How to Help Your Dog Cope with Separation Anxiety
As any pet parent knows, being away from your pooch is never easy. The guilt is real, especially when your dog flashes you that ‘where do you think you’re going without me’ look just as you are about to leave. Trust us, we all know the look!
Dogs may be the only ones who have been enjoying every minute of lockdown or quarantine during the Coronavirus pandemic. Having their humans with them around the clock is something all dogs dream of.
As the world prepares to go back to normal, pet parents who have been working from home may have to prepare to go back to work. For many pets, who have now grown accustomed to having their humans home, this change could lead to separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety can also manifest in newly adopted dogs or dogs who have recently experienced a change in routine.
Leaving your dog at home is difficult, but knowing they are happy, safe and eagerly awaiting your return makes it a bit easier.
To help smooth the transition, we have put together a few tips on how to help your dog cope with separation anxiety.
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What is Separation Anxiety?
Understanding separation anxiety and how to identify this type of behaviour in your dog is an essential first step to helping your dog.
Separation anxiety is a common condition that typically manifests in dogs that are overly dependent on their owners and experience severe stress when left alone.
In many cases, the distress caused by separation anxiety can lead to destructive or problematic behaviours like barking, howling, urinating or defecating inside, chewing, or destroying furniture.
It is important that these behaviours are recognised as a sign of separation anxiety and treated as such rather than punishing your dog for bad behaviour. Disciplining an anxious dog will only make the situation worse for both you and your dog.
What Causes Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
There are several factors that could lead to your dog experiencing separation anxiety.
Humans are their dog’s pack. You are their family, their source of confidence, security, and happiness. It’s only natural that being apart will be difficult.
That being said, you leaving your pet alone should not be a cause of stress or trauma.
The root cause of separation anxiety in dogs is an over-attachment or dependence on their owners.
One of the most common causes of separation anxiety is a change in routine. For example, if you have been working from home and suddenly return to work.
In young puppies, separation anxiety can be attributed to puppies being weaned from their mothers too early, leading to an over-dependence on their humans.
In rescue dogs or dogs who have been abandoned, separation anxiety may manifest as the dog adjusts to their new home.
In certain cases, a dog’s temperament may mean that it is more pre-disposed to experiencing forms of anxiety. This is a rare exception though. The majority of the time, there is a reason for your dog’s separation anxiety.
How to Recognise Separation Anxiety
One of the first steps of recognising anxiety in your dog is to determine whether your dog is experiencing separation anxiety or a form of simulated separation anxiety.
Dogs are emotionally complex creatures, whose behaviours are largely determined by their humans.
Simulated separation anxiety is an example of how our reactions impact our dog’s behaviours. This type of anxiety is not true separation anxiety but is rather destructive or disruptive behaviour that is similar to that of dogs experiencing separation anxiety.
Simulated separation anxiety is largely caused when pet parents reward bad behaviour. For example, if your dog cries when you leave and you immediately come back, your dog will learn that each time it cries or whines, you will stay home.
This type of anxiety can manifest in other ways too. For example, if your dog notices that you give them attention, even in the form of discipline, in response to a certain behaviour, your dog will repeat this behaviour.
If you start to notice unusual behaviour, especially when your dog is left alone, it is best to observe your dog for a few days. Make sure to factor in your actions/reactions in response to the behaviour; are you rewarding ‘bad’ behaviour? If so, try to adjust your response and monitor your dog over the next few days to see if there are any changes.
Once you have ruled out simulated separation anxiety, there are some tell-tale signs to help you identify separation anxiety in your pet.
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Here is a list of the most important behaviours to look out for:
1) Urinating or defecating in the house
If your dog is fully house trained and they have started going to the bathroom inside, particularly when you leave them alone, this could be a sign of distress.
However, if your dog is doing this while you are home, it is not a symptom of separation anxiety, but could be a medical problem.
Be sure to rule out any underlying medical conditions that could be causing incontinence and observe your dog’s behaviour both in your presence and while you are away.
2) Chewing and other destructive behaviour
Do you find that you often come home to destroyed furniture, ripped up toys, or a backyard that has been dug-up?
This could be a manifestation of your dog’s separation anxiety. If this type of behaviour is caused by separation anxiety, your dog will only do this when left alone.
This type of behaviour can be dangerous for your pet as it could lead to injuries, such as broken teeth, paw injuries, or cuts and scratches. So, it is best to address this immediately to avoid any harm to your pooch or your home.
3) Barking, howling, or crying
A common sign of separation anxiety in dogs is persistent barking, howling, or crying when left alone.
Most dogs with separation anxiety will react immediately after the owner leaves and start howling, barking, or crying.
This is a very specific reaction to being left alone and you will notice that your dog does not bark, howl, or cry like this when you are with them.
Dogs with separation anxiety will in some cases try to reunite with their owner by escaping.
In most cases, dogs with separation anxiety will try to escape from an area they are confined to such as a room or backyard. This could involve scaling walls, chewing, scratching, or attempting to dig under doors.
Again, this type of behaviour can be potentially harmful to your dog as it can lead to injuries or your dog becoming lost. It is best to respond to this type of behaviour right away and take measures to secure your home to prevent your dog from escaping.
