One of most common problems pet parents come across is destructive behavior of the dog when left alone. We know it too well, the chewing up objects and furniture, howling, barking, digging their way to freedom. These are the signs of separation anxiety your pup faces every time you leave the house. Some dogs become anxious, some show signs of depression and some try to prevent their owners leaving. As soon as you return they act as if they haven’t seen you in years! As funny as this sounds it is a real serious problem and you should deal with it before it turns any more so.
When treating your pup to deal with separation anxiety you help him enjoy or tolerate being left alone. This isn’t going to happen overnight but with patience and consistent training you can make both your lives better.
Common symptoms of separation anxiety
- Urinating and defecating is a very common sign and occurs when the owner leaves the house.
- Barking and howling is usually triggered by being left alone, and in the case of my dog it does not compare to anything else. It is a very painful, long howl that becomes quieter within a few minutes.
- Chewing and digging of objects, the furniture, door frames or going through the rubbish bins. Familiar? Yes, another sign that your pup feels stressed out when left alone. This behavior can often result in self injury such as broken teeth or swallowing potentially harmful items, not to mention the actual damage to the house.
- Escaping is triggered by separation stress and can also be harmful to the dog.
- Pacing can occur when they’re left alone, usually in the same pattern.
If these behaviors stop when you are around they are for sure the signs that your dog deals with separation anxiety. Unfortunately, there are many factors to trigger this. There is no conclusive evidence as to why this occurs, but some of the most common triggers include moving houses, change of owners, change in schedule or change in the household setup.
Determine the cause
According to the world famous dog trainer Cesar Milan, there is true separation anxiety, and there is simulated separation anxiety. In the later the dog behavior appears to be separation anxiety but it is, in fact, a learned behavior. Simulated separation anxiety often manifests itself when the dog lacks leadership as well as self-control. True separation anxiety, on the other hand, causes the dog to experience real stress during the absence of his owner. In simulated separation anxiety, the dog knows that he will get attention if he acts badly. For some dogs, even being verbally reprimanded for such behavior is rewarding because he feels he was noticed. As yo can see it is important to determine the cause clearly before starting treatment.
How to prevent separation anxiety
If your dog has a mild separation anxiety then counterconditioning might be the solution for you. This is the process of changing the animal’s anxious, fearful reaction to a pleasant one. You can do this by associating the feared object or situation with something your dog really loves. With this method you teach your dog to eventually love and enjoy the situation they feared. You can do this by leaving your dog with a treat every time you leave the house. Give him a puzzle toy stuffed with treats, his favorite chew toy, a plate of peanut butter or simply his dinner. The trick is to make sure it would take your dog 20-30 minutes to finish up these treats. In this case he will be occupied long enough to miss your leaving. Then, he will start associating this previously fearful situation with something enjoyable, something to look forward to. This method only works in mild cases of anxiety.
Treatment for more severe cases
Most of the time your dog connects your departure with an action. This action prompts the anxiety building up and causes the stress while you are still there. These actions can include your putting on your coat, shoes, picking up your keys or the case of my dog it’s noise of unzipping my bag. In order to treat more severe cases, you need to work in two steps.
The first is to teach your dog to unlearn the connection between these familiar actions and your departure. For example, put on your coat and sit down to watch some tv. Or pick up your keys and go to the kitchen to make dinner. These disruptions to the patterns they learnt will distract their attention and the stress won’t start building up. In order to learn that the cues no longer predict your long absences, your dog must experience the fake cues many, many times a day for many weeks. After your dog doesn’t become anxious when he sees you getting ready to leave, you can move on to the next step below.
The next step is to take shorter leaves and gradually expand the time. Start with a period that won’t trigger anxiety, get out of their sight for a short period of time. Then start lengthening these periods to up to 40 minutes, and hour. This takes quite a few weeks, and the plan sometimes backfire when we want to move on too quickly. Remember, doing it gradually and one step at a time is crucial. Once you got to the point where your dog is fine to spend 90 minutes alone, he’ll be ok for 4-8 hours. The durations and time you spend depends mainly on your dog and if you’d like professional help and advice contact a certified dog trainer.
Some dogs react really well for carte training. They consider it their safe place making it an easy alternative to the above treatments. However, some get anxious and too stressed out when left locked in there. You have to stop using crates when you experience violent behavior or heavy breathing. Personally, I am not a fan and have probably never used a crate in my life. Instead, I try to create a small corner or section in the house for my dogs that are entirely theirs. This way, they learn to go back to their own bed, toys etc when they feel anxious.
Distract your dog
Regular daily exercise is key in preventing separation anxiety. Most dogs need plenty of mental and physical stimulation to stay active and healthy. Laying in bed all day and being walked twice a day is just not enough for most pups. Luckily there plenty of options for you to try.
- Try to give your dog 30 minutes of active exercise every day, this could include running, swimming, play fetch or find retrieve.
- Expose them to different stimulus, try to switching up your daily walking routes.
- Take your pup to a dog park for the obvious reasons.
- Buy them food puzzle toys, they encourage chewing and licking which are proven to have a calming effect on dogs.
What not to do
Do not scold or punish your dog. Anxious behaviors are not the result of disobedience or spite. They are distress responses! If you punish him, he may become even more upset and the problem could get much worse.
Before applying any treatment make sure to consult your vet or a behavior specialist. Nonetheless, I hope you guys find this article useful. Please, leave your comments below and let us know what you would like to read about next!