One of the most common complaints of dog owners is that their dogs are sad or destructive when left alone. Their dogs might pee, poop, bark, howl, chew, dig or try to escape. Although these problems often show that their dog needs to be taught house manners, they can also be signs of distress. When dog problems also have distress behaviors, such as drooling and showing anxiety when his pet parents prepare to leave the house, they aren’t evidence that the dog isn’t house trained or doesn’t know which toys are his to chew. Instead, they are indications that the dog has separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is triggered when dogs become upset because of separation from their guardians, the people they’re attached to. Escape attempts by dogs with separation anxiety are often extreme and can result in self-injury and household destruction, especially around exit points like windows and doors.
Some dogs suffering from separation anxiety become agitated when their owners prepare to leave. Others seem anxious or depressed prior to their guardians’ departure or when their guardians aren’t present. Some try to prevent their owners from leaving. Usually, right after a guardian leaves a dog with separation anxiety, the dog will begin barking and displaying other distress behaviors within minutes. When the guardian returns home, the dog acts as though it’s been years since he’s seen his mom or dad!
When treating a dog of separation anxiety, the goal is to teaching him to enjoy, or at least tolerate, being left alone. This happens by setting things up so that your dog experiences the situation that provokes his anxiety, namely being alone, without experiencing fear or anxiety.
First, talk to your vet to rule out any medical problems. Sometimes dogs have accidents in the house because of infections or hormone problems or other health conditions. It also could be due to incomplete housebreaking. And some medications can cause accidents. If your dog takes any drugs, ask your vet if they are to blame.
What is the Difference Between Separation Anxiety and Normal Canine Behavior?
Separation anxiety is a serious condition, and it goes beyond the occasional mournful whimper when you leave the house or the shredded sock waiting for you upon your return. It’s also not the same as boredom, and unlike a little mischief when your dog is left alone, separation anxiety is the result of legitimate stress.
Before labeling destroyed cushions or potty accidents as SA, be sure it’s not a case of bad manners. Does your dog truly understand good manners, even when you’re not watching him? Is he potty trained? One of the best ways to see what’s really going on in your absence is to videotape your dog’s behavior while you’re away.
What Are the Signs of Puppy Separation Anxiety?
Dogs can exhibit stress in many ways, so there is no one defining sign of SA. Instead, there are a multiple symptoms. One or two of them, especially if they only happen occasionally, may not be a sign of puppy separation anxiety. But if your puppy shows multiple symptoms on a regular basis, he may be suffering from SA. Here are some behaviors your dog may exhibit:
- Anxious behaviors like pacing, whining, or trembling while you’re gone or as you prepare to leave.
- Excessive barking or howling.
- Destructive acts, such as chewing or digging, particularly around doors or windows.
- Accidents in the house – urinating or defecating.
- Excessive salivation, drooling, or panting.
- Desperate and prolonged attempts to escape confinement, potentially ending in serious injury.
What Causes Separation Anxiety?
It’s unclear why some dogs are more prone to separation anxiety than others. There may be several reasons, including never previously being left alone and traumatic separation, such as would be seen in some abandoned shelter dogs. Even a single traumatic event in the owner’s absence, like the house being robbed, can lead to SA. Finally, she suggests that personality can play a role, with clingy dogs perhaps being more at risk than independent ones.
Other triggers to watch out for involve life changes like a sudden switch in schedule, a move to a new house, or the sudden absence of a family member, whether it’s a divorce, a death in the family, or a child leaving for college. Recent research has even pointed to a lack of daily exercise as a possible cause. Because there are so many potential triggers for SA, it’s essential to work on prevention and start treatment at the first sign.
What Can I Do About Puppy Separation Anxiety?
It’s frustrating to come home to destruction and sad to see your puppy in such distress. Thankfully, there are several steps you can take to deal with SA. The Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic states the goal of treatment is “to resolve the dog’s underlying anxiety by teaching him to enjoy, or at least tolerate, being left alone.” So some of the treatments are the same as the preventative measures and may already be part of your puppy’s routine. But consider all of them as you tackle SA. Look at the following methods of treatment:
It bears repeating that a crate is your dog’s friend and your ally. It’s an important training tool and the solution for many puppy challenges. It isn’t cruel or unhealthy if used appropriately. Instead, it can provide your pup with a safe, quiet place to relax. The trick is to teach him to associate his crate with wonderful things like chew toys and food-releasing puzzle toys so he’s happy to spend time inside. Some dogs feel safer and more comfortable in their crate when left alone. However, other dogs can panic. Watch your puppy’s behavior to see if he settles right down or if the anxiety symptoms ramp up. Remember, the goal is not to crate your dog all day, every day as a solution to his SA. It’s to keep him and your house safe while you teach him to enjoy being alone.
- Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning
An important part of raising a mentally and physically healthy new puppy is teaching him to be comfortable in the world and to form positive associations with new experiences. That’s equally true for time away from you. Teach your puppy that separation has its rewards. Start by leaving him for very short periods of time and gradually lengthen the amount of time you’re gone. If your puppy is already conditioned to go into stress mode when he knows you’re leaving him, try countering that reaction by using a high-value treat he really loves and that you only bring out for important lessons and rewards. If he gets a special treat right before you leave, he might even begin to look forward to your departure. You can also make your departure routine less distressing by desensitizing your puppy to the signs you’re about to go out. For example, pick up your keys or put on your coat then go make dinner rather than heading to the car. Even better, toss your puppy a high-value treat right before you touch your keys or coat. In time, he will look forward to the signs you’re about to leave rather than panicking.
Exercise can’t cure SA, but it certainly can help treat and prevent it. First, make sure your puppy gets plenty of exercise. This is especially true for large, high-energy dogs with a lot of it to burn off. A tired, contented dog, who’s had a brisk walk and playtime with you, is more likely to settle down when you leave. Second, don’t neglect your puppy’s mental muscles. Training sessions, puzzle toys, and cognitive games are all good choices. A brain workout can be just as exhausting as a physical one and lots of fun too!
It's bad to encourage a clingy behavior. Instead, develop independence by teaching your dog to be on his own in another room even when you’re at home. Teaching a solid stay is another way to battle excessive attachment. Start with short lengths of time, and once your dog can stay for several minutes, you can begin to leave the room. Eventually, you should be able to leave his sight while he stays for five or ten minutes. It’s also important to play it cool when you leave or return to your home. You can greet your dog with love, but don’t get over the top emotional. Keep things calm and without fanfare. If you get worked up, your dog will see your comings and goings as a major event to worry over. Plus, if you return home to damage or accidents, don’t punish your dog. You will only add to his anxiety and worsen the problem.
- Natural Supplements: Sometimes training and counter-conditioning are not enough. Some vets recommend medication such as amitriptyline, which is used to treat depression, or alprazolam, which is prescribed for anxiety and panic disorders. These require a prescription and are safe for most pets, though you’ll need to consult with your vet, and be extra diligent about the use of medication with a young dog. Another option is supplements and homeopathic treatment. Natural products like Bach’s Rescue Remedy or valerian might bring your dog relief from SA, or at least smooth the way during your training program. Just be sure to consult with your vet before giving your dog any over the counter products, particularly if he is on prescription medications. Other natural options include dog appeasing pheromone collars or diffusers and compression shirts like Thundershirt.
Separation anxiety in puppies and dogs isn’t always preventable, despite your best efforts. And once SA has taken hold, it can be a complicated process to treat. Consider working with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or a veterinary behaviorist to help smooth the process. However, as serious as this condition may be, McConnell assures it has a high rate of treatment success. With patience and a positive attitude, you may be able to reduce your dog’s suffering and put puppy separation behind you.
If the Problem Isn't that serious …
- Give your dog a special toy each time you leave (like a puzzle toy stuffed with peanut butter). Only give him this treat when you're gone, and take it away when you get home.
- Make your comings and goings not that big of a deal without a lot of greeting. Ignore your pup for the first few minutes after you get home.
- Leave some recently worn clothes out that smell like you.
- Consider giving your pet over-the-counter natural calming supplements.
If it's very Serious …
A dog with severe anxiety won't be distracted by even the tastiest treats. You'll need to slowly get him used to you leaving.
He may start to get nervous when he sees signs that you're about to leave, like putting on your shoes and picking up your keys. So do those things, but then don't leave. Put on your shoes and then sit down at the table. Pick up your keys and watch TV. Do this over and over many times a day.
When your dog starts to feel less anxious about that, you can slowly start to disappear. First just go on the other side of the door. Ask your dog to stay, then close an inside door between you. Reappear after a few seconds. Slowly increase the amount of time you're gone. Put on your shoes and pick up your keys. Ask your dog to stay while you go into another room.
As he gets more used to the "stay game," increase the amount of time you're gone. Then use an outside door, but not the same one you go out every day. Make sure your dog is relaxed before you leave.
Only you can tell if your dog is ready to be left alone for longer periods. Don't rush things. Give him a stuffed treat when you've built up to 10 seconds or so apart. Always act calm when you leave and when you return.
Gradually build up the time until you can leave the house for a few minutes. Then stay away for longer and longer periods.