There are two examples of stress that dogs experience when owners are away. One is containment phobia and the other is separation anxiety. Containment phobia is often misdiagnosed as separation anxiety as dogs are often not put into the area that causes the anxiety until the owners are leaving. The dog then begins to associate the owner leaving with being put in the area that causes the anxiety. Sadly because of this link the two are often very difficult to distinguish, but to put it in more simplistic terms we will define containment phobia as anxiety associated with a certain place, their crate, a room, the back yard, etc. Separation anxiety we will define as the anxiety caused by owners leaving the dog whether that be at home, with a friend, at the vet, etc.
After aggression, separation anxiety is the one of the biggest behavioral problems we are called on to treat. Separation anxiety rears its ugly head in many different forms. With more mild cases there is a little bit of barking or howling while the owner is away often accompanied by pacing around the house. In the more severe cases I have seen dogs have caused extreme damage to homes and themselves. Dogs have chewed through doors, busted through windows, urinated and defecated everywhere, shredded furniture, and in the process they have shredded their paws and gums and broken off teeth and nails.
There are often a few early signs of separation anxiety developing. Dogs that always attempt to quickly shoot out of open doors are often displaying mild anxiety at the thought of being left at home alone. Dogs that pace or whine when you get your keys, shoes, or coat are also starting to experience anxiety about your departure. Shelter and rescue dogs are also much more likely to exhibit separation anxiety. There are many different thoughts as to what causes this but it is always something to look out for when adopting a new dog.
If your dog is experiencing separation anxiety there is hope. When we evaluate a dog experiencing separation anxiety we develop a game plan specifically to help that dog but there are things you can try on your own especially if your dog is only experiencing mild anxiety.
The absolute most important thing to do to help curb separation anxiety is exercise, both mental and physical. You can supply the physical side with a good run or if your dog likes fetch go throw the ball until they’re tired. Let them get some of that pent up energy out before you have to leave. This can have a drastic calming effect and if owners are committed to some solid exercise every morning before they leave this is often enough to resolve mild cases.
Mental exercise is just as important if not more important for more difficult cases. Puzzle toys are a great way to start but many intelligent dogs will figure these out pretty quickly. You can have your dog “hunt” for their food everyday by hiding it in different piles around the house. For extreme cases I highly recommend getting your dog involved in some type of dog sport. We offer everything from nosework, rally, obedience, IPO, and fun agility.
For dogs that start to become anxious at pre-departure cues such as putting on your shoes, or grabbing your keys, we need to desensitize your dog to this stimuli. Go through your normal morning routine and then just sit on the couch for a little while. If you always grab your keys and purse right before you head out the door make it a habit to constantly pick up your purse and keys and just move them to different places around the house while you’re going to be home. This lets your dog learn to relax. Just because you grabbed our keys and purse doesn’t mean you are going to leave.
For more extreme cases we have to implement a long-term counter conditioning plan. This involves a lot of commitment on the part of the owner because it requires a lot of time. Most dogs display the worst of their destructive behavior in the first 45 minutes after their owners’ departure but getting your dog to learn to calm down up to that first 45 minutes can take months. Normally, once a dog can handle 45 minutes they can handle 4 hours, but we have to start with just 1 or 2 seconds and build from there.
If you are not able to hire a trainer or commit the necessary time to training, taking your dog to doggy daycare can often be a good alternative as well as asking a relative to come stay at your house while you are away.
The important thing to remember is your dog is not exhibiting these behaviors to get back at you. They are experiencing extreme anxiety when you leave. Punishing your dog for these behaviors will not get you anywhere and could even make the anxiety worse.