We all hate saying goodbye to our dogs. It seems they feel the same. But for some dogs, goodbyes can cause deeper problems. If your usually happy, well-behaved dog becomes distressed or destructive every time they’re left alone, it could be a sign they’re suffering from separation anxiety.
Our Head Vet Sean is here with some tips on how to tackle it.
What is separation anxiety in dogs?
Remember those sleepless nights listening to your tiny puppy howling when you brought them home? That could have been a sign of separation anxiety – the name given to the distress some dogs feel when they’re alone, or away from a person or dog they’re close to. It often starts when puppies are removed from their litter.
Sadly, our best efforts to help our new puppy settle in can unintentionally make things worse. We take time off work. We play with them non-stop. Our puppy gets used to having us around. Then we go back work, and our puppy’s separation anxiety is triggered all over again.
Does my dog have separation anxiety?
It’s normal for your dog to miss you when you leave. Separation anxiety is different; the response is more extreme. Symptoms of separation anxiety include:
1) Barking, whining, howling or crying
Often noticed by neighbours while you’re out and about.
2) Pawing or chewing at doors, fences or their crate
A sign your dog is trying to get to wherever you are.
3) Breaking toilet training
That ‘present’ in the middle of the floor isn’t a dirty protest – it can be a sign of your dog’s anxiety.
4) Trembling or shaking
Hard to spot because it often happens while you’re away. But you might see signs if your dog gets anxious as you prepare to leave.
5) Panting or salivating
If this gets worse when you’re not around, it could be a sign of distress.
6) Overenthusiastic welcomes
So enthusiastic, in fact, that you can hardly get through the door.
7) Following you around
If your dog’s never more than a few steps away from you, it can be a sign they’re anxious about you leaving.
How do you train a dog with separation anxiety?
Easing your dog’s anxiety starts with gently teaching them they can be OK on their own.
1) Encourage independence from a young age
Resist the urge to have your pup at your side 24/7 when you first bring your dog home.
2) Build up the time they spend away from you
Start small. Leave the room and close the door behind you. Wait 30 seconds, then go back in. Repeat this over and over again until your dog doesn’t even react. Over a few weeks, build up the time and distance you’re apart:
1 minute – you outside the door
2 minutes – you in a separate room
3 minutes – you upstairs, your dog downstairs
5 minutes – you walk around the block, your dog stays at home
The aim is to increase the time gradually, so your dog doesn’t realise it’s happening, and doesn’t get distressed.
3) Don’t reward anxious behaviour…
It’s hard to see your dog distressed. You desperately want to make them feel better. But showering your dog with affection now can teach them that their anxious behaviour gets attention – and that can make their anxiety worse.
Our top tips: don’t go into the house if they’re crying. When you do go in, keep your focus straight ahead and don’t give your dog attention until they’re calm. Then shower them with affection as a reward.
4) …but don’t punish it either
You get home to find scratch marks on the door and a poop on the floor. And your dog looks guilty as sin. Telling them off seems like an obvious response.
But unless you tell them off in the moment, your dog’s unlikely to link the punishment with the ‘crime’. That guilty look on your dog’s face? Probably not guilt at all – dogs pick up our frustration and adopt the appropriate response. Despite appearances, the time they spent scratching the door is long forgotten.
How else can you help a dog with separation anxiety?
1) Get ready to go. Then stay.
Shoes on. Coat on. Keys in hand. Our dogs recognise signs we’re getting ready to leave. Before long, those actions start to cause anxiety on their own. But do them often enough without going anywhere, and you’ll disrupt the link in your dog’s mind. No more anxiety.
2) Tire them out
Your dog’s less likely to get anxious if they’re mentally and physically tired, so time their walk and training for an hour or so before you need to leave. This gives them a chance to burn off any nervous energy, and get nicely settled before you go.
3) Occupy their mind
Boredom can make anxiety worse, so try leaving out toys that will keep your dog’s mind busy. There are loads on the market to choose from, but don’t go overboard – a couple a day is enough. Don’t leave the same ones every time, or your dog will lose interest. Having a collection you rotate is ideal.
4) Try calming products
Look online or in a pet store for herbal sprays or pheromone diffusers. These create a relaxing, dog-friendly environment. Stick to ones made especially for dogs, as some room sprays aimed at humans can be harmful to our four-legged friends.
5) Give a nutritional supplement
Tryptophan – a building block for serotonin – can have a calming effect on dog anxiety. If you think your dog could benefit from its effects, ask your vet for more information.
6) Get help
If your dog’s anxiety is severe and attempts to ease it don’t work, ask a dog behaviourist to help. They can often spot seemingly small things that are making your dog more anxious. In really severe cases, a trip to the vet might be in order. When all else fails, a prescription sedative could help ease your dog’s distress while you work on the issue.
How long will my dog have separation anxiety?
There’s no quick fix for separation anxiety but with a bit of patience and perseverance, it should get better. You’ll need to work on it over several months – or longer if your dog’s anxiety is severe. You’re not in this alone; our veterinary and nutritional team has lots of advice. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.