Separation anxiety and stress can prove a real problem for some pets and can get in the way of them leading otherwise happy, healthy, and well-adjusted lives.
What is separation anxiety in dogs?
Separation anxiety is a condition rooted in acute stress that can be extremely difficult for our pets. It is more serious than a pout or a whimper when their favorite humans leave their sight, destructive chewing, or mischief when they become bored or disengaged. Separation anxiety is stimulated when dogs become distraught because of separation from their human guardians or the people they are bonded to. They feel a lingering sense of dread and panic when they are left alone and can result in an ongoing deterioration of your pet’s physical and mental health.
How to recognize signs of separation anxiety in your pet.
While some dogs might simply have undesirable habits when left alone - destructive chewing, urinating or defecating indoors, insistent barking or howling, or persistent digging - these can also be symptoms of stress. When these behaviors are mixed with other signals of distress, it can indicate that your pet struggles with separation anxiety.
- Profuse drooling or pacing
- Depression and/or lethargic behaviors
- Loss of appetite
- Excessive agitation when guardians prepare to leave or attempts to prevent them from leaving
- Frantic or panicked behaviors when owners leave
- Overwhelmed excitement when guardians return, as if they might come unglued upon seeing them again.
- Nervous energy that often gets expended in destructive or agitated ways (i.e. destructive chewing, escape attempts, Coprophagia, persistent crying, etc.)
What to do if your pet struggles with separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety can be very serious and shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. Extended stress can cause lasting effects to your pet’s general health. However, patience and counter-conditioning can help them handle time alone without the fear and distress of separation anxiety.
- Talk to your vet to rule out any other potential medical issues that might be affecting your dog’s physical or mental health.
- Take a look at the big picture: Is there something that can explain your dog’s behavior signals such as boredom, incomplete house training, lack of socialization, or puppies still learning? If you still suspect that separation anxiety is to blame for your dog’s stress, you can begin to work with them to redirect the negative associations they experience when their guardians leave.
- Give them reassurances and positive associations that counter act their worry to help condition a new idea of what it means when we leave. We know we’re just going to work, but to them, it might seem like we’re leaving forever and might never return.
- Consider speaking to an animal behaviorist for personalized tips.
Tips for dealing with separation anxiety in your dog. Counter-conditioning is a recommended treatment process that changes the pet’s nervous, fearful, or tense associations to more positive and peaceful ones. It is a method of training your pet to understand that what has upset them can actually be good.
If you make a big deal out of your leaving, so will they.
- Avoid the temptation to say goodbye to them or drawing attention to your departure.
- Downplay your return by settling in first and waiting until your dog is completely calm before you say hello or pay attention to them. This tilts the focus of the guardian’s coming and going as it is treated like less of an ordeal.
- Curb the “On the way out freak out” with some attention to your departure routines. Does the sound of you grabbing your keys or picking up your bag/wallet/etc. tell your dog that you are about to leave? Mix up your routine. Think about what cues you give to your dog that their guardians are about to leave, like the jingle of keys, and try doing those things during the day when you are with your dog. If they learn that hearing these things isn’t an automatic prologue for dreaded time alone, they will start to change their panicked association of the sound.
Practice building up to time alone.
Work with your pet to “build up to” being okay without their guardian by practicing graduated absences. It helps build their confidence when left alone. Start with very short absences, such as an out of sight stay on the other side of a bedroom door, and gradually build up to longer and more advanced absences. The first 40 minutes alone are the most stressful for many dogs struggling with separation anxiety.
Engaging distractions can make being alone more fun and positive.
Give them a task to engage their brain while you are gone. Kongs filled with treats and dog-safe peanut butter or puzzle toys that stimulate a dog’s brain can help keep them happy and occupied. This can provide a distraction that passes the time.
Tired dogs worry less.
Exercise is good for their entire well-being anyway, but a dog is less likely to have the mental energy to fret if they are tuckered out. This can be from physical activity and play or from brain-teasers and learning new things.
Reinvent what being separated can mean to them.
- Consider letting the pet stay pet with someone that they get to know and trust that will dote on them and create a fun experience to distract them until you return.
- Take them to doggy daycamp or a doggy daycare playgroup. Daycamps provide an environment that is engaging and stimulating; it is great for their socialization and provides opportunities for learning and playing in a positive, supervised environment.
Thundershirts can help sooth anxious dogs.
They relieve nervous energy and stress in pets by tightly wrapping their core in a gentle pressure that reassures them and makes them feel more calm, much like a soothing hug. They can even be worn while boarding, during car rides, firework season, storms, or any occasion that might make your dog feel uneasy.
Above all, be patient.
Your dog loves you, you are their whole world. It can be difficult, but undeniably, the most important thing to help your dog with separation anxiety is your patience. Remember that they aren’t “punishing you” for leaving, or intentionally making things difficult. They are coping the best way they know how. Ask the experts questions, try different things, be persistent. Some approaches that work for many dogs might not be a good fit for your dog. That’s okay - keep at it. Remember that separation anxiety can be tough, but if you are patient with them and stay positive, it is possible to get to the other side with a happy, confident, and independent pet.