Written by Marc Deppe at Bark Busters Treasure Coast for HealthyPets.com. Original article can be found HERE. Like human beings, dogs have an inherent need for social interaction and companionship. As pack animals, they have an instinctive desire to form tight-knit groups; which explains why they are able to form close relationships with other highly social animals like horses, sheep, and of course human beings. When you decide to adopt a pet dog you’re essentially accepting them into your pack, and assuming the position of leadership. As a pack leader you have the responsibility of providing clear, consistent guidance to your pet. If you aren’t able to fulfill this expectation, then your dog may become unsure of its position within your social group. This can lead to a number of behavioral problems including separation anxiety.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Your dog does not instinctively understand the concept of being alone. Whether you’re heading out for work or rushing to the store to pick up some milk, it doesn’t understand the nature of your departure, which would explain the overjoyed reception you receive when you finally return home. For most dogs, the period before and after their owner leaves home is a time of considerable stress. Unless you take clear steps to reassure your pooch, it may become anxious and agitated, and it may express this discomfort in a number of ways.
At the lower end of the scale, your dog might act out in the hopes of gaining your attention or controlling your reactions. This is known as learned separation anxiety, and it is purely a sign of negative reinforcement or boredom. In other words, your dog has learned that by chewing furniture, barking or generally misbehaving it can grab your undivided interest once more. You can usually resolve these issues by providing appropriate leadership and making sure that your dog gets the proper amount of exercise, entertainment and training while you’re at home.
On the other hand, separation anxiety usually manifests in far more extreme responses. Dogs that experience separation anxiety are truly fearful about the prospect of being away from their owners, and as a result they can easily work themselves into a panic if they are left alone. Separation anxiety can stem from a variety of factors.
- Your pet might have experience trauma during puppyhood which makes it insecure about being abandoned.
- There may have been sudden changes in the family structure or home environment which causes the dog to lose its sense of routine and consistency.
- Your dog may feel responsible for your safety and feel it can’t keep it’s eye on you when you leave. This results in the dog “demanding” your return so that it can one again keep it’s eye on you.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety
Destroying Property: If your dog chews on furniture and damages other household items in your absence then this might be a sign of separation anxiety. In this case, your dog will only exhibit these behaviors when you’re not at home.
Constantly Attempting to Escape: In an attempt to reunite with you, your dog might try to scratch its way through doorframes or force its way through the windowsill. In extreme cases of separation anxiety, dogs have even been known to throw themselves through plate glass windows. Your dog could easily end up injuring itself if this behavior is left unchecked.
Urination or Defecation: If your dog only has accidents when you’re out of the house, then you may be seeing signs of separation anxiety. If this behavior has only started recently then check that your dog is not experiencing any medical issues that may be causing incontinence. Involuntary bowel movements can be a side effect of certain medications so you might need to run the situation by your vet in order to make ensure that your dog is being treated correctly.
Barking and Howling: If you receive complaints about your dog’s persistent barking whenever you come home then your dog could have separation anxiety.
Excessive drooling and sweating in your absence: Your dog might also drink excessively to make up for the lost fluids.
Pacing and Panting: This behavior is usually displayed when your dog suspects that you’re getting ready to leave the house. Some dogs can also show signs of depression during the pre-departure period.
Extreme Excitability When you Return Home: While everyone loves a warm welcome from their four-legged friends this might be more than a show of affection. If your dog is barking, shrieking and jumping excessively when you return home then it’s a good sign that they were extremely stressed out in your absence. Your dog might also become extremely clingy from the moment you arrive to ensure you don’t leave again.
Separation Anxiety Training
In order to effectively treat separation anxiety, you need to assert your position as leader of the pack. Rather than indulging your dog’s whims you must begin to set clear boundaries inside the house. For example, you can no longer allow your dog to dictate when it’s petted or at what times of the day it’s let out.
While it’s tempting to indulge your pup in these instances, you’re actually setting a precedent which will affect the power dynamics between you and your pet moving forward. If your dog begins to see you in a subservient role then it will be far more difficult for you to instill good behavior later on. Conversely, strong leadership provides dogs with a sense of balance and security which in turn gives them the confidence to stay calm when they’re left alone.
Bark Busters’ in-home dog trainers on Florida’s Treasure Coast use an intuitive behavior modification system to assess and resolve even the most difficult cases of dog separation anxiety. Here are a few key recommendations for any dog owner that wants to try separation anxiety training on their own.
