When you first bring a new dog into the family, you want them to feel right at home. You might start by spending plenty of time with them, playing with them, and training them on a regular basis. Then, you start to notice something odd: any time you’re gone, your dog shows symptoms of separation anxiety. Simply going through the motions of getting ready to leave the house makes your dog anxious and upset, and by the time you’re ready to go out the door, he’s flustered and fearful. Separation anxiety in dogs is relatively common, but there are steps you can take to prevent it.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Separation anxiety is most obvious in dogs who are otherwise very well-mannered, but who become extremely distraught when you’re away from the house. You can’t stay with your dog every minute, so watching out for these symptoms will allow you to see if your dog is starting to experience problems with separation anxiety.
- Destructive behavior in your absence, including chewing and scratching
- Urinating or emptying his bowels in inappropriate locations–but only when left alone
- Excessive barking that continues for the duration of the separation and doesn’t seem to be triggered by anything else
- Constant pacing while you’re gone
- Attempts to escape the confining area, presumably to “find” the owner, that result in injury to the dog
Which Dog Breeds Are Most Prone to Separation Anxiety?
Any dog can experience separation anxiety. Some breeds, however, are more prone to it than others, especially those that are high energy or those that are bred specifically to be companion dogs. Dogs who have a strong pack mentality are also more prone to issues with separation anxiety. Breeds who commonly experience separation anxiety include:
- Shepherds, especially German and Australian shepherds
- Border collies
- Cocker spaniels
- Bichon frise
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
- Italian Greyhounds
- Toy Poodles
- German Shorthair Pointers
While separation anxiety can occur in any dog, choosing from a breed that isn’t prone to separation anxiety can help lessen the odds that you’ll be dealing with an anxious, destructive pup every time you leave the house.
Ways to Prevent Separation Anxiety
There are several triggers for separation anxiety in dogs. Understanding them is one of the first steps to developing a strong strategy for avoiding it in your dog. Common triggers include:
- A new addition to the family–either furry or human–that makes your dog feel as though it is receiving less attention than usual
- A move to a new residence
- A change in routine that results in the dog being left alone more often than before
- Being abandoned or otherwise changing ownership
- Having a member of the family leave the household: a child going off to college, a divorce, or a death in the family
Some triggers of separation anxiety may be unavoidable. You can’t put off a move or avoid a change in your schedule just because it will make your dog uncomfortable. Other causes of separation anxiety, however, are within your control.
Make sure your dog gets enough exercise. High-energy breeds are particularly prone to problems with separation anxiety when they don’t get enough exercise or attention. They need to run,
Make sure you’re the dog’s leader. If your dog views you as the leader of the household, it’s all right for you to be the one to leave. On the other hand, if your dog sees itself as the leader, it may be excessively distressed by the fact that you’ve left.
Consider adopting a second dog. Dogs are naturally pack animals. In a house with no other animals, you and your family become the dog’s “pack.” By adopting a second dog, you can help decrease feelings of loneliness in your furry friend.
Remain calm whenever you leave the house, rather than making a big deal of it. If leaving is simply a regular part of your schedule, your dog will be less likely to become distressed.
Consider hiring a dog sitter. During times you’ll be away for an extended period, hiring an experienced dog sitter is a great way to ensure your dog sticks to it’s daily routine while also getting companionship and attention in your absence.
Fixing Separation Anxiety After it Occurs
If your dog is experiencing issues with separation anxiety, you want to help them feel better and more secure, making it easier for them to spend time around the house without you. The first step is making sure that your dog is truly experiencing separation anxiety. Many symptoms of separation anxiety, including chewing, inappropriate urination or bowel emptying, and barking are not restricted to dogs who are distressed by their master’s absence. Instead, they are signs that the dog needs a few more obedience classes or a little more intensive training at home–that is, that the dog has not yet figured out how to behave properly inside the house. Once you’re sure that the issue is in fact separation anxiety, there are several steps you can take.
Crate train your dog. Giving your dog a safe environment when you’re gone lets them feel as though they’re still in control and issues a reminder that you’re coming back.
Work up to it. Observe the behaviors that cause your dog distress. Does it upset your dog when you, for example, pick up your keys? When you gather up your work papers? Watch for signs of distress as you’re getting ready to leave. Then, at a later time, perform the behavior without actually leaving the house. Gradually work up to walking outside the house for just a minute or two, then coming back. Reward your dog when it doesn’t show signs of anxiety.
Offer a special treat. Counterconditioning offers your dog a treat–typically food-based–whenever you leave the house to create positive associations with that time, rather than negative ones.
Wear your dog out before you leave. Make sure that he’s getting plenty of exercise and stimulation so that he’s not anxious, stressed, and bored while you’re gone.
Consult a dog behavioral therapist. For severe cases of separation anxiety, your dog may need more help than you can offer. Consult a behavioral therapist to help desensitize your dog to the separation and make it easier on both of you.
Reducing or eliminating separation anxiety in your dog can lead to a happier pet and a better relationship for the two of you. Your furry friend is a member of your family. Keeping them happy means that everyone benefits!
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