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Separation Anxiety
 

Dogs with separation anxiety exhibit behavior problems when they're left alone. Typically, they'll have a dramatic anxiety response within a short time (2045 minutes) after their owners leave them. The most common of these behaviors are:

  • Digging, chewing, and scratching at doors or windows in an attempt to escape and reunite with their owners.

  • Howling, barking, and crying in an attempt to get their owner to return.

  • Urination and defecation (even with housetrained dogs) as a result of distress.

  

Why Do Dogs Suffer from Separation Anxiety?

Some dogs suffer from separation anxiety and, under similar circumstances, others don't. It's important to realize, however, that the destruction and house soiling that often occur with separation anxiety are not the dog's attempt to punish or seek revenge on his owner for leaving him alone. In reality, they are actually part of a panic response. 

  • Separation anxiety sometimes occurs:

  • When a dog accustomed to constant human companionship is left alone for the first time.

  • Following a long interval, such as a vacation, during which the owner and dog are constantly together.

  • After a traumatic event (from the dog's point of view), such as a period of time spent at a shelter or boarding kennel.

  • After a change in the family's routine or structure (such as a child leaving for college, a change in work schedule, a move to a new home, or a new pet or person in the home).

  

How Do I Know If My Dog Has Separation Anxiety?

Because there are many reasons for the behaviors associated with separation anxiety, it's essential to correctly diagnose the reason for the behavior before proceeding with treatment. If most, or all, of the following statements are true about your dog, he may have a separation anxiety problem: 

  • The behavior occurs exclusively or primarily when he's left alone.

  • He follows you from room to room whenever you're home.

  • He displays effusive, frantic greeting behaviors.

  • The behavior always occurs when he's left alone, whether for a short or long period of time.

  • He reacts with excitement, depression, or anxiety to your preparations to leave the house.

  • He dislikes spending time outdoors by himself.

 

What to Do If Your Dog Has Separation Anxiety

For a minor separation anxiety problem, the following techniques may be helpful by themselves. For more severe problems, these techniques should be used along with the desensitization process described in the next section. 

Keep arrivals and departures low-key. For example, when you arrive home, ignore your dog for the first few minutes, and then calmly pet him. This may be hard for you to do, but it's important!

If your dog engages in destructive chewing as part of his separation distress, offering him a chewing item is a good idea. Very hard rubber toys that can be stuffed with treats are good choices. 

 

Desensitization Techniques for More Severe Cases of Separation Anxiety 

The primary treatment for more severe cases of separation anxiety is a systematic process of getting your dog used to being alone. You must teach your dog to remain calm during "practice" departures and short absences. We recommend the following procedure: 

Begin by engaging in your normal departure activities (getting your keys, putting on your coat), then sit back down. Repeat this step until your dog shows no distress in response to your activities.

Next, engage in your normal departure activities and go to the door and open it, then sit back down.

Next, step outside the door, leaving the door open, and then return.

Finally, step outside, close the door, and then immediately return. Slowly get your dog accustomed to being alone with the door closed between you for several seconds.

Proceed very gradually from step to step, repeating each step until your dog shows no signs of distress. The number of repetitions will vary depending on the severity of the problem. If at any time in this process your actions produce an anxiety response in your dog, you've proceeded too fast. Return to an earlier step in the process and practice this step until the dog shows no distress response, then proceed to the next step.

Once your dog is tolerating your being on the other side of the door for several seconds, begin short-duration absences. Your return must be low-key. If he shows no signs of distress, repeat the exercise. If he appears anxious, wait until he relaxes to repeat the exercise. Gradually increase the length of time you're gone.

Practice as many absences as possible that last less than ten minutes. You can do many departures within one session if your dog relaxes sufficiently between departures. You should also scatter practice departures and short-duration absences throughout the day.

Once your dog can handle short absences (30 to 90 minutes), he'll usually be able to handle longer intervals alone and you won't have to repeat this process every time you are planning a longer absence. The hard part is at the beginning, but the job gets easier as you go along. Nevertheless, you must go slowly at first. How long it takes to condition your dog to being alone depends on the severity of his problem.