Dogs form strong bonds with animals and people with whom they live. Most dogs can cope with separation from family members for a few hours. Some feel anxious, stressed even panicked when left even for a few minutes. It is one of the most common behavioural problems among shelter dogs.
Some dogs are predisposed to separation anxiety because of their personality. These dogs are anxious in a variety of situations and not just when left alone. Some become anxious when left alone following an event they found frightening while you were away (a sudden change in your schedule, a severe thunderstorm, loud construction noise, a robbery or other unusual event). Some dogs have never learned to be alone when they were puppies and find it frightening. Dogs that have experienced the trauma of being abandoned or left at a shelter are even more likely to suffer from separation anxiety.
How to recognize seperation anxiety in dogs
When dogs feel anxious in your absence, they may:
- Urinate when you come home;
- Vocalize when left alone; whining, barking or howling;
- Be destructive when left alone;
- Attempt escape, scratching or chewing at exits;
- May show signs of stress with lack of appetite, restlessness, panting, excessive drinking, urination & defecation indoors.
While undergoing treatment it is best not to leave your dog alone in the place he usually feels anxious.
Consider these options:
- Take your dog to work. You may leave him in the car, if you park in a temperature-controlled underground lot (remember, dogs can overheat quickly even on shady days in warm weather). Walk him frequently and have water available in a spill-proof bowl.
- Leave him with a sitter or at doggie daycare.
- Have someone stay at home.
Do not muzzle, crate (without reducing stress and slowly getting them used to the crate), tether or otherwise restrict your dog to deal with this problem. This may keep him from being destructive or vocalizing but it will make anxiety worse. The dog may become more anxious, self-mutilate or may develop a stress related sickness.
Hangout Exercise: learning to be alone without stress
Before you start:
- Buy a few special toys to be used only when doing the “hangout” exercise.
- Buy a product called ‘Dog Appeasing Pheromone’ on the Internet or from your veterinarian.
- Figure out which room in the house your dog is most relaxed. Place his bed there. Remove all destructible items and plug in the Dog Appeasing Pheromones diffuser.
- Make a list of all the cues that normally make your dog anxious such as putting on your work clothes, or picking up your keys.
Step 1: The hangout exercise
This first step should not be done on a work day. Do not do any of the cues that normally stress your dogs. Your departure from the room must be as matter-of-fact and casual as possible.
- After a nice walk, take the dog to his favourite room. Give him the special going away toy and wait until he settles down with the toy.
- Say “hangout” and casually leave the room for a few seconds. Leave the door open. If the dog gets up and follows, you may need to start by going to the other side of the room and ignoring him for a few seconds.
- Come back in, wait a few seconds, say “good hangout” and give him a pat.
- You may now take the “hangout toy.”
- Repeat the hangout exercise until you are able to leave the room for about 10 minutes with the door closed and still have a relaxed dog when you enter the room.
Step 2: The hangout exercise
Once the dog can be relaxed in his room with the door closed while you are in a different part of the house, it is time for step 2. Do not do this exercise on a work day and do not pick up your keys, put on your coat or shoes when leaving the house.
- Begin the “hangout exercise” but this time leave the house for a few seconds.
- Slowly increase to 30 minutes.
Step 3: Adding some cues
Once the dog can be relaxed in his room with the door closed while you are out of the house for 30 minutes, it is time for step 3.
- You can now add the cues that normally stress your dog while repeating step 1 of the hangout exercise. Add one cue at a time and keep the alone time to a few seconds. Picking up your keys and putting them in your pocket is a good one to start.
- Once you are able to add all the cues and your dog remains relaxed with the door closed while you are busy in another part of the house, it is time to repeat step 2 using the cue that normally causes him stress.
- Slowly increase hangout time until your dog can spend four hours alone.
If your dog gets anxious when you add the cues, you may need to practice picking up your keys, coat and shoes but without leaving the house. You may also need to slow down the process
Dogs that do not respond to behaviour modification alone or with Dog Appeasing Pheromone may also need drug therapy. Ask your veterinarian about Clomicalm(R). It is a drug designed especially for dogs with separation anxiety to help them through behavioural therapy.
Dos and Don’ts
Some dogs that chew, destroy property or vocalize when left alone or get overly excited and pee when you return, are simply excitable dogs that get bored during your absence. If your dog truly has separation anxiety when left alone you will notice the stress symptoms as you are getting ready to leave.
Dogs that are bored need more interesting things to do while dogs that are anxious need to learn slowly that alone can be OK and even fun.
Do not muzzle, crate (without reducing stress and gradual introduction), tether or otherwise restrict your dog to deal with this problem. This may keep him from being destructive or vocalizing but it will make anxiety worse. The dog may become more anxious, self-mutilate or may develop a stress related sickness.
While we recommend that your dog not be left alone for long periods during treatment, we recognize this is not always possible. In such a cases, simply put your dog in a doggy proof room with the pheromones and a few toys for “normal” departures. Continue the “hangout” exercise several times a day. You may need the help of a behaviourist.
Source: BC SPCA