Ah, separation anxiety, the age-old problem that has plagued many dogs since their coexistence with humans. It can be endearing, but in reality, it can be a hassle to deal with. Not only that, but severe cases of separation anxiety can result in your dog injuring himself and you will never be able to leave his side.
There is no doubt that a dog’s anxiety is a big problem. It’s tough on you but tough on your pooch as well. If your dog vocalizes frequently when you leave the house, then there is a good chance it is a case of anxiety. However, it could be a variety of other reasons, so we’ll take the time to help you identify the issue below.
Separation Anxiety – Identifying the Problem
The first step to understanding your dog’s behavior is to identify the problem. Is it separation anxiety or is it not?
Your dog may not exhibit all of the below symptoms. Even if he does display a few, it could be an underlying health condition or something completely unrelated to separation anxiety. If you feel that your dog isn’t feeling well or something is worrying you, do not hesitate to contact your vet. It’s important to rule out medical causes.
The most common signs of separation anxiety are:
A barking, crying, howling or whining dog
The most-seen symptom of anxiety in dogs when you leave the house is some sort of vocalization. Some dogs vocalize as much as humans do. A dog cries, whines, howls, or barks to let us know exactly how they’re feeling, so it’s no surprise that he would want to tell you he’s upset that you’re gone.
You will know it’s most likely separation anxiety when you’re not there when you’re dog is vocalizing, if the behavior is persistent, and if there are no apparent triggers.
Also, another common sign but one that can be explained by other conditions is destructive behavior. This could range from chewing on something he shouldn’t, to your dog tearing through the floorboards and walls. Not only will this be devastating to your home, but there is a big chance your dog could ingest something dangerous.
We’re more worried about your dog accidentally eating something he shouldn’t because you won’t be home to rush him to the vet right away. Your pooch can also injure himself, crack a tooth, scratch his gums and paws and splinter his nails all in an attempt to get to you.
Escaping and busting out of his crate, your home, or the yard is another possibility. Most dogs don’t get to this level, but the master escape artist, the Siberian husky breed, has their owners at a loss at what to do.
Escaping confinement is usually accompanied by destructive behavior, but it’s your dog taking things to the next level. He may tear through the doors, crash through the windows, or dig under and completely uproot fences.
Uncontrolled urinating or defecating
Have you ever been so nervous you have to use the bathroom before a big performance or speech? Your dog can experience similar feelings induced by your absence. It could cause dogs to need to poop or pee because they are so anxious.
Frantic pacing will most likely go hand in hand with all of the above. It’s similar to human nervous or anxious ticks such as nail biting or leg shaking. Whether it’s pacing in straight lines or whirling in circles, if your dog is exhibiting a fixed pattern, then it’s separation anxiety if it doesn’t happen when you’re home.
Why Do Dogs Have Separation Anxiety?
In order to treat the problem, you have to identify the cause. If you’re sure your dog has anxiety thanks to our list above, the next step is to know why. Here are the common reasons why dogs suffer from anxiety.
A big change in the environment
An example of a big change in the environment is relocation. If you move from a home where your dog grew up, it could trigger anxiety. Dogs don’t understand what a move is, and they may feel scared and anxious as to why their surroundings have suddenly changed.
Absence or change of the permanent guardian
A dog that has to switch owners will definitely need time to adjust to the new ownership. In the meantime, he will definitely show some anxious signs.
If you’re not giving your dog up, then something as simple as going on vacation for a week or two and boarding your dog or leaving him with friends can also trigger anxious behavior. Don’t let this stop you from going on your trips. With some training sessions and regularity, your dog will get used to it.
An obvious change in schedule
Dogs thrive on a set routine, and they function best on a permanent schedule. You can imagine the type of uneasiness a big change can do. Let’s say you have mainly worked from home for most of your dog’s life and now you have to head into the office, or your work schedule has changed. Your dog will feel this abrupt change and need time to adjust.
Change in household members
If someone in the family moves out, or there is a new addition to the family, your dog can develop separation anxiety.
Why Does My Dog Behave for Me but Not Others?
A lot of dogs will recognize one primary owner if one particular person is always the one taking care of them. If you’re the one feeding, walking, playing, cleaning up after, and grooming your dog, then you can bet that he will view you as mom or dad and listen to you more than others in your home, and especially strangers.
