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20 Tips on Helping Your Dog with Separation Anxiety

        
          

Separation anxiety is a common problem for dogs, particularly among certain breeds.  While separation anxiety is one of the more difficult problems to overcome – and indeed is a top reason why animals are re-homed – it can be addressed with patience and training.  Listed here are 20 tips for helping your dog with separation anxiety.

What is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a mental / emotional disorder that results when a dog is separated from a favorite human.  Oftentimes, separation anxiety is confused with isolation anxiety, in which a dog simply cannot tolerate being left alone.  True separation anxiety is far less common than isolation anxiety; however, the two terms are typically used interchangeably.

Symptoms of Separation / Isolation Anxiety

Dogs that suffer from separation or isolation anxiety generally show similar symptoms.  Telltale signs of these disorders include:

  • escape attempts
  • excessive scratching and destruction near exits and doorways
  • urinating or defecating in the house despite complete potty training
  • excessive barking, whining, or howling
  • intense pacing
  • excessive panting and drooling
  • destruction

What Causes Separation / Isolation Anxiety?

The causes of separation and isolation anxiety are generally unknown.  Puppies have a natural, evolutionary tendency to have separation anxiety when their mothers are away from the den, because of their vulnerability when left alone.  However, as puppies grow more confident they typically outgrow their anxiety.  Certain dog breeds are more likely to show signs of separation anxiety, particularly breeds that were bred to work closely with humans or serve as companion animals.  For instance, German Shorthaired Pointers often struggle to be left alone for extended periods of time, as do Bichon Frises.  Additionally, dogs that have been abandoned in the past or have spent time in an animal shelter also have a tendency to struggle with separation / isolation anxiety more frequently than other animals.  Other triggers include sudden changes in routine, or an abrupt change to the familial structure.

What to Do if your Dog has Separation Anxiety

There is no one way to cure separation anxiety, as each dog is an individual and some cases of separation anxiety are more severe than others.  Listed here are a number of strategies pet owners have found useful in helping their pets overcome this problem.

Exercise

Before you leave for the day, engage your dog in 30 – 60 minutes (or more!) of vigorous exercise such as running, walking, or playing.  Oftentimes, dogs display separation anxiety-like behaviors because they are simply under-exercised and they seek ways in which to entertain themselves (such as by destroying your couch).  A dog-tired dog will have little energy to expend after vigorous exercise, which will encourage your pet to sleep while you are away instead of worry about when you will return.

Bust Boredom

If you suspect that your dog’s separation anxiety may be due to boredom, consider purchasing mentally stimulating toys for your pet.  For instance, a difficult puzzle that requires a lot of thinking in order to access a tasty treat can provide the necessary stimulation to keep your dog from becoming stressed and destructive in your absence.  This approach is especially useful for dogs that are highly food motivated.

Provide Your Dog with a Buddy

If your dog suffers from isolation anxiety as opposed to true separation anxiety (i.e. does not tolerate being left completely alone, but does fine if any human or animal is nearby), consider adding an extra dog to your pack.  It is important not to rush into this decision, however.  The first step is to determine whether an additional dog will be beneficial.  Test this theory by either borrowing a friend’s calm dog that gets along well with your pet, or fostering an animal in need.  If your dog is cat-friendly, a feline friend can also help your dog overcome separation anxiety.

Crate Train your Pet

Dogs are den animals, meaning they feel safest in enclosed areas.  If your dog is not already crate trained, consider crating your pet while you are away in order to calm his or her nerves, as well as keep your house from being destroyed.  Crate training should occur slowly, and the area should have positive associations only.  First, simply give your dog a treat for going near the crate.  Over time, place your dog’s meals in the crate for him or her to eat.  As your dog becomes comfortable with this arrangement, close the door to the crate after meal time for an increasing amount of time.  Finally, practice leaving your dog in the crate while you are in another room, starting with 5 minutes.  Never leave your dog in a crate for more than 4 – 6 hours at a time.  For destructive dogs, consider a destruction-free crate that provides a safe respite for your pet.

