15 September 2020
Similar to humans, dogs experience different emotions like happiness, anger, sadness, fear, and even anxiety. While anxiety in dogs can (and should) be experienced from time to time, you don’t want to let your dog’s anxiousness get out of control.
Unfortunately, dogs cannot easily communicate when they need to have a therapy session or go for a walk and clear their mind. That’s why, as dog owners, it’s our responsibility to notice and be aware of any signs of anxiety when they arise so we can help our furry best friends handle their distress appropriately.
If you are wondering what your dog could possibly be anxious about, there are three common causes of anxiety: fear, separation, and aging. In this post, we want to cover how to handle separation anxiety in your dog.
As more and more dog owners shift from working from home to working from the office, it’s especially important to address any separation anxiety your dogs may be experiencing as their schedule and environment changes. Since we can’t always be home all day with our pups to keep them happy, it's essential to know how to handle, care, and potentially cure your dog’s separation anxiety right from the start.
But first, let’s find out what separation anxiety is.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety means exactly what it implies. Your dog gets anxious or distressed when separated from you. Given dogs’ social nature, it isn’t too surprising that canines usually struggle to be away from or separated from their pack (family members).
Initially, this might sound adorable and flattering, but not addressing this issue can lead to problematic situations in the future. That’s why It’s incredibly important to help your dog through any anxiety they have right away - this includes new puppies who show signs of anxiety. Like humans, disproportionate levels of anxiety in dogs can lead to behavioural issues when left unchecked.
Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety are unable to find comfort when their family is not around. This can happen when they are left alone or even if they are separated from family members by a closed door. Unfortunately, not all dogs are as easily accepting of their solitude compared to others of their kind.
It’s important to note that separation anxiety becomes a problem when it causes extreme distress in your dog. If you aren’t sure what this looks like, there are quite a few ways to tell if your dog is suffering from separation anxiety.
How do you know if your dog has separation anxiety?
A few sorrowful whimpers or being a little mischievous when left alone aren’t usually prerequisites to separation anxiety; however, there are few other signs to help you determine if your dog is under real stress when left by themselves.
- Accidents like urination or defecation
- Destructive exploits like digging, scratching, or chewing furniture, walls, or clothing
- Excessive barking, howling, drooling, panting, and crying
- Continuous pacing
- Harmful attempts to escape when crated or when alone, in general
- Self-harm to themselves by excessive licking or chewing
- Not eating
One tip to note is that these shouldn’t be one-off behaviours. These behaviours will happen every time you leave them alone, or these behaviours only appear when you are absent. This is a good indication that your dog is experiencing separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety-ridden dogs usually start urinating, defecating, barking, or destroying furniture in response to their anxious emotions. While some dogs may grow out of their separation anxiety, others might require extra attention or treatments to ease their distress.
How do you treat separation anxiety in dogs?
We’re going to guess that neither you nor your dog wants this anxiety cycle to continue. That’s why it’s important to help cure or “treat” your dog’s separation anxiety as soon as possible. The earlier you spot their anxiety, the better for both you, your dog and your furniture.
We’ve gathered up a few ways you can start tackling your dog’s anxiety. Unfortunately, these methods aren’t magic, and depending on your dog’s history or temperament, they may or may not work. But it’s important to try every avenue open to you.
Conditioning Your Dog
Right now, when you leave your dog, their stress hormones are ramping out of their own control. To combat this instinctive reaction, you want to change your dog’s negative association with you leaving (or them being alone) to a positive association.
One way to do this is by teaching them that separation can have rewards, usually in the form of something they love like a treat they don’t get often. Think of a toy stuffed with peanut butter, a bone, a toy puzzle, or whatever else to keep them occupied.
The key is to keep your dog occupied to reduce the anxiety and stress that occurs when you leave. Giving your dog a toy or treat that will mentally stimulate them and keep them busy is beneficial for both you and your dog while they are left alone.
