It is a rare dog owner who hasn’t heard of separation anxiety or experienced it with a one of her own dogs. With COVID and so many families that worked from home for extended periods of time, separation related issues have become extremely common.
A common complaint with this type of behavior is the dog become disruptive or destructive when left alone. The behaviors of your dog might include urinating, barking, howling, destructive chewing, digging or escape behavior and usually indicate your dog is under emotional distress.
Separation anxiety is caused when the dog becomes anxious and upset because of separation from their owner. Escape attempts by your dog can become extreme and may often result in self injury to your dog.
Dogs suffering from separation anxiety become anxious and agitated when their people prepare to leave or after they leave. Often, these dogs will act as though it has been years since they have seen their people upon your return.
There are a significant number of dogs who are afflicted with some degree of separation anxiety and in Post COVID times, here at K9 Culture, we have seen a significant increase in this behavior issue. Thankfully, most dog owners these days are willing to seek solutions to behavior problems rather than just getting rid of their dog. 47% of surrendered dogs were given up do to behavioral issues, which means they just pass the issue on to another owner. With separation anxiety, this exacerbates the issue for in the dogs mind, they are RIGHT; the owner did not come back.
As a result, if you have a rescue dog with separation anxiety, it means we have an additional layer of insecurity to help your dog through.
When helping a dog with separation anxiety, the goal is to resolve the dog’s underlying anxiety by teaching him to tolerate and eventually be comfortable being left alone.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety
Urinating and Defecating
Some dogs urinate or defecate when left alone or separated from their people. If a dog urinates or defecates in the presence of his people, this behavior probably isn’t caused by separation anxiety.
Barking and Howling
A dog with separation anxiety may bark or howl when left alone or when separated from his people. This kind of barking or howling is persistent and not typically triggered by anything except being left alone.
Chewing, Digging and Destruction
Some dogs with separation anxiety chew on objects, door frames or windowsills, dig at doors, or destroy household objects when left alone or separated from their people. This behavior can result in self-injury, broken teeth, cut and scraped paws and damaged nails. If a dog’s chewing, digging and destruction are caused by separation anxiety, they do not typically occur in the presence of his people.
A dog with separation anxiety might try to escape from an area where he’s confined to. The dog might attempt to dig and chew through the kennel, doors or windows, which could result in self-injury. If the dog’s escape behavior is caused by separation anxiety, it doesn’t occur when his people are present.
Some dogs walk or trot in a fixed pattern when left alone or separated from their people. Some pacing dogs move around in circular patterns, while others walk back and forth in straight lines. If a dog’s pacing behavior is caused by separation anxiety, it usually doesn’t occur when his people are present.
When left alone or separated from their people, some dogs defecate and then consume all or some of their excrement. If a dog eats excrement because of separation anxiety, he probably doesn’t perform that behavior in the presence of his people.
Why Do Some Dogs Develop Separation Anxiety?
There is no conclusive evidence showing why dogs develop separation anxiety and others do not. Since far more dogs that have been adopted from shelters have this behavior problem than those kept by a single family since puppyhood, it is generally believed that loss of an important person in a dog’s life can lead to separation anxiety. Other less dramatic changes can also trigger the disorder.
Being abandoned, surrendered to a shelter or given to a new guardian or family can trigger
the development of separation anxiety.
Common Separation Anxiety Triggers:
Change in Schedule
An abrupt change in schedule in terms of when or how long a dog is left alone can trigger the
development of separation anxiety. If you work from home and spend all day with your dog but then change that routine and leave your dog alone for six or more hours, your dog may separation anxiety because of that change.
Change in Residence
Moving to a new residence can trigger the development of separation anxiety. A change in household such as the sudden absence of a resident family member, either due to death or moving away, can trigger the development of separation anxiety.
Medical Problems to Rule Out First.
Incontinence Caused by Medical Problems
Some dogs’ house soiling is caused by incontinence, a medical condition in which a dog “leaks”
or voids his bladder. A number of medical issues—including a urinary tract infection, a weak sphincter caused by old age, hormone-related problems after spay surgery, bladder stones, diabetes, kidney disease, Cushing’s disease, neurological problems and abnormalities of the genitalia—can cause urinary incontinence in dogs. Before attempting behavior modification for separation anxiety, please see your dog’s veterinarian to rule out medical issues.
There are a number of medications that can cause frequent urination and house soiling. If your dog takes medications, please contact his veterinarian to find out whether or not they might contribute to his house-soiling problems.
Other Behavior Problems to Rule Out
Sometimes it’s difficult to determine whether a dog has separation anxiety or not. Some common behavior problems can cause similar symptoms. Before concluding that your dog has separation anxiety, it’s important to rule out the following behavior problems:
Submissive or Excitement Urination
Some dogs may urinate during greetings, play, physical contact or when being reprimanded or punished.
Incomplete House Training
A dog who occasionally urinates in the house might not be completely house trained. Their potty training might have been inconsistent or it might have involved punishment that made them afraid to eliminate while the owner is watching or nearby.
