Treating Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety: A Dog Behaviourist’s Guide

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Introduction to Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Separation anxiety in dogs is a deeply troubling condition, characterized by extreme stress and anxiety when they are left alone or separated from their owners. It’s crucial to understand that this isn’t just a minor inconvenience but a serious behavioural issue that can significantly impact your dog’s quality of life and your peace of mind.

Recognising the Signs of Separation Anxiety

Signs of separation anxiety in dogs can be diverse and, at times, subtle. The most common indicators include excessive barking or howling, destructive behaviour like chewing or digging, and attempts to escape. Physically, a dog may show signs like drooling, panting, or even self-harm in severe cases when left alone. It’s always worth watching your dog on a device or webcam when you are not with them to check their comfort levels, as separation anxiety is common due to dogs being such a social species.

Root Causes of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Understanding the root causes of separation anxiety is key to treating it. This condition can stem from a dog’s genetics and how they cope with emotions such as anxiety and frustration. It can also stem from past experiences, such as being rehomed or a history of neglect. Puppies that weren’t appropriately socialised or weaned too early may also develop this anxiety. In some cases, sudden changes in routine or environment, like a family member moving out or a change in work schedules, can trigger this behaviour. Health conditions can also play an important role, and separation anxiety often occurs alongside other anxieties such as general anxiety and noise fears, for example.

Preventative Measures for Puppies and New Dogs

The best way to manage separation anxiety is to use effective preventative measures. Do be aware these don’t work for every dog, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you have done something wrong if your dog still develops separation problems as they are multifactorial. One of my own dogs developed separation anxiety due to underlying pain that was incredibly difficult to identify as an example.

Preventative measures for puppies and newly adopted dogs mean gradual, positive exposure to being alone. Start with short periods of separation and gradually increase the time. This should begin in the home when you do something else, such as put the washing away or take a shower, and your dog should always be able to cope in the home first before building up to going outdoors without them. Encourage independence by not making a fuss when leaving or returning home and giving them calming activities to focus on (see my blog on calming activities). Ensuring they are left exercised but not wound up, with a nourished tummy and an empty bladder and bowels will help them feel ready to settle. Taking some time with little interaction with them after a walk whilst they settle themselves can help them unwind ready to rest.

Creating a Safe and Comforting Environment

Your dog’s environment plays a crucial role in how they handle separation.  Common mistakes are when people use kitchens or utility rooms as a safe area to leave their dog in without priming them first. These areas are rarely associated with sleep and relaxation but more commonly excitement, lots of activity and of course food! They are often the colder areas of the house too (when you are not cooking). Look at where your dog chooses to rest when you are there and try and allow access or create something similar when you leave them. For example, if they love the sofa and relax on their all day when you are home, they may feel punished and unsettled if they are then put in the kitchen or a crate when you go out. This in turn will make you leaving feel very punishing and unsettling for them when really, it could just be a case that they are anxious / frustrated because you have inadvertently disrupted their routine and comfort choices.  If you need to leave them somewhere different for safety, it’s important to spend time getting them comfortable in this area before you leave them. Old duvets or sleeping bags can maximise comfort and warmth whilst smelling of you, but don’t forget to ensure they have access to a cool area too so they can regulate their temperature.

You can also leave on background music for them and block off access to external stimuli if they are likely to bark at windows, for example. The use of calming aids, like a pheromone diffuser, as well as background noise from a TV or radio show can also help create a more normal environment that feels less isolating.

Behavioural Modification Techniques

Effective management is a priority for separation anxiety, and this is what most people struggle with. Your dog is highly unlikely to ‘get over it’ if you keep leaving them, so it’s important that you call on friends, family, and dog sitters to be with them when you can’t when you embark on a separation protocol. Desensitisation and counterconditioning are effective techniques for treating separation anxiety along a wider holistic approach than addressed underlying emotions and enhances resilience generally. Desensitisation involves gradually exposing your dog to being alone for longer periods, while counterconditioning aims to change your dog’s negative response to being alone into a positive one. Toys and food toys can be used with success in many cases, but we must be extra careful not to distract your dog completely so that they don’t see you leaving as well as ‘poisoning’ the food toy because they start to associate it with your departure and see it as a negative as a result.

The Role of Exercise and Mental Stimulation

Physical exercise and mental stimulation are often overlooked aspects of managing separation anxiety. An appropriately exercised dog should be calmer and more relaxed. However, a dog that has just spent their walk doing high arousal activities like running incessantly after a ball, for example, may be highly aroused and would need time to calm down before being ready to be left. I don’t recommend repetitive ball throwing generally due to the repetitive pressure on joints and muscles as well as the neurochemistry it creates that often can be the opposite of what we are trying to achieve in behaviour modification. If your dog has been excitable on their walk, have a look at my blog on calming activities that you can use to help them wind down ready to relax. A nourishing walk should be a mix of exploring, lots of smelling, and short bursts of exciting stimuli as opposed to a walk focused on physically exhausting a dog, which is unlikely to help with separation problems or other behaviour problems.

Professional Assistance: When to Seek Help

If your dog’s separation anxiety is severe, it might be time to consult a professional. Veterinarians can rule out any underlying medical conditions and may prescribe medication. Animal behaviourists can offer tailored advice and behavioural modification programs.

Natural Remedies and Supplements

Natural remedies and supplements can be beneficial in managing mild to moderate separation anxiety, but the evidence available on most of these is poor. It’s essential to consult with your vet before starting any new treatment, as some products labelled ‘natural’ can be more problematic than evidence-based medications or interfere with other medications that your dog is taking.

Incorporating Technology and Smart Devices

In the age of technology, several devices can help manage separation anxiety. Pet cameras allow you to monitor your dog remotely, allowing you to assess them properly. Automated toys and feeders can provide distraction and maintain a feeding routine in your absence.

Long-term Management and Care

Managing separation anxiety is a long-term commitment. It requires ongoing attention and adaptation as your dog’s needs and circumstances change. Regularly reassessing and adjusting your strategies will help ensure lasting success.

Conclusion: A Path Towards Anxiety-Free Companionship

Treating separation anxiety in dogs is a journey that requires patience, understanding, and dedication. By employing the right strategies and staying committed, you can greatly improve your dog’s quality of life and strengthen your bond. Remember, every dog is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. Stay patient, be consistent, and don’t hesitate to seek professional help if needed. With time and dedication, you and your dog can enjoy a deep, stress-free bond.

FAQs

  1. What exactly is separation anxiety in dogs?

    Separation anxiety in dogs is a behavioural issue where a dog experiences extreme stress and anxiety when separated from its owner. This can manifest in destructive behaviour, vocalization, and physical symptoms.

  2. How can I tell if my dog has separation anxiety?

    Look for signs like excessive barking, destructive behaviour, attempts to escape, panting, or drooling when left alone. These behaviours typically occur in the owner’s absence and not at other times.

  3. What are some natural remedies for separation anxiety?

    Natural remedies include calming supplements like CBD oil, herbal solutions such as chamomile or valerian root, and pheromone diffusers. Always consult with a veterinarian before trying new supplements.

  4. Can separation anxiety in dogs be completely cured?

    While some dogs may overcome separation anxiety completely, others may always show some level of anxiety. The goal is to manage the condition effectively through training, environmental changes, and possibly medical intervention.

  5. How can technology help in managing separation anxiety?

    Technology, such as pet cameras, allows you to monitor and interact with your dog remotely. Interactive toys and smart feeders can provide mental stimulation and maintain a sense of normalcy in your absence.

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