Dogs are an integral part of family life. They spend most of their time with us in the home and also join us on holidays and family outings. Some dogs find it difficult to be left alone for long periods and will show you through behaviour that indicates they are experiencing separation anxiety.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is your dog’s response to a situation they are not familiar or comfortable with. It usually occurs within 20-45 minutes after their owners leave them and can manifest in a number of concerning signs such as:
- Excessive barking
- Destructive chewing
- Repeated escaping
- Scratching at doors or windows
- Urination and defection (even with house-trained dogs)
Separation anxiety can be an environmental response to a change in a dog’s life (such as moving to a new home, or a change in work schedule), but for many dogs, it is purely genetics driving this response. Some of these signs can indicate other problems, so to determine if it is separation anxiety your dog will need to display all or most of the following behaviours:
- The behaviour ALWAYS occurs when your dog is left alone
- Your dog generally follows you from room to room (especially when it senses you are about to leave)
- Your dog displays frantic greeting behaviours
- Your dog acts anxiously when you are preparing to leave
- Your dog dislikes being outside by itself
How to manage separation anxiety
If possible, we recommend working with a behaviourist to manage your dog’s anxiety. We use the word ‘manage’ because not all dogs will be able to live completely free of separation anxiety. There are no quick fixes. But there are some things you can do to help reduce its severity and create a happier, more content life for your dog.
Don’t make a fuss when leaving or arriving home
This can be really tricky. We love our dogs and want to make them feel loved and appreciated. But getting overly excited or worried when leaving or arriving your house signals to your dog that this is a ‘big deal’.
It’s a good idea to leave the house when your dog is settled. This will not always be possible, but it will help remove the stark contrast between when you are home and when you are not, that being lots of attention!
Spend time alone, together
Your dog ideally shouldn’t know your whereabouts constantly. Try shutting yourself in a different part of the house and playing music so they can’t hear you moving about. You can also try opening and shutting the doors randomly so they don’t associate that with you leaving or arriving home.
Regular mental and physical exercise
Unless you have a highly active dog, you should expect your dog to sleep for a lot of the day while you are not home. Ensuring they get adequate mental and physical stimulation will help them feel tired and sleepy during the day. Try taking them for a walk and giving them some mentally stimulating enrichment activities first thing in the morning.
Keep them occupied
If your dog isn’t interested in being a lord or lady of leisure, there are a few ways you can keep them entertained at home. Every dog is different. Some dogs find the TV or radio on soothing. Another good way to keep them occupied is with long-lasting treats or toys, such as this lickimat or Kong Wobble Feeder.
Caution of desensitisation methods
You may read a lot about desensitisation methods in your research about managing separation anxiety, and whilst this can be effective if carried out correctly, it is often difficult to undertake for the average dog owner.
It is difficult to implement successfully because it carries a risk of making the separation anxiety worse is you get it wrong, as it can make dogs hypersensitive to any behaviours that indicate you are leaving them. Therefore, we recommend you focus on the other listed recommendations.
If in doubt, speak to a behaviourist
Some dogs need extra support to manage their separation anxiety, and even mild cases could benefit from expert advice. If your dog’s separation anxiety is acute, a veterinary behaviourist may prescribe medication to help calm your pooch while you practice these management tools. The idea is to ween them off the medication once they respond positively.
If you need some advice on finding the right dog behaviourist, check out our advice here.