Many young dogs are destructive in chewing or digging while their people are home as well as when they’re away for they have not developed more appropriate behaviors yet.
Dogs need mental stimulation, and some dogs can be disruptive when left alone when they are bored. These dogs usually don’t appear anxious.
What to Do If Your Dog Has Separation Anxiety
Treatment for Mild Separation Anxiety
If your dog has a mild case of separation anxiety, counterconditioning might reduce or resolve the problem. Counterconditioning is a treatment process that changes the dog’s fearful, anxious or aggressive reaction to a pleasant, relaxed one instead.
It’s done by associating the sight or presence of a feared or disliked person, animal, place, object or situation with something really good, something the dog loves. Over time, the dog learns that whatever he fears actually predicts good things for him. For dogs with separation anxiety, counterconditioning focuses on developing an association between being alone and good things, like delicious food.
To develop this kind of association, every time you leave the house, you can offer your dog a puzzle toy stuffed with food that will take him at least 20 to 30 minutes to finish. For example, try giving your dog a KONG® stuffed with something really tasty, like low-fat cream cheese, spray cheese or low-fat peanut butter, frozen banana and cottage cheese, or canned dog food and kibble. A KONG can even be frozen so that getting all the food out takes even more of your dog’s time. Be sure to remove these special toys as soon as you return home so that your dog only has access to them and the high-value foods inside when he’s by himself.
Treatment for Moderate to Severe Separation Anxiety
Moderate or severe cases of separation anxiety require a more complex desensitization and counterconditioning program. In these cases, it’s crucial to gradually accustom a dog to being alone by starting with many short separations that do not produce anxiety and then gradually increasing the duration of the separations over many weeks of daily sessions.
The following steps briefly describe a desensitization and counterconditioning program. Please keep in mind that this is a short, general explanation.
Desensitization and counterconditioning are complex and can be tricky to carry out. Fear must be avoided or the procedure will backfire and the dog will get more frightened. Because treatment must progress and change according to the dog’s reactions, and because these reactions can be difficult to read and interpret, desensitization and counterconditioning require the guidance of a trained and experienced professional.
Step One: Pre-departure Cues
Some dogs begin to feel anxious while their people get ready to leave. The dog might start to pace, pant and whine when he notices you applying makeup, putting on shoes and a coat, and then picking up a bag or car keys. If your dog doesn’t show signs of anxiety when you’re preparing to leave him alone, you can just skip to step two below.
People of dogs who become upset during pre-departure rituals are unable to leave, even for just few seconds, without triggering their dogs’ extreme anxiety. Your dog will see cues that you’re leaving, like your putting on your coat or picking up your keys, and get so anxious about being left alone that he can’t control himself and forgets that you’ll come back.
One treatment approach to this “pre-departure anxiety” is to teach your dog that when you pick up your keys or put on your coat, it doesn’t always mean that you’re leaving. You can do this by exposing your dog to these cues in various orders several times a day and then, Not Leave!
For example, put on your boots and coat, and then sit down and watch TV instead of leaving. Or pick up your keys, and then sit down at the kitchen table or computer for a while. This will reduce your dog’s anxiety because these cues won’t always lead to your departure, and so your dog won’t get so anxious when he sees them. Please be aware, though, that your dog has many years of learning the significance of your departure cues, so in order to learn that the cues no longer predict your long absences, your dog must experience the fake cues many, many times a day for many weeks. After your dog stops becoming anxious when he sees you getting ready to leave, you can move on to the next step below.
Step Two: Graduated Departures/Absences
If your dog is less anxious before you leave, you can probably skip the pre-departure treatment above and start with very short departures. The main rule is to plan your absences to be shorter than the time it takes for your dog to become upset. To get started, train your dog to perform out-of-sight stays by an inside door in the home, such as the bathroom. You can teach your dog to sit or down and stay while you go to the other side of the bathroom door.
Gradually increase the length of time you wait on the other side of the door, out of your dog’s sight. You can also work on getting your dog used to pre-departure cues as you practice the stay. For example, ask your dog to stay, then put on your coat, pick up your purse and go into the bathroom while your dog continues to stay.
Progress to doing out-of-sight stay exercises at a bedroom door, and then later at an exit door. If you always leave through the front door, do the exercises at the back door first. By the time you start working with your dog at exit doors, he shouldn’t behave with such severe anxiety or any anxiousness because he sees it as a part of the stay game.
You can now start to incorporate short absences in your training. Start with absences that last only last one to two minutes, and then slowly increase the time you are out of your dog’s sight. When you’ve trained to separations of five to ten minutess long, build in counterconditioning by giving your dog a stuffed food toy just before you step out the door. The food-stuffed toy also works as a safety cue that tells the dog that this is a “safe” separation.