Bonus tip: It also helps to have some of their favorite items accessible while you are gone - things like beds, blankets, toys, etc., so they have everything they need to keep them comfortable during your absence.
Slow and Steady Separation
If you know your situation is changing (like going back to work at the office), or you know you will be out of the house more often than usual, we recommend slowly train your dog (or new puppy) to help them get used to this adjustment.
Spend a short amount of time away (or separated) from your dog each day. Usually, 10-20 minutes is a good starting point. Slowly build up the time from there.
This may sound tedious, but it really can help adjust your dog to more extended periods when you do need to be away. We highly recommend that you make arrangements to never leave your dog alone for more than 4-5 hours at a time.
If your puppy shows signs of separation anxiety (or even if they aren’t showing signs yet), we recommend crate training right away. You can place your puppy in the crate for short periods and gradually increase the amount of time as your training progresses. Most dogs and puppies will associate their crates with a natural “den” or “safe space,” which can reduce any existing anxiety they might have.
If your dog is already crate trained, and they are still showing signs of anxiety, start creating a positive association with the crate. Give them plenty of encouragement when they go in and throw treats inside before you leave.
Exercise your dog
Before you leave your dog at home, make sure they are well-exercised. A tired dog who's just had a good play or long walk will be more likely to settle down and remain calm when you leave.
Give your dog company
Do we mean bringing in a neighbourhood dog to keep them company? No. That might lead to an even worse situation for an already anxious dog. It might help your dog to feel like they have “company” in the form of a television or radio. Try leaving one of these devices on before you leave the house, so it gives the impression that someone is there with them.
We only recommend the following if you know you can handle an extra set of paws and if it would genuinely benefit, rather than upset, your dog. Another simple (yeah, right) way to give your dog company is by adopting another dog!. Not only will the two dogs keep each other company, but they can also provide emotional support and attention when they need to stay calm and collected while their owner (you) are away.
Keep departures calm
Don’t fuss over your dog or amplify the fact that you are leaving the house. This includes being sappy or overly emotional in response to being separated from them. Try to stay calm and don’t make a big deal out of your departure. Keep calm and carry on as they say.
Bonus tip: You can also apply this to your arrival as well.
Stick to a schedule
Some dogs just do well on a schedule, in general. Keeping a schedule might help ease your dog’s anxiety if they know what’s coming. This can include specific times that you take them on a walk, feed them, play with them, or give them attention. When it comes time for your scheduled departure time, your pup will be as ready as they will ever be.
Use a diffuser
Diffusers can release dog calming pheromones (called dog appeasing pheromones or DAP), which chemically signals that they are safe. This signal can help calm your anxious dog. DAP has been used for dogs with separation anxiety and for dogs with anxiety induced by thunderstorms, fireworks, or other loud noises.
Note: DAP doesn’t work for all dogs, but if you’ve made your way down this list already, you might as well try it, right?
Hire a sitter or take them to doggy day care
If you find that some of these options aren’t working for your dog and you have the budget to spare, it might be a good idea to consider hiring a pet sitter or dog walker to come over and keep your dog company during the day.
If you don’t like the idea of strangers in your home, there are usually plenty of doggy daycare options in cities that provide a comforting place to drop your dog off for the day so they can socialise and play while you are away from home.
We’ve left this for last as it’s not something we would recommend trying first if you can help it. Some medicines can help lessen your dog’s anxiety, but we encourage you to consult your veterinarian before giving your dog any over-the-counter medication. `
Implementing these methods
It’s important to remember that different methods work for different dogs. So what works for your neighbor’s dog might not work for your dog. That’s why we’ve given you an extensive list of methods to try that might help reduce or even eliminate your dog’s separation anxiety.
Unfortunately, separation anxiety isn’t always curable or even preventable in all dogs. No matter how much effort you put in, your dog may have encountered too much trauma in their past or might even have a predisposition for experiencing higher levels of anxiety. Just know that with patience and care, you may be able to reduce - if not eliminate - your dog’s suffering and the destructive behaviors it causes.