Hire a Dog Walker

If your dog’s isolation anxiety is particularly bad, consider giving your dog a new routine by hiring a dog walker to stop by during the day.  For some dogs, this simple break in the day can prevent anxious behavior than when the dog is left alone for an entire work day.  As an added bonus, the dog walker will provide exercise for your pet, leaving your dog exhausted for the remainder of his or her time spent alone.

Install a Pet Camera

An interactive WiFi enabled pet camera is another solution to the isolation anxiety problem.  These cameras allow pet owners to check in with their pets throughout the day, by granting the dog access to both the picture and voice of his or her owner.  For the pet parent, dogs can be supervised throughout the day via a live feed.  Some pet cameras even have a treat dispensing option.  With regular check-ins and the dispensing of treats during the day, your dog will forget that you are gone!

Send your Pup to Doggy Day Care

Doggy day care is a convenient option for the pet owners of dogs that suffer from severe isolation anxiety.  At doggy day care, dogs are placed into play groups that are separated based on size, age, and energy level of individual pets.  This option keeps dogs occupied all day, while also providing socialization and exercise.

However, doggy day care is not appropriate for all dogs and is best for animals that are good with all types of animals and humans and do not display any form of aggression.  Additionally, not all doggy day cares are created equally.  Pet owners should do their homework when seeking doggy day care options.  Important considerations include the number of staff members that supervise the dogs, the size of the play groups, the type of training the staff receives, the selection criteria for allowing dogs into day care, and the styles of play that are tolerated.

Turn on the Television/Radio

For some dogs, simply turning on the television or radio can calm anxious nerves.  Numerous DVDs are available that are specifically designed to ease the anxieties of pets that have been left home alone.  For other animals, turning on networks such as Animal Planet provides enough entertainment.  Studies have even been shown that classical music can calm the nerves of anxious pets, as can talk radio.

Hire a Pet Sitter

If your budget allows, consider hiring a pet sitter when your dog must be home alone.  This situation is ideal for dog owners that primarily work from home but occasionally must leave their pets alone for extended periods of time.  Trustworthy high school and college students often charge less than professional dog sitters, while the pros may have more training in case of an emergency.  As with any service in which you allow a stranger into your home, make sure you take the proper precautions to ensure the person is trustworthy by seeking reputable references.

Desensitize your Dog to Departure Cues

Dogs are animals that love routine.  They are sensitive to behavioral cues that their owners might be leaving, such as turning on the hair dryer or pouring a cup of coffee to go.  Over time, dogs can grow so used to developing anxiety over these simple cues, that they no longer associate absence with anxiety.  One way to help your dog overcome separation anxiety is to desensitize your pet to these cues.  For instance, on a day where you will not be leaving the house, practice the cues that commonly trigger your dog’s anxiety.  Go through your normal routine but instead of walking out the door, sit down on the couch and turn on the television instead.  Over the course of the coming weeks continue practicing your departure routine (without leaving the house) until your dog is desensitized to the meaning behind putting on shoes or zipping up a jacket.

Additionally, while you are desensitizing your dog to your departure routine, it can be helpful to complete the steps out of order.  For instance, if the last thing you do is grab your car keys, perform this step first and place them in your pocket while you get ready to leave in the morning.

Utilize Essential Oils

Many people swear by the use of essential oils for numerous reasons, such as to cure stress and anxiety or improve mood.  Pet owners are finding that the same principles can apply to dogs, as well.  Since topical applications for dogs can be dangerous, it is generally recommended to use an air diffuser for essential oils with your pet.  Calming essential oils blends include 8-10 drops of Neroli, 6-8 drops of Petitgrain, and 4-6 drops of Lavender oils.  A second blend designed specifically for separation anxiety calls for 8 – 10 drops of Sweet Orange, 4 – 6 drops of Lavender, and 4 – 6 drops of Ylang Ylang oils.    Note that essential oils are unlikely to cure your pet of separation anxiety by themselves; however, they can be useful when utilized in conjunction with other methods.

