Many dogs exhibit some form of anxiety.
However, separation anxiety in true form does not occur very often. It is a condition in which the dog cannot cope with the absence of his guardians. The dog has a physiological and behavioral response when separated from his guardian, resulting in panic and destructive behavior. The dog may show their anxiety by whining, barking, howling, destructive behavior like chewing or digging, escaping, house soiling, dilated pupils, panting, drooling and sweaty paw pads. Some people think the dog is "getting even" with them for leaving them alone, or that the dog is being disobedient, but this is not the case; dogs are not capable of spite.
How do you know if your dog has separation anxiety?
There are several different behaviors that can be associated with separation anxiety. If you answer yes to most of the statements below, there is the possibility that your dog may have a separation anxiety problem.
- When your dog is left alone with free access to a room or the entire house, does he scratch, chew and paw at the doors and windows?
- When you are home, does your dog follow you from room to room?
- When you arrive home, is your dog frantic with excitement?
- As you prepare to leave the house, does your dog becomes nervous or excited by actions you perform like putting your shoes on, putting your coat on, picking up your keys, etc.?
- When you come home from short outings, is there a puddle of saliva in the crate where your dog was left?
- Does your dog try to escape from the crate in?
- Keep your arrivals and departures as low key as possible. When you come in, ignore him for 10 minutes or so and then calmly and quietly greet your dog. If you get very excited about coming and going, your dog will, too.
- Interact with your dog only when you choose, not because your dog demands it. This is a leader of the pack program. Spending quality time with your dog is essential.
- Work with your dog on basic manners for 15 minutes daily to build the dog's confidence and provide quality time. One exercise is to practice sit-stays or down-stays. The goal is for you to distance yourself while your dog remains in that position and is relaxed. After your dog is consistent with a "stay" while you are at the opposite side of the room, begin moving toward a door. Remain in the doorway several times before attempting to step out of sight. When you do step out of your dog's sight, keep the duration very short. You want your dog to build confidence in knowing that you will return and there is no reason to panic. By practicing with your dog, you are also providing some one on one interaction with him.
- If one event seems to trigger your dog's anxiety, begin desensitizing him to that trigger. For example, if picking up your keys causes your dog to become anxious, periodically pick up your keys and move them around the house throughout the day when you are going to be home. You can also pick up your keys and give your dog a yummy treat. This will signal to him that bad things don't always come from keys clanging. Keep track of what triggers your dog to become anxious. Randomly desensitize your dog to each of the triggers.
- Practice mock departures of varying duration (from one minute to 10 minutes). Use different stimuli such as grabbing your keys or starting your car to let him know that when you leave, it's not forever. Also establish a "safety" cue that will help your dog identify that you will return. This can be turning the radio on a soothing station right before you leave or leaving a special toy that is safe for your dog to play with alone. During the practice sessions, you can turn the radio on, tell your dog "I'll be right back," then leave. When you return, ignore him for a couple minutes, then calmly greet him.
- Vigorously exercise your dog for at least 15 minutes, twice daily. The most important time to exercise is in the mornings before you leave. Exercise alone will not cure separation anxiety, but it can save your house from a bored dog with lots of energy.
- Provide your dog with a special toy when you leave, such as a Kong stuffed with yummy treats and a bit of peanut butter. Begin by giving your dog the toy, then walking out of the room. Before he can get all of the treats out, come back in and pick up the Kong. (Do not try this if your dog has resource guarding issues.) The goal is that you dog will want you to leave so he gets the yummy treat back.
- Use pet sitters, doggie day care, neighborhood friends or someone who can be trusted to play, exercise and let the dog out during the day. This can provide your dog with a situation in which he is not alone.
What won't help separation anxiety?
- Punishing and/or correcting a dog that exhibits separation anxiety will not help the issue. When you come home and punish your dog for something that he did earlier, such as chewing personal items or soiling in the house or crate, he is likely to associate the punishment with his enthusiastic greeting. Therefore, punishment only increases his anxiety. Just forget it! Focus on the positive and reward your dog using verbal praise, treats, or petting. You need to build the confidence of your dog.
Getting another animal may not help an anxious dog. Often separation anxiety results from being separated from the guardian. Another animal means more work for you and there is a chance the animals will not get along.
What about crating my dog?
Putting a dog that has separation anxiety in a crate may have more disadvantages than benefits. Doing so will minimize damage to the house, but the other manifestations of anxiety, such as vocalization and inappropriate elimination, often occur. Many dogs destroy the crate and injure themselves. Although behaviorists do recommend crates for certain purposes, such as housetraining, none suggest a crate should be used for long term confinement. The exception is when the dog has been taught to accept the crate as his den and can derive a sense of security from occupying it. A dog must be introduced to a crate gradually. Anxiety in a crate can occur when the dog is put into a newly purchased crate, but not acclimated to it ahead of time.
If the dog does not show anxiety in a crate, you can prevent problems by confining him with plenty of water when you are not able to supervise (see material on crate training), and by providing toys that satisfy the chewing instinct (stuffed bones or Kong toys are great!)
A great resource to learn more about separation anxiety is, "I'll Be Home Soon!" by Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D., and can be found online and at our Animal Antics store.
If you would like to work with a Wisconsin Humane Society behaviorist one-on-one regarding this behavior topic, please call 414-431-6173 to schedule a consultation.