One of the most endearing traits about dogs is their undying loyalty. We love when our dogs follow us around the house, refusing to leave our sides during good times and bad.
But when your dog’s loyalty turns fearful and anxiety-ridden, it becomes a problem. If your dog can’t stand to be alone for any amount of time, it’s likely he’s suffering from separation anxiety.
First, what are the signs and symptoms of separation anxiety? Some people may notice their dogs having accidents in the house, engaging in destructive behavior, or barking when they leave, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your dog is stressed—she could just be a troublemaker.
According to the ASPCA, some of the most common signs of separation anxiety include:
- Pacing, excessive panting, or whining right before you leave the house
- Constant barking, whining, or howling while they’re alone
- Damage to doors and windows where the dog has attempted to escape
- Injuries (such as damage to teeth or paws) as a result of destructive behavior
- Urination/defecation in the house even in dogs that are solidly housetrained
The bad news is that resolving separation anxiety takes time and effort, but the good news is that it is definitely possible. Even dogs with severe cases of separation anxiety can eventually spend time home alone calmly and peacefully.
So if your dog is feeling anxious, there are a few things you can do to help him.
1. Determine whether it’s true separation anxiety or learned separation anxiety
Dogs are a lot like kids, and it doesn’t take long for them to figure out how they should act to get what they want. So if your dog learns that whining and barking when you try to leave you will get you to stay home with her, that’s what she’s going to do.
This isn’t so much anxiety as it is misbehavior, Cesar Millan explains, and by teaching your dog that acting up won’t get her what she wants, you should be able to solve the problem relatively quickly.
Dogs with true separation anxiety, however, won’t respond to scolding, because they can’t control their anxiety.
2. Try to find the cause of the anxiety
Although veterinarians and researchers haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact reason why some dogs develop separation anxiety and others don’t, there are a few situations that can trigger it.
If a dog is going through a particularly stressful time or if his routine has been disrupted, he is more likely to feel anxious, according to the American Kennel Club. If you recently started working nights when you normally work 9–5, your dog may be feeling stressed about this new way of life.
Recently adopted dogs also commonly experience separation anxiety, because they’re unsure of their new living situation. In these cases, it’s possible your dog could simply grow out of his anxiety with time, once he realizes that everything is okay and there’s no reason to be stressed.
Until then, though, there are a few things you can do to ease your dog’s anxiety.
3. Teach her to find comfort in her crate
Your dog’s crate should be her happy place, and it can act like a security blanket where she can go when she’s feeling stressed.
When you’re home, the Humane Society recommends praising her lavishly when she goes in there by herself and giving her plenty of toys and blankets so that she will enjoy spending time in it. You can also feed her in the crate and give her treats when she goes inside, so she will associate it with only good things.
You’ll notice that eventually your dog will start going in her crate even without you asking, and it’s a sign that she feels safe there. So then when you leave, it will be a little bit easier for her because she can always go to her happy place to feel better.
4. Give him plenty of exercise
They say that a tired dog is a good dog, and exercise can also help relieve anxiety. Before you leave, take your dog for a long walk or a rigorous game of fetch to burn off some of his energy.
However, be careful about getting your dog too worked up.
“Playing wrestle-mania with a friend’s dog works some dogs up, leaving them more excited and active,” dog trainer and author Brian Kilcommons explained in an article for ABC News. “How do you know when you’ve found the right routine? When your dog is calmer after the session than before.”
This won’t completely eliminate his separation anxiety, but he’ll be more likely to take a few naps while you’re gone rather than standing at the door barking for hours on end.
5. Leave her a few interactive toys
Depending on how severe your dog’s separation anxiety is, she may or may not be interested in toys while you’re away. Some dogs with severe anxiety may show zero interest in their favorite toys because they’re too stressed, but dogs with mild anxiety might be easily enough distracted.
Toys like Kongs that force the dog to work for a treat exercise her brain to keep her mind occupied so she doesn’t think about how much she misses you.
“Mental exercise is just as important as physical, if not more,” Kilcommons continued. “Games that build his self-control, focus and patience are key to him getting better when alone.”
This will also teach your pup that good things happen when she’s home alone. Give her her favorite treats in a Kong before you leave, hide a few treats around the house for her to sniff out while you’re gone, and give her a treat right as you head out the door so she’ll realize that she gets rewarded while you’re gone.
6. Keep arrivals and departures low-key
Everyone loves seeing their dog bouncing with excitement when they get home from a long day at work, and it’s tough to avoid lavishing your dog with attention the second you step in the door.
However, that could be contributing to his anxiety. He craves your attention, and he has waited hours for you to get home. So when you make a big deal about arriving, he’ll learn to anxiously await your return.
Instead, teach your dog that it’s not a big deal when you come and go. Giving him lots of attention before you leave will only make it harder for him to be alone.
“When you leave him, do so quietly and don’t provide cues. Do not say anything,” Cesar Millan explained on his blog. Then when you get home, “walk past him, wave and smile if he is quiet but if he is banging at the crate, ignore it and walk away.”
7. Switch up your morning routine
Dogs are intelligent animals, and they quickly pick up on their humans’ social cues. Your pup is watching your every move as you get ready to leave in the morning, so she knows what the signs are that you’re about to leave.
She may start pacing when she sees you head to the closet to grab your shoes, whining when you pick up your keys, and full-on panicking when you walk toward the front door, because she knows what comes after this.
To avoid this, try to switch it up sometimes. When you’re not planning on leaving the house, go get your shoes, but then put them back in the closet after a few minutes. Pick up your keys, then take your dog for a walk. Try leaving out the back door instead of the front when you have to leave your dog alone. Eventually your dog will stop panicking because she doesn’t know whether you’re leaving or not.
8. Have patience
The single most important thing you can do to help your dog overcome his separation anxiety is to be patient. Separation anxiety can be just as stressful for you as it is for your dog, but staying calm and confident will help reassure him (and yourself) that you’ll get through it.
Also don’t be afraid to ask for help. Talk to your vet to be sure that your dog really is suffering from anxiety and there aren’t any other underlying issues.
“Most of the behaviors associated with separation anxiety can also arise for other reasons, including medical reasons,” Jolanta Benal, a certified professional dog trainer and author of The Dog Trainer’s Complete Guide to a Happy, Well-Behaved Pet, explained.
Also don’t hesitate to find a good trainer in your area, and they can help you work through your dog’s issues to overcome separation anxiety once and for all.
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