Try a Natural Calming Agent

There are products on the market for dogs to ingest that are specifically designed to serve as natural calming agents.  These are available in treat, toy, or liquid form.  Ingredients such as tryptophan, hops, lavender, chamomile, and other herbs and amino acid blends are the active ingredients in these products.  The main purpose of these treats and nutritional supplements is to create a sense of ease within a pet without making him or her drowsy.  Like essential oils, calming agents are best used in supplement of other methods and not intended to be solely relied upon for curing separation or isolation anxiety.

Bring your Dog to Work

If your dog suffers from true separation anxiety (as opposed to isolation anxiety) and cannot bear the thought of being away from you, consider taking your dog with you to work, if feasible.  Dogs in the workplace have been shown to boost employee morale while improving productivity.  Canine co-workers also enhance employee creativity and ensure that employees are getting enough fresh air throughout the work day.

Leave an Item Behind with your Scent

Dogs, like humans, find comfort in familiar scents.  As long as you believe that your dog will not destroy the item, leave behind a pillow case or old t-shirt that has your scent in his or her crate.

Visit a Veterinarian

If your dog has suddenly developed the signs of separation anxiety, schedule an appointment with a veterinarian.  There could be an underlying medical condition causing the behavior which should be ruled out.  Alternatively, if you have struggled to make improvements in your dog’s behavior despite trying all of the tips and tricks on this list, consider asking your veterinarian about anti-anxiety medications that could help your pet.

Don’t Make a Big Deal Out of Leaving / Returning

Even though we miss our dogs when we are away from them, over-the-top displays of affection when we depart and return can contribute to a dog’s separation anxiety.  Avoid the urge to give your dog a long goodbye, complete with hugs and profuse proclamations of how much you will miss your pet while you are away.  This type of behavior signals to your dog that something is amiss, and suggests that he or she should be worried when you leave.  Similarly, when you return home and act as though you have not seen your pet in weeks, you are also signaling to your dog that being together is good, and being apart is overwhelmingly bad.  Instead, give your dog a simple departure cue, which will be discussed next.

Provide and Practice Departure Cues

Whenever you leave your dog, provide a short and simple cue to signal your return.  For instance, tell your dog, “I will be right back” and say these words every single time you leave.  You can condition your dog by practicing this phrase throughout the day.  For instance, say, “I will be right back” when you walk out the door to check the mail or bring in the garbage cans.  The more that you can use this departure cue for short trips, the better your dog will understand that there should be no fear you will not return.

Ignore Anxious Behaviors

Although it can be extremely frustrating to come home to a destroyed house, do not punish your dog for his or her anxiety.  Not only will scolding and punishing your pet be confusing (particularly since it will have been hours since your dog engaged in the bad behavior) but punishment could lead to more anxiety.

At the same time, do not coddle your dog when he or she displays anxious behavior.  Doing so can have the opposite effect, which is to reinforce the anxiety.  Instead, ignore your dog when he or she begins makes the separation anxiety known.

Make Positive Associations with Absence

As you get ready to leave the house, your dog will have developed the association of absence and anxiety.  However, you can retrain your dog to have a different, more positive association with being home alone.  Approximately 15 minutes before you leave the house, provide your dog with a food-filled KONG that has been frozen.  The KONG should be filled with something that your dog only receives when you leave the house, and is high value.  Examples include cream cheese, liver, and hot dog.  Freezing the KONG means that it will require more work (and more time) for your dog to finish the entire meal, keeping him or her potentially busy for a good portion of the day.  Over time, your dog will come to expect this special treat when you get ready to leave for the day, and will begin to look forward to your absence.

Hire a Behavioral Specialist

For severe cases of separation anxiety, hiring a behavioral specialist can be a literal life saver.  A behavioral specialist is a dog trainer that specializes in understanding the circumstances that cause a dog to behave in a certain way, and developing an individualized plan to overcome the problem.  While this method requires time and patience, it ultimately can be the difference between having to re-home your dog (or worse) and coexisting peacefully.

 

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Anna Weber

Anna Weber

As a life-long dog owner and animal lover I have dedicated my adult life to rescuing and fostering dogs, particularly seniors and behaviorally at-risk animals.I believe that nearly every animal can be rehabilitated with love, kindness, training, and proper exercise.
Anna Weber

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