Scaredy Dog: Spotting & Treating Separation Anxiety

Do you know a dog who when home alone, exhibits any of these behaviours:

  • Barks, whines or howls?
  • Pees or defecates, despite being house-trained?
  • Scratches at doors or windows, or tries to dig under fences or gates?
  • Salivates excessively?
  • Voraciously chews furniture, door frames and other objects?

If so, and especially if this behaviour starts soon after the owner leaves, then the dog might suffer from separation anxiety.

You can also see signs of separation anxiety when the owner is home. A suffering dog may:

  • Follow her owner from room to room;
  • Greet in a way that seems frantic or overly effusive;
  • Act anxious, excited or depressed as her owner prepares to leave the house.
  • One or more of these traits suggests that the dog suffers from separation anxiety.

This type of behaviour can be upsetting for dog owners. Not only could their homes get trashed, but there’s the constant worry they feel at their pets’ distress.

Learned Behaviour Vs. True Separation Anxiety

Before continuing, I should point out that a dog exhibiting such symptoms may not be suffering from true separation anxiety. That’s right; although it may appear like anxiety, it’s actually just bad behaviour that’s been learned.

By this, I mean a dog has been conditioned to act out, hoping for attention or reward. The pet has learned that by behaving in this way, she can get a reaction of some kind from her owner.

How to judge if it’s really just bad behaviour? Ask yourself if your dog may just be bored while you’re gone. Are they getting enough exercise, do they have the opportunity to socialize with other people and dogs. Do you have a really high energy breed that needs to release all that energy? Perhaps it would be a good idea to enroll in a class like fly-ball or agility. A tired dog is a lot less likely to display undesirable behaviour.

So in cases such as this, a dog isn’t suffering anxiety. Rather, she’s misbehaving, and so needs proper discipline and training to “unlearn” the bad behaviour.

So Why Does a Dog Feel Separation Anxiety?

To be clear, a dog exhibiting signs of anxiety isn’t trying to punish his owner for leaving him alone. It’s really a form of panic–sometimes mild, sometimes more severe. His anxiety is his response to feeling insecure, uncertain or unsafe. So a dog that’s truly anxious, rather than only misbehaving, is under stress of some kind.

One or more factors could lie at the root of his stress. A few of the more commons reasons:

  • Being left alone for the first time;
  • A traumatic experience;
  • A change in routine or structure;
  • Loss of family member or other pet.
  • Diet
  • A genetic predisposition

Of course not every dog who has experienced one of these situations will become anxious. Just like people, dogs react and are affected differently depending upon their personalities and upbringing.

What Won’t Solve Your Dog’s Anxiety

Another dog: A new companion likely won’t help either. Separation from you, rather than being alone, is usually what triggers her anxiety.

Punishment: Punishing your dog won’t help and could make things worse. Remember her behaviour isn’t done to get back at you for being left alone; it’s an uncontrollable response to fear or uncertainty.

Radio/TV noise: Leaving the radio or television on won’t help.

Obedience training: Formal training is important for many reasons, but not as a solution to separation anxiety. As noted above, disobedience or lack of training doesn’t cause true separation anxiety. (Although a dog that has learned to trust your leadership will also have learned to lie down and stay which can be calming for them)

Comfort and affection: Although this may work for humans and make you feel better, it reinforces the belief in your dog there is something to be worried about.

Ways to Treat Minor Separation Anxiety

  • Leave something that smells like you, such as an article of clothing, for your dog.
  • Establish a safety cue—a word or action that you use every time you leave that tells your dog you’ll be back.
  • When you come home or leave the house, don’t make a big deal of it. So for example, try ignoring your dog after arriving home. After waiting a few minutes, calmly pet her.
  • If you are like me and would prefer not to use drugs, try a more holistic approach and try a change of diet, the use of lavender collars, thunder shirts or other natural calming remedies.

Dealing With More Severe Anxiety

  • Use the sit-stay and down-stay commands, providing positive reinforcement, to help him learn to remain calm in one place while you’re in another room.
  • To limit the destruction your dog can cause, establish a safe place in your home. Ideally, the room will have a window, toys to play with and other distractions to keep Fido occupied. Believe it or not, the smell of dirty laundry can be calming, so consider leaving the hamper in the room as well!
  • Some dogs like the safety and security of being in a crate. While you are away, they can relax and feel they don’t have to “take care” of the house. They aren’t left to pace, bark at everything passing by outside or be destructive. However, some dogs with severe anxiety can hurt themselves trying to get out of their crate. If this is the case, a crate is not recommended.
  • Take your dog to a doggie day care facility when you have to be away.
  • Ask your veterinarian about anti-anxiety drugs. The right medication shouldn’t sedate your dog, just reduce overall anxiety. This consideration should be last on your list in my opinion.

Treating separation anxiety takes patience. Stick with it! If you are starting out with a new puppy, you may be able to avoid dealing with separation anxiety by exhibiting strong leadership and instilling a sense of confidence in your dog by treating him how he likes to be treated….as a dog!

If your dog suffers from anxiety, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us should you need advice or support.