Separation anxiety explained: Prevention & Management
Dogs have evolved over thousands of years, to live in groups, or to live alongside humans as companions or workers. Because of this, the majority of dogs prefer to have company, and being alone does not come naturally to them. Being comfortable on their own is something that dogs have to learn, and this is most effective when taught at a young age. Separation anxiety can be more common in abandoned or rescue dogs due to their prior experiences with kennels and being left alone.
So, what does separation anxiety in dogs look like?
- Often, they will follow you around the house, and start to pace or pant (or other worried behaviours) when you prepare to leave.
- They will become very distressed when you leave them and may try to follow you, scratch or chew at walls or doors, or try to escape.
- They will be very distressed when you are absent, and this can include pacing, panting, salivating, a desperate need to go to the toilet, barking/howling/whining and raised breathing and heart rates. This is usually at its worst for the first 15 minutes.
- They will often chew things that smell like you into small pieces and curl up in the remains so that your dog has your scent around them for comfort.
- They can appear very excitable upon your return, and they may be wet, either from excessively drinking or salivating due to stress.
Can you prevent separation anxiety?
Yes, if you get puppies or new dogs used to being away from you for short periods of time early on, you can teach them that being left alone is normal and not frightening. You will need to decide where your dog will be when they will be left alone – somewhere quiet and calm where any potential mess can be cleaned up. However, you do not want to only put your dog in that area when they are being left alone, or they will associate it with negative experiences and will not learn to relax. Bring them into this area for good things like treats, meals and fuss so they see it as a nice place to be.
How do I prepare a place to leave my dog when I go out?
Stair gates are great when helping dogs get used to being left alone. They are less scary than a closed door as your dog can still see, smell and hear you. The key thing is that your dog will get used to a little bit of distance between you while you are still at home. Put a stair gate over the door, a comfortable bed, water and some chewing items (toys, food or both – chewing is calming for dogs) in this room. A talk or classical radio station on low level can be helpful as this provides a little background noise, muffles exterior sounds and provides a sense of company. Putting something that smells like you in your dog’s bed may also increase your dog’s sense of security during training and when they are alone. There are also several products that help to reduce anxiety such as Adaptil, Pet Remedy, Valerian and Scullcap supplements and ZenDog or Thunder Shirts, all of which can be used in conjunction with these methods and which you can discuss with your vet prior to use.
How do I get my puppy or dog used to being left alone?
At random points during the day, put your dog behind the stair gate with a tasty chew (like a Kong toy stuffed with treats or similar). Close the gate behind you and go about your business as normal for a few minutes but try to stay so your dog can see and/or hear you, especially if they are young, new to your home or already suffer from separation anxiety. After a few minutes, open the stair gate - ideally you want your dog to still be relaxed and still focussed on the treat. Your dog can decide if they want to stay in the room or leave.
If you find that your dog even struggles with just a few minutes, you can make it easier by staying in this room with them, but it is important that you do not interact with them – just sit quietly. Once they are used to the idea of being in the room with you (but not interacting with you) you can start shutting the stair gate, starting with a minute or two at a time. Over a period of days, gradually increase the time your dog is left behind the gate until they feel relaxed enough for you to go out of sight. You should build your dog up to being left in this area for up to 30 minutes while you are elsewhere in the house.
Once your dog is comfortable with this, you can begin to get them used to short periods of time alone in the house. Follow the same routine as before, but instead of staying in the house, once your dog is comfortable and focussed on their treat, get ready and leave the house. It is important to come back after a couple of minutes, before your dog starts to become anxious. You can then repeat a few times over the course of day. Very gradually increase the time you leave your dog alone in the house to about half an hour over a period of days or weeks.
If your dog starts to show any sign of anxiety or stress, go back and start from where they were last comfortable. Some dogs may need more time to adjust, so go very slowly, and if you find your dog begins to look worried when you pick up your keys or put on your jacket, then you will need to spend some time getting your dog used to these particular sounds. You can do this by regularly popping your dog in the area during the day as before and get them used to seeing and hearing you pick up your keys, coat or bag. For this purpose, it is important not to actually leave the house – just allow your dog to get used to these sights and sounds while they are relaxed and comfortable. Once they look calm when they see or hear these things (this may take several days), then you can start again with actually leaving the house for a couple of minutes at a time.
If you need to leave your dog for several hours, make sure you have built them up to this with the above training. You’ll need to make sure they have been well exercised and have had the opportunity to go the toilet. For some dogs, a small meal may help as this may make them feel more relaxed and sleepy. Keep greetings upon your return friendly, low-key and predictable, even if you come home to find your dog has chewed something or toileted. It’s important to understand that punishment will NOT help your dog – just go back a few steps and start again. If your dog has an established separation problem, then it’s best to seek professional help. The Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors or the Animal Behaviour and Training Council will help you to find a local qualified behaviourist or trainer.