Dog Separation Anxiety

What is it?

You leave your dog at home and return to a house that has been destroyed. The dog has ripped down your curtains, eaten your couch, and scratched the door beyond repair. You decide to leave your dog in a crate. Immediately the dog starts to whine, bark, scratch and jump uncontrollably. The dog may even drool or foam at the mouth and urinate/defecate. The dog looks frantic and crazed. This is most likely separation anxiety.

Separation Anxiety is a disorder which, in its severe from, can consist of panic attacks: urinating, defecating, frantically scratching and chewing, barking and crying whenever the dog is left alone. It is usually triggered by either a high contrast situation – months of the owner home all day followed by sudden long absences – or some sort of life change – rehoming, a stay at a boarding kennel, the death of a key family member or major change in routine.

What to do for Separation Anxiety

First of all, it is very important to know that your dog is not misbehaving out of boredom, spite or for fun. The dog is acting this way because of a severe anxiety over being separated from you. Try to think about how your dog feels and recognize that their anxiety is not something they can control easily and that is not a feeling they like to have!

Puppies and newly adopted dogs are at high risk to develop separation anxiety if they are smothered with constant attention their first few days home. It is much better to leave for brief periods extremely often so the dog’s early learning about departures is that they are no big deal and predict easy, tolerable lengths of absence: “whenever she leaves, she comes back.”

Give you dog both physical and mental work to do. Not only does such work increase confidence and independence (which helps an anxiety-ridden dog feel safer and more confident about being left alone), it is mentally fatiguing and so increases the likelihood that your dog will rest quietly when he is left alone. Teach him to play “hide and seek” with toys and treats, have him go through a series of commands every time he goes anywhere or wants anything. Enroll him in an obedience class and give him lots of socialization with people and dogs to help him get his mental/physical exercise and to build confidence.

DON’T MAKE A BIG DEAL ABOUT LEAVING!! When you make a fuss every time you walk out the door, the dog feels that energy and then sees you leave. If you practice leaving and coming, making no fuss and doing so repeatedly for short periods of time, the dog will be desensitized to your absence after a while and grow bored trying to figure out whether or not you’re coming back. Also, if your dog does show anxiety over your leaving, consider altering your routine. Many dogs start to feel anxiety because they are aware of their owner’s routine: you shower, you drink your coffee, you get your keys and you leave. As soon as the dog sees you put your coffee cup down or reach for your keys, he knows you’re leaving. The anxiety can start already. Try picking up your keys and then putting them back down or simply walking around with them for a while and not leaving. Altering your routine can throw the dog off and help alleviate the anxiety that kicks in as a result of your routine leaving.

A dog with severe separation anxiety can take a lot of work – but it’s worth it! You will have to build time into your day to alter your routine, leave and come back numerous times, and exercise your dog. You may have to employ a doggy daycare or dog sitter if your dog has a severe case of anxiety. There may be times where the dog cannot be left alone while you start the process of getting the dog through this.

Do NOT buy into the advice that medication will solve the problem. In some severe cases, medication can help but it always must be used in conjunction with a plan to work on the behavior. By taking the steps above and making sure you are helping to build the dog’s confidence and independence, medication may not be necessary. In any case, always seek the advice of a qualified trainer and veterinarian before taking this on yourself.

This information was compiled in part by information provided by the San Francisco SPCA Behavior and Training Department.