Separation anxiety refers to a condition that causes a dog to become extremely worried and agitated when left alone. Separation anxiety can cause a range of behaviors ranging from mild to severe. A dog may bark, whine, or howl, or pace the floor for hours. He may destroy furniture and other objects or chew himself raw. He may salivate excessively or vomit, and even though he’s normally housetrained, he may defecate or urinate as a nervous response to stress.
Effective treatment for separation anxiety requires time and patience. In extreme cases, your veterinarian can prescribe an anti-anxiety medication to calm your dog and break the behavioral pattern, but drugs are not the best long-term solution in most cases. Behavior modification should accompany any drug therapy and is sometimes effective by itself.
Keep Your Dog (and Your Belongings) Safe
The first step in managing a dog with separation anxiety is to be sure that your dog and your belongings are safe in your absence. Many dogs feel safer when confined to a crate (which is a cozy den to most dogs), so crate train your dog and put him in his crate when you aren’t home. Give him a couple of safe chew toys so that he’ll have something to do. If your dog is prone to ripping things up when he’s anxious, be cautious about leaving anything he can rip up and swallow, including bedding, in his reach. A few dogs panic when crated and will tear up the crate or injure themselves trying to get out. If your dog is like that, you might want to try a slow process of teaching him to accept the crate and find an alternate place to secure him when you’re not with him.
Teach Your Dog to Settle and Stay
Teach your dog to settle and stay, and have him stay in one place for varying lengths of time while you’re home but not necessarily right next to him. This will begin to teach him that he doesn’t have to cling to you to be safe and that you will come back. Reward him for staying and becoming relaxed, and have him spend varying lengths of time in his crate (or wherever you confine him) while you’re home so that he learns that it’s a safe place whether you’re there or not.
Find Your Dog a Comfortable Environment
Try to figure out what environment is most comfortable and relaxing for your dog. If he likes to look out the window, put his crate where he can watch the world go by. If he’s happier hidden away, put the crate in a more private location. The sound of a radio or television—especially soft music or talk shows—reassures many dogs. (But beware of the shows with a lot of angry people yelling and screaming.) If your dog is not a destroyer who is likely to swallow something that he shouldn’t, he might be comforted by something that smells like you—an old sweatshirt, for instance. One of my dogs used to take one of my walking shoes to his bed when I was gone.
Keep Your Comings and Goings Low-Key
Don’t make a fuss when you leave or come home (or when you leave your dog with your groomer or vet). If you make separating a big deal, your dog will be convinced that he’s right to worry. When you are nearly ready to leave home, put your dog in his crate so that he can relax before you leave. Give him something special that he gets only when you’re about to leave—a chew toy or hollow bone stuffed with soft cheese or peanut butter and kibble pleases most dogs. Once he’s in his crate, ignore him, and when you’re ready to leave, do so with no further fuss. When you return, again, don’t make a fuss. Leave your dog in his crate for a few minutes, and when he’s relaxed, calmly let him out. Show him that your comings and goings are no big deal.
Determine Your Dog’s Anxiety Threshold
Try to figure out when it is that your dog becomes anxious. Does he raise a ruckus as soon as he’s locked up? When you walk out the door? An hour later? Then begin a reconditioning process by leaving him alone and returning before he reaches his “anxiety limit,” if possible. If he starts to bark when you’ve been gone two minutes, stand outside the door for one minute and then come back in. If he stayed calm, mark and reward while he is still in his crate. If he didn’t do so well, come in and ignore him until he calms down, then repeat the process, maybe for a shorter period. Even if you have to leave him for longer periods most days, these exercises repeated on weekends and in the evenings will teach your dog that sometimes you won’t be gone so long, and in any case, you’ll be back and he will be safe until you are.
Give Your Dog a Midday Break
If you must be gone frequently for more than four hours at a time, you might want to pay or barter with someone to give your dog a midday break. Make sure that your dog is comfortable with the person and that the person is aware of the procedures you are using to help your dog through his problem. How quickly a problem behavior can be corrected depends on many factors—your dog’s age, how long he’s had the bad habit, why he does what he does, and how you and other people respond to the problem. Most problem behaviors can be controlled—if not eliminated—but some can be very challenging. If you can’t fix a problem on your own, have your veterinarian or a qualified animal behaviorist evaluate your dog’s situation and recommend a treatment plan. And be sure to train your dog in the basics if you haven’t yet. General obedience training will build your dog’s sense of security and trust, and that can go a long way toward preventing bad behavior.
Material adapted from Training Your Dog for Life (T.F.H. Publications, 2009), used by permission.