Dog separation anxiety: how to recognise it and practical steps to help dog owners deal with this growing problem
By Dogrobes’ resident vet Dr Ciara Clarke
We all love our dogs – but could your four-legged friend love you a little too much?
According to the RSPCA, eight out of 10 dogs can’t cope when they are left alone, and it’s really not surprising that our loyal and faithful friends miss us when we’re not around.
Just like humans, dogs are sociable creatures. In the wild they’d be part of a pack. They have evolved with people over thousands of years. So, it just isn’t natural or instinctual for them to be alone.
For some dogs being left on their own is an overwhelming and stressful experience. Separation Related Behaviour (SRB), also referred to as separation anxiety, can occur for many reasons.
For dogs that had separation anxiety issues before lockdown, it’s likely to get worse when their owners head back to work.
Identifying triggers can be difficult, as most behaviour happens while your dog is on its own, but boredom, frustration, fear and anxiety are common.
Dogs need both mental and physical stimulation to be happy and healthy. If your dog isn’t getting enough physical or mental exercise this might be contributing to their behaviour. If your dog has lots of energy left to use up, then being left alone will probably be very difficult for them, much like it would for a human.
Past experiences can have a big impact on dog behaviour. If they have experienced something negative when left alone before, this can cause them fear and anxiety when spending time by themselves.
With these types of separation related issues, you may see traits like howling, barking and doing the toilet in the house.
While some of the traits may happen minutes after you leave the house, you may notice that your dog begins to show them as you prepare to leave. Actions such as putting your coat on, or your shoes, and picking up keys can act as triggers to your dog.
Some people check if their pet is whining or pacing after they leave home by filming their dog at home alone to see if that reveals any potential issues.
Here are the most common behavioural signs of separation anxiety:
Destructive behaviour, targeted at the door you left the house from
Chewing and destroying furniture
Various types of vocalisation like howling and barking
Other less frequent signs that can be easily missed include:
Trembling, whining or pacing
Repetitive behaviour, like pacing up and down the stairs
The good news is that there are ways to help your dog if separation anxiety is becoming an issue. Here’s what you can do:
Take immediate action. Don’t wait until lockdown ends, start by spending some time apart from your dog. Right now. You’re not doing this for yourself, or to save you nice new shoes, you’re doing it for your beloved dog. Anxious dogs aren’t just problematic by whining, barking or being destructive but they are unhappy.
Spend time apart in different rooms. Use a baby gate if necessary, this way your dog can feel comforted by still being able to see you but can learn it’s ok to be separated.
Build this up to time alone in the house. Desensitise your departure and keep your return calm. When you leave the house for food shopping, change up your routine. Remember, dogs are super smart. So, if you always put on your shoes, pick up your bag and then jingle your keys, this is a cue you’re leaving your dog alone and can cause stress.
Don’t make a giant fuss when you return home. Even though all you really want to do is give your furry friend a big cuddle, dogs will wait anxiously for this attention, and can take this out on your furniture or start barking, calling you to come back.
Use interactive toys. Introducing interactive toys like a stuffed Kong or snuffle mat can help create a positive association and distraction during what normally would be a stressful situation. Giving them a time-consuming food puzzle or long-lasting treat as soon as you’re about to leave, and it can help to distract them from their peak anxiety and start to create a positive association around being alone.
Have a doggy den. Ensure your dog has their own special place where they feel safe and secure. Crate training your dog is great for this or giving them their own place in the house or garden with their bed and favourite toys. Use calming pheromones like Adaptil in the area.
Ask a friend round, to the front door. Though our dogs love us, they also love general human company. We owners often think our dog misses us and us alone, but generally as long as someone is around, they can feel more content. Can you ask a neighbour to take your pet to theirs for an afternoon, or arrange a dog walker a few days a week? The website Borrow My Doggy is full of people looking to connect with local dogs for walks, weekends or holidays.
Do not punish. Some dogs are distraught and don’t leave their bed from the moment you leave. Other dogs become destructive. Anxious dogs who chew table legs or new pairs of shoes are not acting up or getting back on their owners for leaving them alone, they are in an emotionally stressed state and just don’t know how to cope. Punishment is never the answer.
Obedience training isn’t the answer. While formal training is always a good idea, separation anxiety isn't the result of disobedience or lack of training.
Getting another dog won’t help. Getting your dog, a companion usually doesn't help an anxious dog because their anxiety is the result of their separation from you, not just the result of being alone.
Radio/TV noise isn’t a solution, either. Leaving the radio or television on won't help unless the radio or TV is used as a safety cue.
When it’s time to seek help
If your dog’s separation anxiety is getting worse, or is already severe, sadly it’s unlikely to go away by itself and may deteriorate further. Seek professional help from an experienced vet or behaviourist. Many offer telephone or video consults and you can find a list of qualified behaviourists here.
Want to check if separation anxiety is an issue for your dog? Take our simple quiz to see.
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