How to Recognize and Treat Separation Anxiety in Dogs
All you have to do is scroll through your social media feed to see that dogs, on the whole, are lovers. From giant Mastiffs who think they are lap dogs to Pugs who have no concept of personal space, most dog breeds are very affectionate. That’s because dogs love their pack members and, yes, that’s you! Being around them often is crucial to dog wellness.
First and foremost, people should understand that dogs are social beings before adopting or buying. If you’ve gotten a puppy or adopted a dog during a hiatus and are now returning to work, you could very well be facing a bit of separation anxiety. Fortunately, there are fairly clear signs of this separation anxiety and ways you can lessen that for your pooch, and we share both of those below.
Signs of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
While dogs can be fairly stoic about physical pain, they are thankfully pretty outright in showing their signs of stress.
Some signs that your dog may be experiencing separation anxiety are as follows:
- Excessive barking and/or howling
- Clawing and/or scratching, especially around doors and windows (escape points)
- Destroying your property Urinating or defecating inside
- Trying to escape
- Coprophagia - defecating and then consuming their excrement (usually while pet parent is gone)
- Any extreme reaction when the pet parent leaves and when they return
The Causes of and Treatment for Separation Anxiety in Dogs
The main goal when treating separation anxiety in dogs is to get to the root of why the dog is suffering from it. Some shelter dogs end up with a fear of abandonment while other dogs simply get used to a certain routine (such as having the pet owner home with them) and then are thrown off by the change in schedule. Other causes can be changes in guardianship, a change in residence, and the addition or removal of someone from the home.
There are likely things that trigger separation anxiety reactions in dogs, so a big part of treating their anxiety is removing these things that provoke the problem. You should also talk to your vet to rule out any underlying medical conditions.
The following are some ways to treat separation anxiety:
This evokes a negative reaction from some who think this is too harsh for dogs, but crate training can be a lifesaver. As with kids, dogs appreciate boundaries to avoid getting overwhelmed, which is why you often hear that you should at the very least not give your dog roaming privileges of your whole house.
When it comes to crate training, make sure that you don’t leave a dog in there longer than about six hours. If you’ve got a puppy, four hours would be the absolute max, and even that is pushing it. If you’re working full time and crate training your dog, you need to either hire someone to let your dog out to go to the bathroom or come home from work to do it yourself. And you might consider leaving some laundry in there for a calming scent.
If you’re going to try crate training, you need to pay attention to whether your dog or puppy is having adverse reactions to this. As the ASPCA notes, “If he shows signs of distress (heavy panting, excessive salivation, frantic escape attempts, persistent howling or barking), crate confinement isn’t the best option for him. Instead of using a crate, you can try confining your dog to one room behind a baby gate.” There are also certain dog breeds that don’t do as well with crate training as others, so consult your veterinarian.
Plenty of Exercise
A dog that gets plenty of play is a tired one, and that is never a bad thing. Make sure to get your dog plenty of exercise before you leave for work, during work, and after work. You will reap the benefits as a pet owner. You can also consider leaving strategic dog toys to keep them active while gone, such as a Kong filled with peanut butter (none containing xylitol!). You can even freeze peanut butter, cottage cheese, or banana inside the Kong to lengthen the amount of time your dog will spend on getting the reward.
Don’t Make a Fuss
When leaving - whether you are putting your dog in a crate or not - do not make a big deal about it. This also goes for when you return. In other words, this should be seen as no big deal and, although your dog might not buy it at first, this will become second nature.
Remove the Triggers
This goes hand in hand with not making a fuss, as there are certain things we all do when we are leaving the house—such as checking our appliances in the kitchen and grabbing our wallets or purses, phones, and keys. Get these things ready the night before if you have to so that this sign that you are leaving doesn’t trigger a reaction in your dog. Your departure should be as uneventful as possible.
Just as grabbing your keys can be a trigger, as it’s a sign that you’re heading out, you can use counterconditioning to associate you leaving with something good. Leaving your dog with a small treat, a piece of string cheese, or another item your furry friend loves can change the negative association to a positive one. For more serious cases of separation anxiety in dogs, you might consider consulting a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.
Practice First, If Possible
If you know your schedule is about to change, including being away from your dog who is not used to this, try mimicking the schedule first for a week or two. Making the change in schedule more gradual can help reduce separation anxiety in dogs. Try increasing the time you’re gone every time you leave to prepare your dog for the new schedule.
Consider Doggy Daycare
Ain't no shame in this game! We know this is an added expense but separation anxiety is a sign that your dog is in distress and experiencing pain so, if you can add doggy daycare to your budget, it can often be the way to go. As an added benefit, your dog will be tired when you get home from work!
Try Leaving the Radio or TV On
Some say that this isn’t helpful while others swear by this as a soothing sound in your absence. It’s not going to harm anything so it’s worth a shot. If you go with music, leave it on the type of music you listen to when you’re home.
Medication As A Last Resort
As veterinarians, we understand that medicating your dog isn’t ideal but in extreme cases, this can be the best alternative. When you’ve tried all the other methods and your dog is still showing signs of distress, talk to your veterinarian about anti-anxiety medication.
What NOT to Do When Your Dog Experiences Separation Anxiety
It’s important to note that you should never punish your dog when they show signs of separation anxiety, as that would not only be cruel but it can also make the situation worse. Some people also assume getting another pet for the company will help, but that isn’t always the way to go and can also make separation anxiety worse. Lastly, be wary of trying to keep your dog in the car. We know this can be a tempting alternative, as many dogs love the car, but it can be extremely dangerous when temperatures get too high. And death in a hot car happens very quickly.
If you have any questions about whether your dog is experiencing separation anxiety and how to deal with it, we can find a local vet that can help!