Does your dog begin to cry and whine every time you leave the house? Do they act out and chew up your furniture or have accidents when you’re away, even if you’ve only been gone for a short time? Do they often work themselves up into a fit panting, drooling, or foaming at the mouth?
It’s possible that they are experiencing a condition known as separation anxiety which does affect some puppies and older dogs. If left untreated it can become a serious behavioral issue and deeply affect your dog’s quality of life. Ultimately it can prevent you from having a healthy relationship with your pet.
However, it’s important to understand that true separation anxiety can express itself with some of the same behaviors and symptoms as does simple boredom or loneliness. A lonely dog or a bored dog is not experiencing a deep behavioral issue or a medical issue, but rather is experiencing these symptoms due to a lack of training regarding how they are expected to act when alone.
Due to the tendency for many novice dog owner’s to mistakenly label any behavior in the separation anxiety ballpark as the more severe form of the condition, many trainers, behaviorists, and experts in the dog world have begun to denote two levels of separation anxiety: mild and serious.
Mild separation anxiety is still an issue which an owner must address in their dog but its root cause is most likely due to a training issue. A better term for the more mild form of separation anxiety would be “mild distress.”
Serious separation anxiety can stem from deeper behavioral, psychological, or medical issues your dog may be experiencing. We will address what you can do to help your dog deal with and overcome this more debilitating form of separation anxiety later in the article, but please look at this article as just a starting point. Separation anxiety is an issue you can’t overlook and educating yourself on the problem is just the first step.
Remember, some breeds of dogs are genetically predisposed to experience higher degrees of separation anxiety than others, which is an important factor to consider when examining your dog’s behavior.
Every dog is different and experiences the world in their own unique way. It’s likely that no two dogs will express their symptoms of separation anxiety in exactly the same manner. However, there are some commonly expressed behaviors and if your dog’s behavior is a match for several of them, it’s time to start taking their separation anxiety symptoms seriously.
If your dog exhibits consistent barks or howls when you leave and the behavior isn’t present at other times.
If your dog urinates or defecates in the house after you leave and it’s not a typical behavior for them to engage in when you’re home.
Common areas of the house that dogs will chew at are sitting furniture, window sills, and/or door frames. Again it’s unlikely to be separation anxiety if these behaviors happen in the presence of their owner.
These are signs often associated with more moderate to severe separation anxiety.
If a dog will walk in a particular pattern back and forth or in a circle it may be related to separation anxiety.
If a dog is making these uncontrolled movements it may be related to anxiety they are experiencing.
Some dogs will exhibit dilated pupils when you leave, which is a sign of anxiety.
If your dog attempts to escape from their confined space when you are not present, this may be combined with digging and other destructive behaviors.
Dogs eating their own excrement when left alone.
If your dog is attached to your hip and never leaves your side it’s not necessarily a sign of their love for you, but could be due to underlying anxiety that you will leave them.
If your dog is experiencing a number of these issues when you leave their presence, consider a more serious separation anxiety behavior remedy.
If you believe your dog may have mild separation anxiety it’s best to utilize a solution that’s based in training to overcome the problem. The hope is always that as an owner you know your dog best, but that’s not always the case when it comes to rescue dogs or older dogs that are being re-homed.
Knowing if a dog has experienced abandonment in the past or if they face any ongoing medical issues is important to how you diagnose the severity of their issues. If this is the case, then they may have a more serious case and the following training methods may be limited in effectiveness as the problem resides on a deeper behavioral level. It may not hurt to try them one at a time to rule out more mild cases but it’s best to consult with an expert if you feel you are in over your head.
Counterconditioning is a training process that helps you to turn something your dog experiences as a negative into a positive. This could be a particular person, environment, set of actions, or another trigger such as your “leaving the house” routine. Counterconditioning can be used so that when one of these triggers is about to take place you offset the negative response by eliciting a positive response from your pet.
This is typically done in the form of treat rewards. For example if you begin to notice your dog begins whining whenever you go to grab your keys prior to leaving, then you can use counterconditioning and give them a small treat the next time you grab them. This will begin to shift the association with the negative – you leaving – to the positive – “I’m getting a treat.”
In order for counterconditioning to be successful, you want to train for the trigger in practice situations. Don’t wait until you have to leave the house to begin giving your dog treats, do training exercises daily where you grab your keys and reward your dog, even when you have nowhere to go. Simply take the action of picking up your keys, and offer your dog a treat to offset the negative response; then place your keys back down. This will obscure the action from being solely a part of your routine before you leave the home.
