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Separation Anxiety

We’ve all seen the look of abandonment on the face of a child when he is left for his first day at school and can probably understand the pain of the mother knowing that she has to leave and to a great degree, leaving a dog is exactly the same.  They are loyal creatures that just want to be with their family and some just can’t deal with being left on their own, even for a short period of time.

Dog’s can’t use words to tell us how they feel when, in their mind, they have been abandoned but it is very clear when we get home as to what they wanted to express.  The neighbour might come over just as you get out of the car complaining about the constant barking and, as you walk in the door; you might see stuffing from toys and cushions all over the house and perhaps even chewed up shoes and garden hoses.  The dog may even have urinated or defecated everywhere or chewed and scratched at timber door frames and gates to try to get out.  These are all signs of a dog that has felt fear and anxiety from being alone in the house for too long.

Separation anxiety, put simply, is the term given when a dog becomes too scared or too bored to be left on his own for any length of time and this manifests itself in destructive, disturbing and damaging behaviour.  Treating separation anxiety involves a process of teaching the dog to enjoy being on his own and to trust that you will return.

CHANGE THE LEAVING ROUTINE
Some dogs will become anxious just at the thought of you leaving.  Being very intuitive animals, they soon learn your routine for leaving the house and will show their anxiety before you are even out the door.  They know that when you put on your shoes, grab your bag and pick up the keys that soon they will be left on their own.  To disassociate your leaving with these behaviours, change your routine regularly.  For example, at any time of the day, get dressed to leave and pick up the keys but then sit down and watch some TV or have a cuppa.  The dog won’t know if you are coming or going and won’t have the chance to feel any anxiety.

Another great idea is to give them a game of ‘hide and seek’ to play just as you leave the house.  Scatter small treats around the house or the backyard and hide a few in their bed.  They will be so busy trying to find these delicious morsels that they won’t even notice that you have gone.

TEACH THEM TO BE ALONE
Dogs that are left on their own all day need to be kept busy and stimulated so that they have less time to worry or to become anxious.  Giving them things to do that are both physically and mentally stimulating will help to treat anxiety which can lead to behavioural problems and also help to tire them out so that they sleep.

A dog that has had an exhausting, early morning walk or romp in the park is less likely to suffer from separation anxiety since he will probably be napping on his bed for most of the time until you return.  It’s a little like kids that go to bed early on Christmas Eve thinking that the morning will come quicker; when the dog is asleep he is oblivious to the fact that he is on his own and the time until his owner returns is that much less.

Boredom busting toys are fantastic at keeping a dog stimulated and the variety on offer is incredible.  There are toys for chewing and demolishing as well as others that move around and some that keep the dog busy trying to recover the treats within.  These really are the best investment when trying to overcome mild separation anxiety in dogs but there are some great tricks for using them effectively and these are all explained in our “Boredom Busting Toys” factsheet.

SERIOUS CASES OF SEPARATION ANXIETY
Severe cases of anxiety need to be tackled in very small steps so that the dog can be desensitised to the stimulus that is causing his fear.  As the owner, you need to be very patient and must set aside some time to really tackle this in a controlled manner.

Desensitising involves introducing the dog to being separated from you in very tiny increments so that he learns that nothing bad will happen if he is on his own and that you will always come home to him.  Throughout the desensitising process, which could take several weeks, the dog must never be left on his own for long periods of time as this will simply reinforce the fear that he feels.  This might mean that other family members or friends must always be at home when you’re not but the outcome should be worth the effort.

Have ready a ‘safety cue’ to introduce to the leaving routine and which the dog soon learns to associate positively with your stepping out the door.  This might be putting down a special bed or rug for him to sleep on or giving him one of your old jumpers with your smell on it; both being things that he loves but which he only has when you are away.  A special treat or sound such as a bell may be introduced as well.

Start by leaving the dog for very short periods of time that are not long enough to cause anxiety.  For some dogs this might be just one minute, for others it might be several minutes.  When you leave, put down the safety cue, pat the dog on the head, say goodbye and walk out the door.  Wait outside for the few minutes making sure he doesn’t know you are there and then unlock the door and enter as you normally would.  Again, don’t make a big event out of arriving home but be sure to say hello and give the dog a treat and then remove the safety cue.  Once he is calm again you can give him lots of love and attention.

For some dogs with very severe cases of separation anxiety and which get stressed before the owner is even at the door, it may be necessary to start the training whilst still in the house.  That is, by just moving towards the door and then, once the dog is relaxed at this stage, opening the door and eventually stepping out and closing the door behind.

When the dog appears to cope well with a few minutes on his own, do exactly the same for a little bit longer and gradually build up.  Remember, this can be a long process and the dog must always feel safe so if he starts to struggle at a longer period of time, just reduce the time a fraction and reinforce this for a few more days before continuing the process.  And above all, don’t punish the dog if he shows anxiety or fear as this will only make the problem worse.

HELP IS AT HAND
Separation anxiety in dogs is heartbreaking for owners and if training at home doesn’t work, outside help is always available.  Veterinarians may suggest a combination of medication and behavioural training to help the dog, especially if there is a chance that the dog may cause serious injury to itself.  There are also some fabulous ‘doggy day care’ centres which will completely throw the old routine out the window and of course, there are always dog walkers who will come over during the day to take him out to burn off some energy so he sleeps until your return.  Behavioural modification dog trainers are also available to come to the house and train both you and your dog in techniques to overcome separation anxiety.

Drop into any Better Pets and Gardens store for the contact details of dog trainers, dog walkers or ‘doggy day care’ operators in your local area.