Date updated: 20 09 2018
As far as your buddy’s concerned, you’re ‘top dog’. You’re the centre of their world and if you happen to go AWOL, it’s definitely time to panic. This is separation anxiety - and it can be tough for any dog to deal with. But here’s the good news: there are plenty of steps you can take to teach your pooch that “out of sight” doesn’t mean you’re gone forever…
What is dog separation anxiety?
You’re here and everything makes sense. Then you’re gone - and suddenly the house is empty. Take a moment to think about this from the point of view of your dog. They’re scared, they need reassurance, and as far as they know you might never come back!
Even for the smartest pooches, this is a lot to deal with. The people you’re most attached to are no longer there - and your natural reaction is to freak out.
For a new puppy in an unfamiliar home, all of this can be especially hard to take on board. For the first few months, they’ve basically spent every waking hour with their mum and siblings. Next comes the big move. It’s a whole new ‘pack’ and a completely different routine to learn. Even if you’ve just popped out for a pint of milk and some doggy snacks, how do they know that it’s not forever?
So for many pups, learning to deal with any separation anxiety issues becomes part of the growing up process. They get used to your comings and goings and start to understand your routine. It might take a helping hand, but eventually they relax and realise it’s not the end of the world.
What causes it?
While most pups will grow out of their separation issues as they get older and wiser, this isn’t always the case. The Kennel Club reports that for one in 15 pets, separation remains a real problem.
Dogs that have come from a shelter can have an especially tough time with it. It’s not hard to imagine why; if they’ve had first-hand experience of abandonment in the past, they’ll be understandably scared of history repeating itself.
Sometimes dogs with no previous problems can suddenly suffer from separation anxiety. Let’s say you’ve spent the last six months working from home but then your routine changes and you’re back on 9-to-5 in the office. As far as your buddy’s concerned, you’ve been mooching around together in the house for what seems like forever. Suddenly you’re gone and there’s no-one to play with. It’s easy to understand why they’d get anxious!
A house move can also be a trigger. The old place was their ‘den’. This place looks, feels and smells completely different. Your buddy might not like the thought of having to get used to it on their own.
How do I know if my dog’s got separation anxiety?
There’s a problem with spotting separation anxiety: if your buddy’s affected, their behaviour will probably only change when you’re not there. So other than having a dog-cam installed, diagnosing is often a case of picking up the clues when you return.
First off, barking. Everything seems fine when you set off in the morning and nothing seems wrong when you get back. But then you learn from your neighbour that your buddy’s been barking or howling pretty much all day.
Unusual toilet habits can also be a sign. This includes needing to go more frequently than usual, doing it in unusual places, or coprophagia (eating it afterwards). Destructive behaviour is another common symptom. This could include tearing or biting at the furniture and carpets - as well as targeted attacks on the windows and doors. Digging up the garden is another one, while they search for an escape route to come find you!
One, some or all of these symptoms could indicate a problem. That said, it’s important to rule out alternative causes. For instance, unusual toilet habits could be a sign of a urinary tract or gastrointestinal problem. Barking might be down to triggers other than being home alone. To avoid accidentally trying to treat the wrong problem, check it out with your vet to get a second opinion.
How do I ease my dog’s separation anxiety?
Once you’ve established that separation is the issue, bear in mind the following…
This can be done while you’re still in the home. It’s about teaching your dog that being your buddy isn’t the same as being your shadow. Make a point of not always being in the same room together: move to a different part of the home and close the door. This can be especially useful for showing younger dogs that being apart is nothing to fear.
Ditch the dramatic entrances (and exits!)
You want to teach your dog that leaving the building is no big deal. So why turn it into an event? This is ‘cruel to be kind’ time: cut out the long goodbye cuddles. The aim is to show your buddy that popping out for a while is nothing special.
Counterconditioning is basically turning a negative reaction to a certain event into a positive one. It’s about changing your doggy’s mindset so that being alone is associated with good stuff (as opposed to being left moping alone).
Toys can be your secret weapon here. Think carefully about what type of toy is most likely to get your buddy seriously excited. Introduce that toy into the home - but save it exclusively for those times when you’re out of the house.
Little by little
Moving suddenly from 24 hours in each other’s company to being away for the entire working day is a massive shift. So take it slowly by gradually increasing the length of absence.
This combination of strategies can go a long way in helping most dogs to overcome separation issues. But what happens if your dog remains anxious? In these situations, you could be looking at a moderate to severe anxiety disorder. For this, don’t struggle alone. Professional input including specialist desensitisation and counterconditioning could be just what your buddy needs to successfully reduce their remaining separation issues.