on your shoes, picking up your keys, and walking out the door. The first time you do this, return immediately, and gradually increase your time away so that your dog can get used to the idea that, although you might leave, you’ll also come back. For dogs with more severe anxiety, try to disconnect certain acts with your departure. For instance, you could put on your shoes, then sit down and read, or pick up your keys, and make a coffee. This will help to make these actions neutral in your dog’s mind, and reduce their stress when you leave for real.
- Don’t make a Fuss when you Leave and Return
It might be tempting to cuddle or pet your dog right before you leave the house, but it’s much better to leave calmly without making a big fuss of them. When you return, the same advice applies – wait until your dog has calmed down before greeting them, and they should quickly learn that calm behavior is rewarded, and there’s no need to be stressed when you depart.
- Consider Over-the-Counter Calming Supplements
Some dogs respond well to herbal calming remedies. If you decide to try some, be sure to introduce them to your dog gradually, so they don’t associate the smell with your absence. At first, place a few drops of the remedy on your dog’s bedding, so they come to associate the scent with their safe space. This helps many dogs feel more relaxed in their space when their owner is gone.
- Leave your Dog with some Background Noise
Some dogs are soothed by background noise, such as the television or radio – especially if these devices are usually switched on when you’re at home. Leaving a TV on when you depart can help to distract your dog, and give them something to look at while you’re away.
Separation anxiety can be a tricky business, without a single cause or solution. If you think your dog is struggling with this condition, the best approach is to work out some possible causes, and try to adjust your departure ritual so that your dog feels more comfortable.
Independent dogs are much happier than their clingy counterparts, since most modern pet parents are busy people, and need to leave their dogs alone quite often for work or social commitments.
You can help your dog to feel comfortable by themselves using a number of methods, most of which work by connecting alone time with positive things, such as treats, toys, and relaxation. By letting your dog be alone gradually, consistently, and from an early age, you can go a long way towards eliminating separation anxiety.
Just remember that dogs are naturally sociable animals, and if you need to leave them alone for more than six to eight hours at a time, it’s a good idea to have a friend or relative drop in, hire a dog walker, or consider adopting a second dog for companionship.