Start While They’re Puppies
It’s far easier train a dog when it’s still integrating into your household. Of course, at this early stage young pups will whine when they’re left alone for even a moment. This is a natural survival instinct, as puppies in the wild would not survive very long without constant parental supervision. Your job at this point, is to get your puppy used to being on its own for short periods of time. The intention here, is to teach your puppy that alone time can be relaxing and enjoyable as well.
To accomplish this objective, you need to create a safe, comfortable environment where your puppy can feel completely secure. Crates naturally lend themselves to this type of separation anxiety training. Make sure that your crate is large enough to allow the dog to stand up, turn around and sit with ease. But make sure that it is not too big, because your puppy may use the extra room as a toilet.
Position your crate in quieter section of the house that’s free from foot traffic and loud noises. This should allow your puppy to rest and relax without any disturbances. Make the crate a welcoming environment by putting in a comfortable bed, some toys, treats and a soft, familiar-smelling blanket. Cover the crate to make it feel enclosed and safe lika a “Den” with only the door uncovered. Leave the crate door open initially, and allow your pop to explore the space on its own. Once your puppy becomes used to spending time in the crate, you can start to shut to door for short periods of time. Be careful not to leave puppies inside crates for more than a couple of hours at a time, as younger dogs need more frequent toileting breaks.
Once the puppy crate training has advanced to this point, you can begin to mix in some elements of separation anxiety training. At random points throughout the day and night, put your puppy in the crate with its favorite toy. Initially, you should make sure to stay within the general vicinity of the crate so that your puppy is able to maintain a visual connection. When you’re sure that your puppy has become accustomed to maintaining physical distance, you can start to move out of sight completely. While you might need to monitor your puppy’s behavior regularly to being with, in time you should be able to complete your chores as normal without disturbing your puppy.
Leaving the House
By this stage, your puppy should have no trouble spending time alone in its crate without you. Now, you can start to leave your dog alone for short periods of time. Once you have prepared the crate, let your dog go inside as usual and shut the door. Then, begin to quietly make preparations to leave the house. Get dressed, apply makeup, get the car keys and head out to the car door.
Make sure not to acknowledge your puppy during this time. Your dog should realize that it does not need to be involved in everything you do. This will also help to reduce the contrast between periods when you’re at home, and when you’re getting ready to leave. Extend this philosophy to greetings and farewells. Instead of making a big show about leaving, acknowledge your dog with a pat on the head and some affectionate words.
To start with you should only leave the house for short periods of time. Once you come back, check up on your puppy if it’s still comfortable then you’re doing great. If your dog becomes anxious and agitated then you might need to go back and repeat a few steps. Remember, the key here is to gradually acclimate your dog to being alone. Pay specific attention to whether you dog becomes agitated after certain pre-departure cues. For example, if your dog starts to bark and whine as soon as you jingle the car keys then you need to desensitize it to this sound.
To get around this pre-departure anxiety you need to teach your dog that certain cues are not always associated with you leaving the house. Throughout the day you should make a point to pick up the keys without leaving the house. You can follow the same strategy for other potentially anxiety inducing triggers. For example you could get dressed and sit on the couch, instead of leaving the house. These techniques will only work if you commit to them for weeks on end, your dog may have learned to associate certain sounds with separation anxiety for years.
Most of your dog’s anxious responses will take place within the first 40 minutes of being left alone, so your separation anxiety training should be focused on getting your puppy over this hump. Once you’re sure that your pet can comfortably deal with your absence over this period, you can safely extend your absences to more than a couple of hours with ease.
Additional Tips for Dog Separation Anxiety
Bark Busters has a few extra tips for dog owners that are struggling to establish these training techniques.
- Try to exercise your dog more frequently. This will help to get them tired out and ready for rest.
- Give your dog a few special treats when you’re about to leave. Make sure to remove these toys as soon as you return home. This will get your dog to associate your departure with pleasurable sensations.
- There’s no point in punishing your dog for bad behavior when you come home. Dogs relate punishment to their current behavior so they will be unable to link your actions to their previous misdeeds.
- Give your dog some much-needed rest between training sessions, and try to take at least one day off per week. About 15-20 minutes per day should be adequate.
- Try not to put an already anxious dog in a crate, as this will only exasperate their anxiety.