During sessions, wait a few minutes between absences. After each short separation, it is important to make sure that your dog is completely relaxed before you leave again. If you leave again right away, while your dog is still excited about your return from the previous separation, he will already feel aroused when he experiences the next absence. This arousal might make him less able to tolerate the next separation, which could make the problem worse rather than better.
Remember to behave in a calm and quiet manner when going out and Coming Back. This will lower the contrast between times when you are there and times when you are gone.
You must judge when your dog is able to tolerate an increase in the length of separation. Each dog reacts differently, so there are no standard timelines. Deciding when to increase the time that your dog is alone can be difficult, and you will make some errors. You want treatment to progress quickly, so you may expose your dog to durations that are too long, which provokes anxiety and worsens the problem. To prevent this kind of mistake, watch for signs of stress in your dog. These signs might include dilated pupils, panting, yawning, salivating, trembling, pacing and exuberant greeting. If you detect stress, you should back up and shorten the length of your departures to a point where your dog can relax again. Then start again at that level and progress more slowly.
You will spend a significant amount of time building up to 40-minute absences because most of your dog’s anxious responses will occur within the first 40 minutes that he’s alone. This means that over weeks of conditioning, you will increase the duration of your departures by only a minute or two each session, or every couple of sessions, depending on your dog’s tolerance at each level. Once your dog can tolerate 40 minutes of separation, you can increase absences by 5-to-10-minute increments. Once your dog can be alone for 90 minutes without getting upset or anxious, he can probably handle four to eight hours. Just to be safe, try leaving him alone for four hours at first, and then work up to eight full hours over a few days.
This treatment process can be accomplished within a few weeks if you can conduct several daily sessions on the weekends and twice-daily sessions during the work week, usually before leaving for work and in the evenings.
During desensitization to any type of fear, it is essential to ensure that your dog never experiences the full-blown version of whatever provokes his anxiety or fear. He must experience only a low-intensity version that doesn’t frighten him. Otherwise, he won’t learn to feel calm and comfortable in situations that upset him. This means that during treatment for separation anxiety, your dog cannot be left alone except during your desensitization sessions.
Fortunately, there are plenty of alternative arrangements:
Take your dog to a sitter’s house or to a doggy daycare.
If you are considering adoption of a second dog, try borrowing a calm, stable, compatible dog from a friend, to see if that helps to relieve your dog’s distress.
Crate training can be helpful for some dogs if they learn that the crate is their safe place to go when left alone. However, for other dogs, the crate can cause added stress and anxiety. In order to determine whether or not you should try using a crate, monitor your dog’s behavior during crate training and when he’s left in the crate while you’re home. If he shows signs of distress, crate confinement isn’t the best option for him. Instead of using a crate, you can try confining your dog to one room behind a baby gate.
Exercising your dog’s mind and body can greatly enrich his life, decrease stress and provide appropriate outlets for normal dog behaviors. Additionally, a physically and mentally tired dog doesn’t have much excess energy to expend when he’s left alone. To keep your dog busy and happy, try the following suggestions:
Try to exercise your dog right before you have to leave him by himself. This might help him relax and rest while you’re gone. Play fun, interactive games with your dog, such as fetch and tug-of-war.
Teach your dog a strong basis of obedience commands or get obedience training for your dog. Dog’s thrive with routines and obedience gives your dog a base line of routines and behaviors to make decisions from. The more solid their baseline or routines, the less your dog feels like they are guessing when they choose how to behave or react. Dogs do not like to guess for they KNOW they are guessing which causes them to be anxious from fear of being wrong.
Take your dog on daily walks and outings. Take different routes and visit new places as often as possible so that he can experience novel smells and sights.
If your dog likes other dogs, let him play off-leash with his canine buddies. Provide food puzzle toys. You can feed your dog his meals in these toys or stuff them with a little peanut butter, cheese or yogurt. Also give your dog a variety of attractive edible and inedible chew things. Puzzle toys and chew items encourage chewing and licking, which have been shown to have a calming effect on dogs. Be sure to provide them whenever you leave your dog alone.
Make your dog “hunt” his meals by hiding small piles of his kibble around your house or yard when you leave. Most dogs love this game!
Do not scold or punish your dog. Anxious behaviors are not the result of disobedience or spite. They are distress responses! Your dog displays anxious behaviors when left alone because he’s upset and trying to cope with a great deal of stress. If you punish him, he may become even more upset and the problem could get much worse.
Fixing separation anxiety is hard work. It’s all too easy to get frustrated with your dog’s destructive behavior. Remember that he’s not choosing to do it out of spite or malice - he is panicked about his own survival without you, his pack, there to protect him. It’s not fun for him, either; he lives in the moment, and the moments that you are gone are long and terrifying. If you make the commitment to modify his behavior and succeed in helping him be brave about being alone, you’ll not only save your home from destruction, but you will also enhance the quality of your dog’s life immensely - as well as your own - and perhaps save him from destruction, too.
We help dogs with separation anxiety and would happy to help your pup to.
A Dog that is a JOY to Live With!