There’s absolutely no denying that our four-legged friends have flourished amid the Covid-19 lockdowns and work from home mandates. For dogs, this past year has meant constant attention and socialization with their owners. Dogs have become accustomed to spending the majority of their days with their owners, unfortunately many will suffer from separation anxiety when their owners finally do return to work. Separation anxiety in dogs occurs when their stress level increases as a result of being left alone, and varies from mild to severe. Fortunately, there are many things dog owners can do to help prevent and treat separation anxiety in dogs.
What is Dog & Puppy Separation Anxiety
Whether in a puppy or adult dog, separation anxiety can be easily identified when a dog exhibits stressful behaviors leading up to, during, and shortly after a period while home alone. One of the most common signs of separation anxiety is disruptive or destructive behavior ranging from accidents, to excessive barking, howling, chewing, digging, or escape attempts. These obvious signs of distress are triggered when a dog is confused or disconcerted with the separation from the guardians they are attached to. Treatment for this condition requires identifying the underlying anxiety, and providing strategies and solutions to help the dog manage, and sometimes even enjoy, their day home alone.
What causes Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Like so many behavioral issues in dogs, it’s very common for separation anxiety to be an issue that stems from the owner. Owners often unknowingly encourage or provoke this behavioral issue when leaving or returning home. Dogs are always happy to see their owners when returning from an absence, but making a big event out their greeting actually rewards the dog's concerns while you were gone, and might lead to more stress the next time.
Anxiety can also be linked to a change in routine. Dogs are creatures of habit and become very dependent on their routine. Dogs are easily impacted when there are significant changes to their schedule (move to a new house or sudden absence of a family member, for example divorce, death in the family, or a child leaving for college). Some breeds are also more susceptible to separation anxiety than others, while rescue dogs are often more susceptible due to their history of abandonment. Because there are so many potential causes leading to separation anxiety, it’s best to work on prevention and to have the knowledge to begin treatment at the first sign.
Signs & Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
The most common signs of anxiety include howling, barking, or whining excessively, having indoor “accidents” despite being housebroken, excessive chewing, digging, or scratching, drooling, panting, or salivating significantly more than usual, pacing obsessively, and trying to escape. With separation anxiety, you will see one or more of these signs almost every time you leave the house, and rarely or never when you are home. Without a dog camera it might be difficult to notice some of these behaviors, so if you suspect your dog is pacing or barking excessively, we recommend purchasing a dog camera (there are several inexpensive options around $30 on amazon) to monitor their behavior.
Treatment for Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Separation anxiety is often caused by a general lack of confidence, so it’s important to engage in daily training sessions to help build your dog’s self esteem and sense of self worth. This can be basic training, for example working on commands like sit, down, come, stay, or tricks like shake, speak, and roll-over.
It’s important that your dog have a comfortable place to call their own, a spot that makes them feel safe and secure. To help reinforce your dog’s safe space, praise them and reward them when they lie in their bed. Give them special attention by lying down with them for 10-15 minutes per day. This should be the time and space where your dog receives the most amount of direct, warm, and loving attention from you.
Dogs with separation anxiety are often the kind of dog that will follow their owner around the house, never leaving their side. This is a wonderful feeling as a dog owner, but it’s important to teach your dog to live independently to prepare them for when you aren’t around. The best way to begin teaching independence is by allocating a few rooms in the house where your dog can not follow you into. Discourage your dog from entering these areas by teaching them to sit and stay while you are in different rooms. This is something you can build up day by day, at first your dog might just be able to wait a few minutes. Make sure this experience is positive and full of praise and reward.
You can also reverse this by leaving your dog in a room or crate for some alone time. The only major difference is you would prepare a room or crate that feels very comfortable and secure for your dog to hang out in for some alone time, slowly increasing the time form a few seconds up to an hour. To make alone time easier, provide a few toys, a chew, or Kong filled with food or treats, and try to make your activities as calm as possible so as not to entice your dog to want to join. It’s best if alone time is also supported by quiet time throughout the house.
Relaxed Departures and Arrivals
To avoid making a big fuss every time you leave or come home, do your best to ignore your dog leading up to departure and upon arrival home. Like most training activities you may have to build this skill up. When leaving or arriving home remain calm and controlled. One training technique is to disassociate departure cues with departure by teaching them that when you pick up your keys or put on your coat, it doesn’t always mean you’re leaving. For example, expose your dog to these cues by picking up the keys and carrying them to the kitchen before you prepare dinner. Find all of the departure cues that make your dog anxious and practice training for these tasks one by one.
Counterconditioning is a training method that changes a dog’s anxious reaction towards something into a pleasant one instead. By associating the presence of something upsetting with something pleasing, a dog will begin to associate positively towards the thing that makes them anxious. To practice this training method you must teach your dog that separation has it’s rewards, offer your dog a puzzle toy stuffed with food. Start by leaving him for very short periods of time and gradually lengthen the amount of time you’re gone. When you return home, take away the toy so they only have access to it when they are home alone.
Medication and Natural Supplements
Sometimes training and counter-conditioning just aren’t enough to get your dog to feel safe and secure while home alone. Fortunately, there are some medical options that have shown to help. It’s best to seek veterinary guidance before using any of the following medications. Some vets might recommend amitriptyline or alprazolam which are depression and anxiety medications prescribed to dogs. Alternatively, there are some natural products, CBD, Bach’s Rescue Remedy or Valerian for example. These remedies can help with separation anxiety and can be used in conjunction with some of the training methods mentioned above. Remember to always consult with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist before giving your dog any type of medication for a behavior problem.
Finally, the importance of exercise and mental stimulation should not be underestimated. While exercise is not something listed as a common cure or remedy for separation anxiety, it can certainly help treat and prevent it. Make sure your dog is not being shortchanged in the exercise department. A tired dog is a happy dog, and is much more likely to calm down for some alone time when their owner leaves the house.
With Spot, walks are all private and on-leash to ensure your dog is always receiving the one-on-one attention they deserve. Dog walks are also conveniently available on your schedule, on-demand walkers are available with as little as 90-minutes notice, while a Spot recurring walker will provide consistency and can be booked on a weekly ongoing basis. On-demand dog walks can be useful when training your dog to go for longer stretches without suffering from separation anxiety, while a recurring walk will give you the peace of mind that your dog is never at home alone all day while you are out of the house. So whether you need a dog walker every month or every day, Spot is always just a few clicks away.
What Not to Do – Punishment
Separation Anxiety is caused by stress, so it’s very important that as an owner you don’t take action that will cause your dog more stress. Do not scold or punish your dog for exhibiting behaviours that indicate they are suffering from anxiety. Anxious behaviors occur when left alone because your dog is upset and can’t cope with the stress. If you punish your dog, they will likely become even more upset and the problem could worsen.