Dogs are social creatures just like us. They thrive on companionship and social interaction. However, despite our best intentions and sometimes hectic schedules, there may be times when our canine friends have to spend some time alone. For pet parents who have dogs with separation anxiety, this can be a challenging situation.
According to the ASPCA, separation anxiety is more common in dogs that get adopted from shelters than ones that have been with the same family since puppyhood. Changes in normal routines, moving to a new home, or a change in household members can also trigger unwanted behaviors.
It’s important to determine if your pet is suffering from true separation anxiety or if they are simply bored and finding inappropriate ways to amuse themselves while you are gone. So, how do you distinguish if your pet is just bored and has taken up creative redecorating, or if there’s something more serious going on?
If the below symptoms are occurring in your absence and are accompanied by signs of general anxiety prior to your departure, your pet most likely is having true separation anxiety.
- Drooling/Whining/Pacing as you are preparing to leave
- Sweaty Paw Pads (Look for wet paw prints)
- Loss of appetite while you are preparing to leave and while absent
- Destructive Chewing/Digging in your absence
- Barking/Howling when left alone (your neighbors may be quick to let you know)
- Escape Behavior (this can be severe in some pets - to the point of self-injury)
- Inappropriate urination/defecation in the absence of the pet parent*
*With inappropriate urination, it’s important to determine if your pet has an underlying medical problem such as urinary incontinence or a bladder infection. Please seek your veterinarian’s advice with this condition.
Dogs are incredibly in tune with our schedules and routines. We are creatures of habit and our pets know when we are getting ready to leave. For some pets, those actions cause anticipation of being left alone and triggers their anxiety. To help a pet suffering from true separation anxiety, first learn what their triggers are. Thiswill require careful observation of their behaviors. Does your pet start drooling at the sight of you putting on your shoes or picking up your car keys? Do they start whining when you pick up your purse? Do they start pacing when you put on a coat? Maybe it’s the sound of the garage door opening or the car starting. It’s helpful to make a list of these trigger behaviors and rank them on a numerical scale. Clickertraining.com offers the following guide:
Evaluate each entry on the list, using a numerical scale like the one below:
- Causes no anxiety; dog does not seem to notice
- Dog notices but is completely relaxed
- Dog notices and tends to stare
- Some signs of stress observed in dog, such as panting or drooling
- Many signs of stress observed in dog
Now that you have a list of identified triggers, you can practice desensitizing to “pre-departure clues”. It’s recommended to consult with a Certified Professional Dog Trainer in advance. These guys are the experts and can show you the specific nuances to behavior modification.
Show your pet that picking up your keys doesn’t necessarily mean you are always leaving the house. It may seem a little weird at first, but you will practice easing your pet’s fears by putting on your shoes and then just watching TV. Or, picking up your keys and then preparing dinner. You could also try leaving from a different door. Or, you may change the order in which you normally do things. Maybe this means putting your briefcase in the car while you’re still in pajamas. Over time, your pet will learn these specific actions don’t always mean time alone. You will usually work on one trigger at a time and progress to the more distressing triggers once the less traumatizing triggers have been addressed.
Practice calm greetings and calm departures. It’s only natural to want to give your uneasy friend some reassurance. But giving in to this behavior can reinforce theirs. Don’t go crazy with praise and attention when you leave or when you return. You want them calm! Getting them hyped up when you leave or return is asking for trouble. It shows them more emphasis should be put on this unavoidable aspect of daily routine than is necessary. Don’t make a big deal out of leaving and returning. Give them attention and praise only when they are calm. They will come to see that their calm behavior is what gains them the attention and affection they are looking for.
- Exercise your pet before you leave. Give them approximately 20-30 minutes to cool down before you are ready to depart. Pets that are tired will have less energy for anxious destruction while you are out.
- Give them interactive toys. These are also known as enrichment toys, and they engage your dog’s senses. Puzzles and treat dispensers will keep their minds occupied while you are away. These toys also counter-condition their anxious behavior. Providing toys and treats while you are out lets them know something positive can occur when they might otherwise be anxious or dreading your absence.
KONG toys can also be stuffed with treats and frozen ahead of time. This will keep your pet busy for up to 30 minutes at a time.
- In cases of severe separation anxiety, you may need to consult with your veterinarian regarding anti-anxiety medication. Medication can provide relief. It’s important to discuss the medications with your vet.
Looking for ways to protect your nervous pet? Consider investing in a pet health insurance policy.