Separation Anxiety In Dogs: Signs, Treatment And Training Tips
How to help her feel better 💕
Does your dog start whimpering every time you get ready to leave for work? Or leave a huge mess for you to come home to?
While being home all the time with your dog is obviously the ideal lifestyle, it’s just not realistic. And unfortunately, some dogs struggle with the thought of their humans not always being around.
Dogs who act out when their humans leave them alone are considered to have separation anxiety and will usually require a treatment plan from a professional to reduce their symptoms.
The Dodo reached out to Dr. Gary Richter, veterinarian at Montclair Veterinary Hospital in Oakland, California, and Jane Wolff, a certified dog separation anxiety trainer and co-owner of Good Wolff in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for more about separation anxiety in dogs.
Can dogs have separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety, to some degree or another, is seen a lot in dogs. “In fact, it is estimated that nearly 20 percent of dogs have trouble being home alone,” Wolff told The Dodo.
Typically, separation anxiety refers to a dog who has formed a hyper-attachment to a single individual and exhibits distress and behavior problems if that person isn’t present.
According to Dr. Richter, separation anxiety tends to vary by breed, with the more hypervigilant breeds (like shepherds or hunting dogs) being more prone to experience separation anxiety.
“Lifestyle also plays a part,” Dr. Richter told The Dodo. “Dogs that are left alone for long periods of time or those exposed to a lot of noise, frenzied activity, etc., may be more prone. In short, it's a lot like people.”
What causes separation anxiety in dogs?
“It’s not fully understood why some dogs suffer from separation anxiety and others don’t, but it’s important to realize the destruction and poor behavior that often occur with separation anxiety are part of a panic response,” Dr. Richter said.
Separation anxiety (or trouble being alone) can sometimes be triggered by large life changes, Wolff said. These can include:
- Being rehomed
- Loss of a sibling
- Moving to new house
“However, many dogs experience these things all the time and are completely fine,” Wolff said. “Other dogs may have never experienced any of these things but do struggle with separation anxiety. It is thought that separation anxiety is genetic.”
Signs of separation anxiety in dogs
According to Dr. Richter, dogs who experience separation anxiety exhibit distress and behavior problems when they’re left alone, and it’s not their normal or typical behavior.
Because separation anxiety is a panic disorder, many of the signs are similar to when a dog is experiencing a panic attack. “A dog that paces, whines and/or barks throughout an absence is likely suffering from panic when left alone,” Dr. Richter said.
Here are some common signs of separation anxiety in dogs.
Urinating and defecating
Even after going outside, your dog may go to the bathroom inside the house when she’s left alone. “Because their anxiousness overwhelms them, they can't hold their bowels,” Dr. Richter said.
Barking, whining and howling
Even dogs who aren’t big talkers might be noisier than usual if they have separation anxiety. “They may also be jumpier and more sensitive to noises and quick movements,” Dr. Richter said.
Some destructive behaviors from a dog who’s experiencing separation anxiety include chewing on objects, door frames or window sills; digging at doors or doorways; and destroying household objects.
“We’ve all caught ourselves pacing when anxious, and dogs do it too,” Dr. Richter said. “Some pacing dogs move around in circular patterns, while others walk back and forth in straight lines.”
Panting and drooling
A dog who’s constantly panting or drooling when left alone can be showing signs of separation anxiety.
Corprophagia is when your dog eats poop. “Some dogs defecate and then consume some or all of their poop or other dogs’ poop,” Dr. Richter said.
How to help a dog with separation anxiety
According to Wolff, it’s unlikely that your dog will get over separation anxiety on her own. Because of this, it’s important to help build her confidence and alleviate her panicked feelings.
In general, there are two different avenues to help a dog with separation anxiety: training and medication. These can be used separately but are most commonly used in conjunction with each other to help a dog feel calmer when left alone.In general, if your dog has separation anxiety, it’s probably a good idea to go to your vet for their recommendation.
Training a dog with separation anxiety
When it comes to training your dog out of separation anxiety, there are a bunch of different things you can do, from desensitizing her to your absence to building up her overall confidence.
These are some of the most common ways to help train a dog with separation anxiety:
Desensitizing your dog
You’ll want to desensitize her to your comings and goings. “Go through the motions like you are going to leave the house (putting on your shoes, picking up your keys, etc.) and then don't leave,” Dr. Richter said. “The goal is for the dog to no longer associate those activities with something stressful.”
You’ll also want to avoid making your hellos and goodbyes too exciting. “When you leave the house and when you come back, ignore the dog until they calm down,” Dr. Richter said. “Once they are calm, you can interact with them.”
Dr. Richter also recommends trying not to reassure your dog when she’s worked up, because this can reinforce the behavior you’re trying to stop.
Increase time spent away gradually
You can also help get your dog used to you being away through small, incremental increases in time spent apart. “Each of those departures should be easy for the dog and not make them scared or uncomfortable,” Wolff said. “Over time, and at the dog's comfort level, that amount of time can be increased.”
During that process it’s vital that your dog isn’t alone longer than she can tolerate to prevent her from panicking. “Daycare, friends or family members or pet sitters can help with that while you work up to more normal absences,” Wolff said.
Build your dog's confidence
You can also help alleviate your dog’s anxiety by building her confidence. Ways to help build your dog’s confidence can include things like:
Use positive reinforcement training.Positive reinforcement training teaches your dog that doing the right thing will get her all kinds of goodies, like treats and extra pets.
Dog enrichment toys.Even doing something as simple as giving your dog a food puzzle can help her build confidence by allowing her to put her brain (and nose!) to work and get rewarded for it.
Consider a professional trainer
If your dog's separation anxiety is too difficult for you to take on yourself, consider hiring a professional dog trainer to assist.
“Thankfully there are now trainers (such as Certified Separation Anxiety Trainers, or CSAT) who work remotely and specialize in treating separation anxiety!” Wolff said. “So no matter where you are in the world, you can find someone to help guide you through the process.”
You can also try using some calming products to help calm down your anxious dog, like:
Prescription medication for separation anxiety
“Medication may be a crucial part of helping your dog recover from separation anxiety,” Wolff said. “Thankfully, this has been a well-researched topic, and there are mediations approved for use in dogs to treat separation anxiety.”
If you think your dog may have trouble being alone, it’s a good idea to speak with your veterinarian to see if they recommend prescription medication.While helping a dog experiencing separation anxiety isn’t the easiest task, it’s not impossible to make her feel better. With a solid treatment plan from your vet and trainer, your dog should feel way more confident when you’re away — and hopefully that makes you feel better, too.
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