Pro tip: Always ensure your pet is microchipped and is wearing a collar with a name tag and your contact details. This will help you find your pet should they ever go missing.
Dog’s with separation anxiety may start to pace, either in a straight line or in circles along a specific path. If your dog is only pacing when you are not with them, this is a sign of stress triggered by their separation anxiety.
6) Preventing you from leaving
Dog’s recognise patterns and are more aware of our daily routines than we may realise. If your dog starts to act out as soon as it notices signs of you preparing to leave, this may be a symptom of separation anxiety.
For example, if your dog starts to bark or whine when you put your shoes on or start getting dressed, it may associate this behaviour with you leaving.
5 Tips to Help Your Dog Cope with Separation Anxiety
Once you have recognised the signs of separation anxiety in your dog, how you respond will be crucial to helping your dog cope with its anxiety.
It’s incredibly difficult for any pet parent to see their dog upset, stressed, or hurt. For pet parents whose dogs are experiencing separation anxiety, it can be difficult not to feel guilty or even frustrated.
These feelings are completely normal and are all part of the process. It is important not to lose hope though!
We have put together a few steps to help both you and your pet cope with their separation anxiety.
Before diagnosing your pet with separation anxiety, we recommend taking your dog to your vet for a check-up to ensure that your pet’s behaviour is not the result of an underlying medical condition.
1) Never punish your dog
This is one of the most important things to remember when dealing with dogs that have separation anxiety.
Disciplining or punishing your dog for any of the behaviours associated with separation anxiety will only make the situation worse for both you and your dog.
It is important to remember that disciplining your dog for something they did while you were away will only confuse them. They won’t remember what they have done and therefore won’t associate that behaviour with the punishment, making it ineffective.
In some cases when you come home to a mess, your dog may appear guilty. This is however merely a sign of submissiveness. Dogs do not feel guilt, but they can understand your body language and predict a punishment.
Punishing or disciplining your dog will not treat its separation anxiety as it does not address the root cause of your dog’s behaviour.
Pro-tip: always keep in mind that dogs respond best to positive reinforcement. Rather than punishing your dog’s bad behaviour, reward your dog’s good behaviour. This way your dog will start to associate good behaviours with positive reactions from you such as treats or affection, which will encourage your dog to repeat this behaviour.
2) Decrease your dog’s dependency
The root cause of your dog’s separation anxiety is their over depended on you. The best way to address your dog’s anxiety is to help decrease this dependency.
This can be done by regularly coming and going without making too much of a fuss. This will help your dog become accustomed to people coming in and leaving their home.
To ease into this, try to practice by confining your dog to a room and entering and exiting the area several times a day.
If your dog has learnt to associate you leaving with certain signs like you putting on your shoes or jingling your keys, try to repeat these actions.
At first, the duration of your absence should only be between 2-5 minutes. This can gradually increase as your dog starts calming down while you are away.
The goal of this practice is to help your pet grow accustomed to you leaving and returning without them feeling stressed and acting out.
It is important not to make a big deal of coming or going. As a pet parent, we know that reuniting with your dog at the end of a long day is one of the best feelings in the world. However, exciting your dog too much or fussing too much when you leave or return, can trigger your dog’s separation anxiety.
When returning home, try to ignore your dog for the first few minutes. Then, calmly acknowledge them and continue with your routine as per normal.
Similarly, when leaving, try not to give your dog too much attention, especially if they are exhibiting symptoms of separation anxiety.
In severe cases, have another member of the family feed, walk, and play with your dog for a few weeks.
It may not be easy to ignore your dog, especially when they are desperately trying to seek out your attention. But, in the long run, this will help your dog and will help build a healthy bond between you and your dog.
3) Create a Safe Place for your Dog
Having a safe place can help soothe an anxious dog. For many dogs, crate training can help to address separation anxiety.
If your dog is new to crate training, encourage your dog to spend time in the crate while you are with them. Feed them in the crate, add their favourite blanket or toy to the crate, and reward them with a treat when they enter the crate willingly.
When you leave, make sure your dog has all its comforts in the crate. This way, when you are gone and your dog starts to feel anxious, they have a safe place to go.
4) Change your routine
If your dog has learnt to identify cues or signs that you are leaving, try to change these. Dogs are excellent at recognising and remembering patterns.
By changing small habits, like packing your bag the night before or leaving your keys in a different room, you can help your dog remain calm.
It is important that you do this in addition to leaving quietly and coming home without a fuss. This will help break any associations your dog may have with you leaving or returning.
5) Treats and toys
In some cases, giving your dog a special treat or toy can help distract them and keep them entertained while you are away. This needs to be done carefully though so as not to mistakenly reward bad behaviour.
This should be a treat or toy that is only given to your pet as you are leaving, and you should take it away when you return.
Our dogs have nothing but unconditional love for us. They view us as part of their pack and naturally love spending time with us.
Understanding your dog’s separation anxiety and reacting with love and patience is key to helping your dog cope with its anxiety.
The process of treating your dog’s separation anxiety can be long and frustrating, but we can guarantee that it will be worth it in the end and will help strengthen the bond between you and your dog.