If you only offer rewards when it’s actually time for you to leave it’s unlikely you’ll be able to shift the association for your dog and the negative response will outweigh the positive of the treat.
However, if done correctly your dog’s anxiety will decrease when the trigger is presented to them. It’s always best to reward your dog when they are in as calm a state as possible in order to reinforce the behavior. As you work through your counterconditioning process there may be multiple triggers you need to progressively work through to desensitize your dog.
In addition to counterconditioning training, it’s important to train your dog to be an independent member of your family. This training should begin early on in your relationship with your dog.
Many dogs do desire a need for some independence, but they also desire security and safety. This is why crate training is important even when you ultimately plan to let your dog have freedom and run of the home.
Similarly, you can begin to train your dog to be alone when you are still in the home by simply exiting the room and giving them a few minutes to themselves. Upon returning, if your dog is calm and relaxed give them a treat. You may want to start with even smaller increments of time such as 10 seconds or 30 seconds depending on what your dog can handle.
As you progress with this training, leave your dog alone for a longer period of time, and continue to reward them for good behavior. This can be ramped up to you leaving the home for short periods of time as well.
It’s also popular to use interactive toys to help keep your dog entertained when you are gone for extended periods of time. One popular interactive toy is the KONG toy. The benefit of KONG toys and the like is that it takes dogs a while to eat all the food you stuff into the small end of the toy.
Usually owners will put in a special treat like cheese, peanut butter, or frozen bananas. Something your dog will be really excited about eating!
This practice works best when you don’t allow your dog to have access to the interactive toy when you are home and only reserve it for when you’re heading out of the house.
This keeps the toy, and the treats inside, special for your dog and helps to cement the positive association with the activity and not on your stepping out of the house.
It’s possible that your dog’s anxiety levels are actually not a behavior issue at all, but rather are coming from a poor diet and lack of an exercise routine. Take a look at the food you are feeding your dog and how often they are getting out of the house for some physical activity. A change here can go a long way to improving your dog’s mood and responses.
If your dog has more serious or severe separation anxiety, the training based methods above probably will not be effective for you. You will have to take a different approach.
Behaviorists are specialists that work with you and your dog on making behavioral modifications using a variety of techniques that go outside of the scope of normal dog training. Most professional dog trainers are not behaviorists.
Behaviorists often have an educational degree in animal psychology, behavior, zoology, or veterinary studies. If you do enlist the help of a behaviorist make sure they are qualified and have the proper professional certifications. Animal shelters and rescue operations often have a few behaviorists within their contacts that they can recommend if you are in need of support.
Advanced counterconditioning works just like the simple counterconditioning described above, but it takes longer and you work on each particular trigger one at a time. Counterconditioning treatments are often done with a behaviorist’s assistance as they are professionally trained in effective behavior modification protocols.
Like counterconditioning, desensitization works to decrease your dog’s anxiety to a particular environment or set of circumstances, but through exposure to higher and higher degrees of the trigger factor. In desensitization training, you will leave your dog alone for short periods of time before returning.
It’s important to calibrate your departures to be short enough as not to trigger a fear response within them. Slowly increase your time away and monitor how your dog is responding. Part of desensitization is to practice quiet and relaxed departures and returns as to keep the energy levels consistent between the time you’re with your pet and when you’re away.
For some dogs, separation anxiety is a medical issue more than anything and can be treated with drugs. Please consult with your vet if this solution is the best fit for your dog. Be aware that vets sometimes prescribe medical solutions to behavioral problems so it might be good to get multiple opinions. Many veterinarians are not trained in behavior and are only able to look at the issue from a medical standpoint, however for some dogs and humans, medication is an effective solution for their anxiety
There are a range of products available that work to alleviate anxiety and relax your dog. These include treats that have a calming effect, music geared to calm your dog, toys such as the KONG toy, and Thundershirts.
All of these products are not solutions to anxiety itself where you can just purchase them and begin using them with your pet. They each require training and acclimation and should be utilized as a part of a larger training or behavior modification plan.
In most cases, separation anxiety is a treatable issue. Whether you are able to resolve it with a training routine, or with the help of a professional, separation anxiety is an issue many dogs can overcome or at least reduce in intensity.
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