You may also find that a dog may listen to you more in certain situations and someone else in others. Dogs are smart creatures and can differentiate between their humans and their behaviors. If you’re always the one feeding your dog treats, and the other often ignore his behavior, then there are times when the tables can turn and your dog will listen to whoever rewards him more.
To even the balance, we often suggest new dog owners share as much of the responsibility as possible. We know this isn’t always possible, but trying to balance the effort is key to having a dog that listens to everyone.
What to Do When Your Dog Has Separation Anxiety
Let’s say you’re sure your dog has separation anxiety, so what are some things you can do about it? We’ll answer some of the biggest questions first, then give you some tips that will help your dog cope.
Should I crate a dog with separation anxiety?
Crate training is perhaps the most effective way to deal with separation anxiety. For dogs who are not master escape artists and won’t try to tear through the cage, it’s also the safest method to ensure that your fur baby won’t get up to anything when you’re not watching.
The key to crate training is to start when your dog is young. Why it works is because it eventually becomes a place where your dog feels safe and one where he enjoys being. Most trainers and animal behaviorists will tell you to crate train your dog. However, there are some cases where the crate training just doesn’t work. Instead, it adds even more stress and anxiety to your dog.
Don’t give up too easily, because most dogs will put up some sort of resistance during crate training. A dog that barks incessantly is not necessarily one that can’t be crated. If your pooch shows serious signs of distress when you leave the room during crate training such as excessive panting and salivating, and attempts at escaping by trying to destroy the crate, then you can try other options.
Think about confinement, but in a larger space. For example, you can make use out of a baby crate and seal off and entire room for your pooch to roam in. He may feel less confined and more comfortable in a larger area.
Should I let my dog cry it out?
Crying it out could work for some dogs. It’s a method of getting rid of some excess energy and once they tire themselves out, they’ll fall asleep. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for all dogs. A dog will whine, cry, howl and bark during crating, and this happens to more than half of the dogs.
You shouldn’t let them cry for crying’s sake, but there has to be some training involved. For example, it’s okay if he’s crying, but only pay attention and reward him when he doesn’t. This will help your dog to understand that crying doesn’t get what he wants, and in fact, the reverse does. Do not give up and do not give in.
We still stand by what we said above. If a dog is crying and overly frantic and distressed, then try a different method of training or confinement in your absence. It could be as simple as placing your dog in daycare or giving him plenty of jobs to do while you’re gone such as getting his treats out of a stuffed Kong.
How Can I Stop Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
Dogs are rarely completely cured of anxiety, and the same can be said about humans. We may learn how to cope and live with it, and those anxieties may be less prominent than before after we seek help, but they are more or less there in some form or another in various situations. Anxiety isn’t something to be condemned because it is a natural feeling. The key is to help your dog deal with it in the best possible way.
A board certified veterinary behaviorist will have a better idea of how to help your dog because every dog’s anxiety manifests differently, but the professional will most likely do one or a combination of the following:
Counterconditioning is best for mild anxiety cases. It’s basically replacement therapy where your dog associates terror and fear with your absence and changes those feelings to pleasant ones. Essentially, you want your dog to have a positive association with you leaving the house. An easy way to do this is with food, which dog doesn’t love his favorite snacks?
Only bring out the special snack when you’re leaving, this will make the snack a high value treat, and make sure to remove it once you come home. You can also do this with a toy, such as a stuffed Kong. Use something that will take your dog a while to get through and give it to him 5-10 minutes before you leave the house.
Once your canine starts to associate your leaving with his favorite and very rare treat, you will notice a big change in your dog’s behavior. As soon as dogs feel secure and comfortable without you, it will also alleviate a lot of the pressure his anxiety has caused you.
Desensitization is meant for the more severe cases of anxiety. This is done by overexposure. You will have to leave the home often but do it little by little. Maybe you stand outside the door for a few seconds, and if your dog behaves, you can extend it to a minute, then 5, etc.
The above methods are all done slowly and gradually. Your dog should never be subjected to the most extreme trigger of what activates his anxiety, such as immediately being made to accept your absence for 2 weeks while you go on vacation without prior desensitization.
Separation anxieties in dogs are hard to deal with, believe it when we say we understand. It is a long process to help your dog through it, but one that’s worth it.