Separation anxiety is a behavioral disorder that causes dogs to become anxious, afraid and destructive, usually when you leave the house. Dogs with separation anxiety have been known to destroy sofas, chew their way through closed doors and shred clothing, sometimes in the same day!
Owners of dogs with separation anxiety are often afraid to leave their homes, worried about what new havoc their pup will wreak. The neighbors may start to complain about the noise, and animal control might even visit.
Certain dog breeds are more likely to exhibit separation anxiety, like shepherds, Weimaraners and collies, but any breed of dog can develop this behavior.
Fortunately, it is possible to change this behavior. Once you have recognized the symptoms, determined the causes and eliminated the triggers, you can work with your dog to develop his self-confidence, the lack of which is the primary cause of separation anxiety.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety
The most obvious symptom of separation anxiety is returning to a home that has been destroyed. Another clue that your dog has separation anxiety is if your neighbors complain about your dog’s behavior when you’re not home.
If you suspect your dog has separation anxiety, look for evidence of a few other symptoms:
- Excessive barking, whining or howling
- Inappropriate elimination or submissive urination
- Destructive behavior
- Digging, scratching or chewing
Your dog can also exhibit symptoms when you’re home. If he’s become overly clingy, nervous or anxious, especially when he thinks you’re about to leave, he could have separation anxiety. Another indication is if your dog is overly excited when you return to your home, which is often coupled with submissive urination.
Potential Causes of Separation Anxiety
The single-most common cause of separation anxiety is fear, especially with shelter dogs, strays and dogs that have otherwise been abandoned. Dogs don’t understand time, so every time you leave, a dog with separation anxiety might fear that you’ll never come back or that you, too, have abandoned him.
Other triggers might include:
- Change in Routine: Dogs love the same routine: waking up, eating, sleeping, eliminating and playing at specific times of day. If you change your dog’s routine too quickly, he may develop separation anxiety.
- Loneliness: Although not all dogs prefer companionship, they are social creatures by nature and seem to enjoy the company of other animals. Without his human or another companion, he might grow lonely and begin acting out.
- Boredom: A bored dog is a bad dog! Although behaviors resulting from lack of mental stimulation are not usually defined as separation anxiety, it’s easy for a bored dog to slide from destructive behavior to genuine fearfulness of being alone.
- Personality Disorder: Although we don’t usually think of animals as being “crazy,” they are susceptible to anxiety disorders, which often present as separation anxiety. A dog that is anxious in general will almost certain suffer from separation anxiety.
If your dog doesn’t have a clear understanding of his status in your pack, namely that you are in charge, he may try to manipulate you into doing what he wants you to do, like stay home all the time to guard the safety of your possessions.
Likewise, if a dog doesn’t understand his place in the home, he may develop low self-esteem, another cause of separation anxiety.
Eliminate Medical Problems
If your dog suddenly starts displaying symptoms of separation anxiety, take him to the vet for a physical, including blood, urine and fecal tests. Dogs often communicate physical distress by exhibiting unwanted behavior or anxiety.
Treating Separation Anxiety
Unfortunately, separation anxiety is one of the most difficult behavioral problems to manage. However, with patience, compassion, consistency and praise, it is possible to successfully extinguish separation anxiety. Try these at-home tips:
1. Provide the Basics: Make sure your dog has adequate food, water and shelter when you leave the house. You might also leave him with a toy, a chew treat or an article of clothing that smells like you.
2. Prove You’ll Return: Dogs with unpleasant pasts can become severely upset when you leave the home because they don’t really believe you’ll come back. Start by leaving your dog alone for a half hour, and then work up to longer time periods.
3. Crate Train Your Dog: Although many people are still under the misapprehension that crating a dog is cruel, animal behaviorists and trainers advocate otherwise. Train your dog to be comfortable and happy in his crate whether or not you are home, and you won’t return to ransacked home.
4. Restrict His Access: If your dog refuses to use a crate, restrict his access to a bathroom or bedroom, where he won’t have as many opportunities to display destructive behavior. Be warned, though: Large-breed dogs with separation anxiety are capable of chewing through doors—even walls—when left alone.
5. Eliminate Triggers: Your dog probably knows that when you get out your keys or grab your purse, you’re leaving the house. If you make sure he can’t see or hear you preparing to leave, he may not show as much anxiety. Make a quick exit, vary your routine and don’t give him the opportunity to show you how much he doesn’t want you to leave.
6. Teach Positive Reinforcement Training: By rewarding your dog for correctly performing tasks, you increase his self-esteem and reduce his propensity for feeling anxious. When dogs understand what’s expected of them, they lead calmer, more self-assured lives and don’t need to act out.
7. Adopt Another Pet: Although the presence of a four-legged companion isn’t a sure-fire cure for separation anxiety, a friend will keep him occupied and provide attention when you aren’t home.
8. Hire a Dog Walker: If you work eight hours or more, consider enlisting the help of a dog walker, who can come to your home during the day and interact with your dog.
9. Enroll Your Dog in Doggy Daycare: If you can afford the expense, take your dog to a daycare facility near your home or work. He may still exhibit some symptoms of separation anxiety when you aren’t there, but having people around should help.
Remember that separation anxiety cannot be solved overnight. It will take time for your dog to adapt to your training methods. When you’ve tried everything and your dog still isn’t responding, it’s time to call in the professionals.
When to Ask for Help
Seeing a trainer for basic obedience classes is the best way to begin. Take your dog to group classes, schedule a private class or hire a trainer to come to your home. Once your dog understands that he will receive a reward for doing things correctly, his confidence will grow and his anxiety will diminish.
An animal behaviorist is another option. Although generally more expensive than trainers, behaviorists specialize in diagnosing and treating serious behavioral problems like separation anxiety. You’ll receive specific tips and will be able to follow up with the behaviorist with questions and further sessions.
If all other options prove ineffective, talk to your vet about anxiety medication. Although it’s best to limit the amount of medication your pet takes, Prozac and other anti-anxiety medications can be very helpful.