Having a dog with separation anxiety is heartbreaking and stressful. Unfortunately it’s also not uncommon. Some dogs experience true separation anxiety where they are so closely bonded to their human that they can’t cope when that person leaves, even if there are other people around. More prevalent is isolation distress in which a dog can tolerate their main human’s absence as long as someone else is there, sometimes even another pet will do.
In either case symptoms can vary widely in degree of severity. Many people only realize they have a problem when they start getting complaints from neighbours about their dog barking or crying for hours on end. For others it’s more obvious; they return home to a scene of mass destruction: from paint scratched off doors, couch cushions shredded or garbage strewn about. Perhaps their dog has urinated or defecated in the house. In severe cases some dogs will even harm themselves in their attempts to escape. I once worked with a dog who had such severe anxiety when left alone that he chewed through drywall and bent the bars of a metal gate in a panicked attempt to escape. Then there are those dogs who exhibit none of the more obvious signs of anxiety but are so stressed they will pant and drool until their muzzles, feet and or bedding are soaked.
What causes it?
Most dogs prefer the company of their favourite humans so why do some dogs cope with being alone better than others? Here are a few of the more common causes:
- A sudden change in routine such as loss of a family member (divorce, kids going off to college) or a change in work schedules
- A move to a new home
- Rehoming. New rescues are especially prone but this also includes puppies leaving their littermates for the first time.
- Lack of experience. Dogs who have simply been used to constant company for weeks, months or even years and suddenly are faced with being alone at a later age.
- Dogs with sudden medical or health issues that cause them to be more reliant on their humans. My own dog Kali developed severe separation anxiety in her senior years as she grew more and more dependant on me to move around.
Other problems can sometimes masquerade as separation anxiety such as incomplete housetraining, unrealistic expectations (thinking a dog can ‘hold it’ all day), barking prompted by specific events throughout the day (such as when the mailman comes) or boredom due to insufficient exercise and/or mental stimulation. Anxiety-related destructive behaviour is usually focussed on exit points such as doors, windows or gates rather than random garbage raids.
If your dog greets you with over the top enthusiasm as though you had been missing for years when you only went to take out the garbage you may have a dog with anxiety or he simply might be an overly enthusiastic greeter (usually as a result of our own overly excited greetings).
Similarly, if your dog can’t let you go to the bathroom without following at your heels you may have a dog with some anxiety but not necessarily. For instance, if you close the bathroom door and your dog waits patiently for you on the other side he may not be experiencing real anxiety. If he relentlessly whines while trying to break the door down, well, you get the picture…
There is is no point in working to help a dog overcome a fear of being alone if that isn’t the real issue so accurate diagnosis is critical. This is generally done by going through a dog’s behaviour history, current daily routine and videotaping them during your absence (neighbours accounts may be useful in alerting you to an issue but rarely give an accurate picture of what is really going on).
The good news is that there is treatment for confirmed separation anxiety or isolation distress and it’s most often successful. The bad news is that it can be a lengthy (sometimes months) and arduous process of building up a dog’s tolerance second by second, minute by minute and eventually hour by hour through counter-conditioning. Treatment also often includes systematic desensitization to ‘departure cues’ such as picking up keys, going to front door, putting on coat, turning off lights, etc…multiple times per day.
Often the most challenging aspect of treatment is ensuring that the dog never be left alone in real life for longer than they can cope with in their treatment plan. For instance, if you have progressed to leaving your dog alone successfully for 15 minutes in practice, going to work for 8 hours is generally not an option without undoing some, or all, of your hard work.
That means enlisting friends and family and potentially dog sitters or daycare. Most often, successful resolution requires the guidance of a behaviour professional well versed in the science of counter conditioning and desensitization. This professional should also be able to work closely with your vet as some dogs require anxiety-reducing prescriptions in the short term.
Luckily there are things you can do to prevent it or even resolve milder cases. Whether you are bringing a new pup home, adopting a rescue or just have a mild case, here are some tips for prevention:
- Always associate departures with something wonderful such as a stuffed Kong. This might be your dogs daily meals, plugged with a spoonful of wet dog food, peanut butter, cream cheese or canned tripe. Freezing it will help make it last longer. For more suggestions on how to stuff a Kong, see The Art of Kong Stuffing or ASPCA How to Stuff a Kong. Remove the Kong when you get home so that it is only something they get to enjoy when alone.
- Make sure your dog is well exercised before leaving them alone and give them 15-20 minutes to calm down after exercise before leaving. A walk around the block doesn’t count. Go for a hike, play a lengthy game of fetch or arrange a play date with a canine buddy.
- Ensure that your dog is being left somewhere where they are comfortable. Forcing them into a crate or tricking them into a locked mudroom if they have not learned to enjoy these hang outs may have disastrous results.
- Avoid overly enthusiastic greetings and prolonged ‘I’m-gonna-miss-you-so-much’ departures as these will only stress your dog out.
- Returning home to an overturned garbage can or puddle on the floor is frustrating but avoid the temptation to scold or punish your dog.
- Keep the radio or television on for background noise when you go (try putting it on 20-30 minutes before leaving so as not to ‘tip them off’ to your imminent departure each time the radio goes on. Make sure it’s a soothing sound and not the heavy metal station or action packed TV. Classical music or talk radio are more suitable. I once had a client who swore that her dog preferred cooking shows (seeing as she had a lab I was inclined to believe her!). There is even a wonderful series of CDs that are especially calming called Through A Dog’s Ear.
- Start with brief departures of 20-30 minutes and build only when you know they can cope. I always recommend staying within earshot or videotaping your dog to be sure of how they are handling things before gradually prolonging absences.
- If your dog has mild anxiety when alone and adding another dog to your household is a realistic consideration for you, you might try borrowing a friends’ (calm) dog first and leaving them alone together to see if it helps.
- Avoid leaving a dog alone for more than 4-5 hours, regardless of how they handle it. Daycare might be an option for some but not for all. Dog walkers, pet-sitters and even a friend or family member who might appreciate some canine company might be more suitable options.
Don’t leave me – step-by-step help for your dog’s separation anxiety by Nicole Wilde
I”ll be Home Soon – how to prevent and treat separation anxiety by Patricia McConnell
Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs by Malena DeMartini-Price