Separation anxiety is a very common behavioural problem that is seen in dogs. Dogs are naturally social animals and thrive on companionship, but sometimes they become overly attached to family members, and then become very stressed when left alone for periods of time. This separation anxiety can manifest in various ways, from barking and whining, pacing, panting, house soiling, trying to escape, to extremely destructive behaviour where they can chew and scratch at their surrounding environment. Some dogs become so anxious that they can injure themselves by damaging claws, breaking teeth etc. Your dog usually starts exhibiting the behaviour within 30 minutes of your departure, but some dogs become very anxious prior to you leaving, following you around, refusing to eat, panting, whining etc. Remember that young dogs/puppies can also exhibit destructive behaviours, but rather than separation anxiety, this can be a sign of boredom and teething, and they will often exhibit these behaviours when you are present as well.
Any dog can develop separation anxiety, but dogs that have been rehomed are especially vulnerable as they have previously lost family members. Covid-19 and lockdowns have also contributed, as many dogs have been used to having family members around for long periods of time, and become stressed when the family start leaving the house to return to work. Additionally changes in circumstances can precipitate anxiety, such as moving house, work schedule changes, or a change in family household members. Certain breeds and genetics also may predispose a dog to separation anxiety.
We need to try to set our dogs up to be comfortable on their own from the start. Crate training is a great way to teach young dogs to be happy on their own. We should use the crate as a positive safe space, and a calm retreat, not as a punishment zone. This can be achieved by making the crate comfortable, placing toys or treats in it, or even feeding our dog in the crate. We should start leaving our dog in the crate for short periods of time, and gradually build up the time spent in the crate on their own. Frequent exercise and play, and stimulation with training or games such as finding scattered food, before we leave, can also make our dog more tired so they have less energy to exhibit anxious behaviour and are more likely to sleep.
It may be a good idea to visit your vet prior to embarking on a treatment program to make sure your dog does not have any medical conditions that may be causing similar symptoms, for example if your dog is house soiling, he/she may have a urinary tract disease. Never punish your dog for destructive behaviour or house soiling on your return, as this will only increase your dog’s anxiety exacerbating the problem.
In some situations, with mild separation anxiety, we may be able to use a technique called “Counter-conditioning”. This means changing a fearful/anxious behaviour to a pleasant, positive one. This can involve leaving a treat or new high interest toy with our dog as we leave. This is aimed at distracting them from our departure. It is important that the treats take a while for the dog to eat or play with. Some examples are Kong toys filled with peanut butter or cottage cheese, frozen food, puzzle toys or chew toys. When you return home, remove these high qualities items so they are only associated with our absence. In addition, you can distract your dog from your departure by leaving on music or the TV, which are proven to help to calm your dog and are also associated with you being in the house. The noise may also dampen down the noises associated with your departure, such as the jangle of keys, the door closing, or the car starting. We could also park our car further down the road so that our dog cannot hear the car starting when we leave.
With most dogs, however, there is no easy quick fix for separation anxiety and counterconditioning alone will be ineffective as your dog is too anxious to eat or play. Treatment involves dedication and time, as these behaviours have often developed over several months to years, and therefore take a long time to correct. When we begin treating our dog, it is important that we prevent these extreme anxious episodes occurring as this can delay our treatments working. Unfortunately, this means we will need to find alternative arrangements and not leave our dog on their own during this period. Alternatives include leaving your dog with a friend, finding a house sitter, taking your dog to work, or using a reputable doggy day-care. Our first step is that your dog is comfortable in the space that they will be left when you are away – he/she needs to be happy on their own for a few minutes before expecting them to be happy on their own for a few hours. It’s important that we ignore our dog’s attention getting behaviours, such as following us around, pawing us, sitting on us etc. We need to teach our dog to lie down quietly in their bed/crate/room first and then gradually increase the time we spend away. Just of note, if your dog is crate trained, this may be used as their safe space, however if you dog has never been in a crate and seems anxious when confined, then use their bed or a small room as their safe area. Training can be important in this part of the process by teaching our dog a ‘down stay’. You may need to enrol the help of an obedience trainer in this step. Start by getting your down to stay in a “down” for a few seconds and gradually increase the length of time to a few minutes. This can also be combined with counterconditioning, using treats or toy rewards. When you dog is comfortable staying in the same position for a few minutes, then progress to a down stay when you are out of the room, and finally moving out of your front door. Remember progress need to be very slow and if your dog breaks his stays or becomes anxious when you move away you will need to go back a few steps until your dog is comfortable again. Reward your dog when they are calmly lying down away from you with praise or treats.
We can now begin the process of ‘Desensitisation” to decrease the anxiety associated with our departure. Dogs are very sensitive and observant animals and will notice many cues associated with our departure. Examples of these include getting dressed, putting on shoes, brushing our teeth and picking up our keys or bag. In order to desensitise our dog to these cues we need to perform them several times a day, without them being associated with our departure. For example, we pick up our keys and then watch TV, put on our shoes and then read a book, or leave the car running for a few minutes whilst we are in the house.
The next step once your dog is comfortable in a down stay in a different room and desensitised to your departure cues, is to desensitise our actual departure. Once again, this needs to be performed in small steps over several weeks. It is also helpful to exercise our dog and/or do some training exercises approximately 15 minutes prior to the departure so they are more exhausted. Place your dog in their safe space and combine with treats etc (counterconditioning) and leave the house for a few seconds and then return. It is important to leave and return in a calm manner. If you dog is highly excited on your return, then ignore them until they are calm – we don’t want to highlight our return. Gradually stay away for a longer period, and then progress to starting your car and then finally driving away, initially only for a few minutes before returning. If your dog starts to exhibit anxious behaviour (panting/pacing/barking/house soiling etc) you will need to once again take a few steps back until your dog is calm when you leave. Once your dog is happy with you leaving for an hour, he/she is likely to be happier for longer periods of time.
Discuss your concerns with your vet, they may be able to refer you to a veterinary behaviour therapist for further help. Your vet may also need to prescribe anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication together with behaviour modification, as an aid to help to reduce extreme anxiety. There are also additional numerous natural therapies that may help, such as ‘Adaptil’, which is a calming canine pheromone. ‘Adaptil’ comes in a collar, a plug-in diffuser, and a spray. Thunder shirts can also help. These are a firm fitting coat that provide constant pressure onto your dog’s body acting in the same way as swaddling a baby or using weighted blankets in people.
But please remember, there is no easy quick fix for separation anxiety. To overcome these anxieties in your dog, we will require patience and perseverance for several weeks.