Separation Anxiety In Dogs
Does your dog hate being left alone? Are you struggling with leaving your dog at home now that you have to go back to work? You are not alone. Separation anxiety is a very common problem in dogs and can cause a great deal of stress for owners, the dogs and any neighbours. Signs that your dog may be finding being left alone stressful include:
Becoming anxious and 'clingy' as you go to leave.
Following you from room to room when you are home or approaching the time to leave.
Barking or whining when they are left alone.
Destruction of toys, bedding or even doors/walls in the house.
Toileting in the house when they are usually toilet trained.
Vomiting or excessive drooling either as you are leaving or when left alone.
Extremely excited greeting on your return.
Only eating food after you have returned.
Trouble settling when you do return home.
These are all fairly common behaviours and are a sign that your dog is not coping with being left alone. If the signs have come on suddenly or are getting worse quite quickly it is advisable to visit your vet for a check over to make sure there is not another underlying cause such as pain or illness. If your dog is fit and well then there are a few things that you can do to help reduce your dog's anxiety and get them used to being left alone.
Firstly, it is important to reduce the reaction to the 'signs' that you are about to leave. Dogs are extremely good at reading patterns and routines and will quickly learn that you grabbing your keys, finding shoes, preparing a bag etc all mean that they are likely to be left alone soon. They will start to become anxious even at the first sign so by the time you are actually going to leave they can be very distressed. One way of dealing with this is to 'pretend' to leave multiple times a day and then continue your day as normal. For example, look for your keys, pick them up and then just continue as normal. Repeat for all stages and then get to the point where you have your bag in hand and your coat on and go and sit on the sofa for half an hour. Progress through all of these stages really slowly and repeat up to 6 times a day. If your dog shows signs of relaxing such as walking away or settling on their bed, verbally praise them in a soothing tone and give them a little fuss. This should be repeated by every family member that the dog is bonded to.
Secondly, go back to basics with teaching your dog to be left alone. Set up a safe and quiet area where they feel secure. This may be a crate or laundry space etc. This space needs to be somewhere the dog goes voluntarily and feels safe in. If the dog is only ever put in that space when you leave they will associate it with negative experiences of being left alone. You may need to create a new space whilst you re-train your dog. Spend time just sitting and playing with your dog here so they feel relaxed and happy. Some dogs find it comforting to use some background noise such as having a radio on. This can muffle the sound of noises from outside that may startle them. Get your dog used to being given enrichment toys such as Kongs or Lickimats that keep them busy and promote relaxation. It is important to give these to them frequently and not just when they are about to be left! Look online for recipes to make these toys last even longer.
You then need to VERY slowly get your dog used to being left alone. This will mean starting from scratch and leaving them for 30 seconds to one minute and progressing in 5 minute increments. This is well worth the time investment to do properly and will make your lives so much easier in the long run.
When you do return home after any period of time it is important to calmly enter and just verbally greet your dog in a soothing tone. If you go back in with all noise, kisses and cuddles it will reinforce the fact that you being there is SO much better and that they were right to miss you. If your dog is very excited on your arrival you MUST wait until they are calm before greeting and fussing them. All family members must also do this.
You coming and going from the house should be a normal and relaxed process that neither you or the dog pays too much attention to.
Is your dog getting enough exercise and mental stimulation for their age and breed? If your dog has too much energy or is bored separation anxiety will be considerably worse. Consider a dog walker once or twice a week if you struggle to give your dog enough exercise. Consider their mental well-being and keep their minds busy with training and exercises at home when you are there.
If you are still struggling invest in the help of a veterinary behaviourist or a certified dog trainer (such as an APDT member in the UK or Delta in Australia). Beware of any trainers that use fear or control to tackle these problems as the key element here is that your dog is anxious and needs to be given ways of coping. Separation is commonly one sign of a general anxiety problem so please seek help if you are struggling.
Good luck and contact the team at the Hub if you need any assistance.