Dogs are pack animals, and they love to be with their people. That’s one of the many reasons they make such great companions, especially if you work from home. In some cases, however, a dog’s need for human attention becomes extreme, making him prone to anxiety when no one’s home to keep him company.
If your dog pees or poops in the house when he’s left alone, chews destructively (especially at doors and windows), or the neighbors report that he barks when you’re gone, he’s not necessarily misbehaving. He may have separation anxiety, a problem that affects between 20-40 percent of the nation’s nearly 90 million dogs according to veterinary behavioral specialists.3 With many pet parents returning to the office after working from home with their pets, this behavior could become more prevalent in the coming months.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Dogs with separation anxiety are unable to cope with being alone. They may have been poorly socialized, lack self-confidence, or simply have never learned how to be alone. Besides being noisy or destructive, dogs with separation anxiety may drool excessively, pace, lick themselves incessantly, or refuse to eat or drink. When their people are home, they may be clingy, insisting on being as close to them as possible. While separation anxiety can be frustrating, behavior modification can improve the situation. In this article, we’ll provide steps to take to help your dog if he’s suffering from separation anxiety.
Take Steps to Prevent Anxiety Early on in Your Dog’s Life
If possible, preventing separation anxiety should begin in puppyhood. Crating can be a wonderful way to create a safe and comfortable routine for your new puppy. Dogs like small, den-like places and crates give them a sense of security and assurance. Pets that are crated and enjoy their crate are far less likely to display destructive behaviors.
You should never use a crate as a source of punishment or leave your dog in a crate for an inhumane period of time. As a general rule of thumb, the maximum amount of time puppies should spend in a crate is equal to their age in months plus one hour.2 For example, a 2-month-old can be crated for 3 hours, a 6-month-old for 5 hours. Never exceed 8 hours, even with an adult dog.
Separation anxiety can occur in dogs of all ages, at any time. It tends to start after a stressful event, like a move to a new home, or after a change in the owner’s schedule. Changes in your routine such as returning to the office after working from home for an extended period of time or an increase in the hours you are away from home could increase your dog’s anxiety. Dogs in single-person households versus those with more than one owner are more likely to suffer from separation anxiety.1 Sometimes there are no known triggers. If separation anxiety presents itself in an adult dog, address the situation right away.
Teach Your Dog How to Stay Calm When You Leave
It is vital to teach your dog that arrivals and departures are nothing to worry about. Whether you’re leaving or coming home, be matter-of-fact. Overly emotional greetings or farewells can teach your dog that your absence is something to stress about.
Set up cues that will help your dog feel comfortable with your departure. Give him a treat or a special toy before you go, leave a t-shirt with your scent that he can snuggle with, or turn on the radio or TV.
Music is calming for dogs and a good thing to introduce during a relaxing time of day, such as when you’re getting ready for bed. Your dog knows that you’re going to be there for a while, so he’ll settle down and go to sleep. Choose something soothing like classical music. Give your dog a few days to associate the music with a relaxing time, then set up a departure conditioning experience, combining the music, a special treat, and your departure and quick return. Your dog learns that good things happen when you leave and that you will come back right away.
Keep Your Dog Busy While You’re Gone
Enabling your dog to entertain themselves will help prevent separation anxiety. Whether you leave your dog in a crate, in an exercise pen or dog run, behind a baby gate or alone in the house, he needs toys or activities that will stimulate his mind without encouraging destructive behavior. Treat-release toys or food puzzles are ideal solutions. These toys work by extending the time it takes a dog to get a treat or kibble. He focuses on getting at the food rather than being anxious or distressed by your absence. Match the food puzzle to your dog’s personality. You don’t want to make it so easy that he doesn’t have to spend any time at it or so difficult that he gives up in frustration.
When you are home, be sure to give your dog plenty of attention and play. This way, he’ll be more satisfied and comfortable when he needs to stay by himself. Get involved in a dog sport such as agility, go for a walk at the same time every day, or simply set aside a regular time for the two of you to be together while you read or watch television. Even a regular grooming session is a good way for you and your dog to share quality time.
Conditioning Your Dog
If your dog is suffering from extreme separation anxiety, you can take baby steps to get him used to your being gone. Running errands with him is a good way to accomplish this. Leave him in the car while you pump fuel, run into a convenience store for a quart of milk, or make a bank deposit. Your dog learns automatically that you’re gone for a minute or two, you come back, and being left alone isn’t a big deal. Of course, it’s important to take into account the weather and your schedule. On hot days, cars heat up rapidly, even with the windows cracked. Never leave your dog in the car on a hot day unless you can see the car and know you’ll only be a few minutes. Don’t take your dog if your errand will take more than five minutes.
When to Medicate for Separation Anxiety
If you’ve worked on making your dog less anxious when he’s separated from you and haven’t reached your goals, adding medication to the mix may be helpful. Medication is not a substitute for behavioral modifying techniques and must be used in conjunction.
Most medication is aimed at reducing anxiety levels, and once your veterinarian evaluates your dog, they will be able to prescribe a suitable drug. In addition, there are human anti-anxiety medications that have a long history of use for this purpose.
Separation anxiety can’t be cured, but if you diligently work with your dog it can be successfully managed. Pets Best Insurance offers optional coverage that may help reimburse policy holders for prescription medications for behavioral conditions that were not present before creating their insurance policy. Regardless of whether your dog has separation anxiety, Pets Best offers flexible plans to assure your pet’s well-being for a lifetime.
1 Flannigan, G., & Dodman, N. H. (2001). Risk Factors and Behaviors Associated with Separation Anxiety in Dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 219(4), 460-466. Retrieved from Canadian Veterinarians.Net: https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.2001.219.460
2 Meyers, H. (2019, September 30). Puppy Potty Training Timeline And Tips. Retrieved from AKC.ORG: https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/potty-training-your-puppy-timeline-and-tips/
3 Sherman, B. (2000). Canine Separation Anxiety. Compendium on Continuing Education for the Practicing Veterinarian, 22, pp. 328-338. Retrieved from University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine: https://vetmed.illinois.edu/separation-anxiety-dogs/