Dogs love their owners! There is no doubt you can see the excitement as the exuberantly great you at the door, tail wagging, jumping around and even whining in excitement! Most dogs are perfectly fine at home and sleep most of the day away while you are gone. But then there are the dogs that don’t…
Separation anxiety in dogs describes a condition in which a dog exhibits distress and behavior problems when separated from it’s family or other animals. It can range from mild to severe and is one of the biggest reasons for owner surrenders at shelters across the country. With time and effort this condition can be managed through proper exercise, mental stimulation, behavioral training and patience. It is not a behavior that is going to get better overnight, so be prepared to put the time in your dog needs to improve.
If you get your dog as a young puppy make sure you are not catering to him left and right 24/7. It’s hard when they are so cute and cuddly but if you don’t expose your puppy to a variety of situations, they won’t be able to develop the skills they need later in life. Make time in your day for the puppy to be alone, either in his crate or in a puppy-proofed area if a crate is not available.
Let your dog learn that a crate is a great thing and their safe spot. Dogs are naturally denning animals, they prefer a confined comfy place to relax and feel at ease. Spend time with your dog with a crate, giving them small treats every time they go inside. Give chew bones, stuffed Kongs or other rewards to them while they are inside but leave the door open. Every now and then shut the door for a few minutes while you are still in the room, gradually increasing time in small increments. Your dog needs to form a positive association with the crate. If you only put them in there when you are leaving they will quickly associate that the crate is only when they will be left alone which can start to elicit some anxiety. Sometimes a dog will start howling or barking, make sure you do not let them out until they are quiet, or this will teach them that being loud gets them what they want. Put your dog in the crate for short periods throughout the day with a reward so it becomes a favorite place for them. Do not ever use a crate or safe spot as a punishment.
Exercise and mental stimulation is a basic need for any dog. A dog with separation anxiety needs a good quality walk at least 30 minutes per day. Some people like to substitute going out in the backyard and throwing a ball over and over. While this may wear them out physically their mental health is not benefiting. Walking strengthens the bond between dog and handler and also the bond with other canine family members. Dogs are instinctually pack animal that travel and hunt for food. Going for a walk meets their physical and mental needs by stimulating all their senses. They explore new smells, the cover a good amount of ground and they are paying attention to the world around in a different way then mindlessly chasing a ball in the yard over and over. It gives them a way to drain the pent up anxiety and energy they are storing inside them. Walking is a nonnegotiable necessity for an anxious dog.
If you are unable to walk your dog consider hiring a local dog walker or taking them to dog daycare a few days a week. This will meet their mental and physical needs and also improve their social skills. Choose a daycare that will be sensitive to your dog’s needs and match your dog appropriately with other play mates.
Ask for a tour and make sure they have an open door policy for new clients to see what their dogs will be doing all day. Be sure they require shot records and ask for references.
Leaving the house
It is best to keep your dog in a secure spot if they suffer from separation anxiety. Anxiety can cause mass destruction of your home or yard. If a crate makes them freak out then consider a laundry room or other small, dog proofed space that may not make them feel so confined. Be sure you do not leave any dangerous items in the dog’s reach such as rugs, pillows or other items they might tear up and swallow. You may consider putting fiber glass reinforced plastic(FRP panels) on the back of your doors to protect them from damage if the dog decides to scratch or chew. Sometimes leaving them with an item with your scent on it can help aide in their anxiety as well as some mentally stimulating toys. Swap the toys out every few days to keep up interest. There are sprays and wall plug in available at your local pet stores that release a calming pheromone that help a dog relax naturally. Be sure you aren’t trying to reassure your dog when they are in an anxious state. By petting and soothing and anxious dog you are regarding that behavior. You are basically telling the dog “Yes, good job keep doing that!” So it’s best to ignore or redirect the behavior into something positive.
Do not make a big deal about coming and going. Don’t give your dog a big dramatic goodbye every day because this will heighten the anxiety level and cause your dog stress. A great idea is to give them a treat they love that takes a little while to chew such as a Busy Bone, pigs ear, or stuffed Kong treat. Make sure to offer it to them while they are still in a calm relaxed state. Change up your routine so they don’t associate one thing with you leaving. Examples are putting shoes on or jingling keys right before you leave. Go out different doors occasionally so the dog does not pick up on the cues as easily. Owners who are anxious or emotional about leaving might unintentionally transmit that tension to their dogs, so keep hellos and goodbyes simple and calm. Or better yet just slip out the door quietly.
Spend some time teaching your dog all the basic skills. While formal training is always a good idea, separation anxiety isn't the result of disobedience or lack of training, but it can be a useful tool in behavior modification and mental stimulation. Stay is the most important one for a dog with separation anxiety because you can teach them to associate the command with you leaving and returning in small increments. Start out small by leaving your dog for just a minute and increase the time you are gone slowly. You can slowly build a dog’s confidence up by increasing the time you are able to be out of sight. They start to associate you leaving and then returning with a reward. Working on basic commands a few times a day is another great way to mentally stimulate and drain some of that anxiety from your pooch!
For severe cases of separation anxiety it is always best to contact a local dog training professional and your veterinarian. If a dog has had a traumatic event in the past then this process can take time and patience to overcome. Working together a professional dog trainer and your Veterinarian can come up with a behavior modification plan with assisted medicines given by your dog’s doctor. Medication alone is usually not effective because the dog is not learning to desensitize. For best results you will need to add some behavior modification to your dog’s treatment plan. Medication is for severe cases and should not be used long term unless recommended by your veterinary professional. Do not rely on medication for a quick fix.