One possible cause of separation anxiety in dogs mentioned in the literature is that the dog is not properly accustomed to being alone. Nicole Wilde, author of My Dog Isn’t Afraid, points out that families often take a puppy during times such as holidays and holidays, wanting to spend as much time with him as possible at the beginning of his presence in the house.
Unfortunately, they forget about the fact that when they have to go back to school and work – the dog, who until now has had company and attention all the time, will suddenly be left alone and completely does not understand why he was „abandoned”. Therefore, it is very important to teach your dog from the very beginning that it is perfectly natural and safe to be left alone at home.
Another possible cause is traumatic or even „just” unpleasant events at home in the absence of the owner. The dog may associate a feeling of discomfort caused by a loud noise, for example, with a place where it has been alone for a while without the support of a carer.
A final possible cause is that the dog has not been properly socialised. It can involve both too early weaning from its mother and siblings, as well as an inappropriate relationship with its owner, on whom the dog becomes completely dependent.
What are the symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs?
As I have already mentioned, the main symptoms that come to the attention of owners are urination and defecation in the house, disruptive vocalisation and destruction. But these are neither the only symptoms found in dogs with separation anxiety nor are they necessarily indicative of it.
Separation anxiety in a dog can be indicated by both increased and decreased activity in the dog as the owner prepares to leave the house.
An increase in activity will be indicated by motor excitement:
- following the owner step by step,
- restless walking and sniffing,
- rolling around,
- difficulty concentrating,
- curling and chasing its tail.
These behaviours often take the form of compulsive behaviour.
Decreased activity manifests itself in the form of marked resignation, apathy and sadness.
These behaviours often go hand in hand with refusing food and drink and eating only in the presence of the owner.
It is also a good idea to observe your dog’s behaviour when you return home. A dog with separation anxiety may greet you in a very affectionate way, jumping, barking, squealing and running around the owner.
In terms of destruction, damage around doors and windows and, in the case of the garden, fences, should draw our attention. These may indicate attempts to escape. Damage to claws and skin can often occur in connection with these.
Licking may also occur – on limbs, sides, genitals, and tail end. Destroyed equipment in the house is also very important information because biting has a calming character.
But this is still not the end, because the repertoire of symptoms of separation anxiety is much wider:
- uncontrollable urination at home or, conversely,
- the inability to urinate while walking,salivation,
- vomiting and/or diarrhoea.
As you can see, the symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs are non-specific, very similar to those of different disease entities. Their severity can vary depending on the individual characteristics of the dog.
Separation anxiety – how to overcome it?
If you suspect your dog has separation anxiety – you shouldn’t delay! It is worth consulting a behaviourist. The earlier we start working with our dog, the greater our chances of success and eliminating the anxiety.
The first and basic rule when working with anxiety is not to strengthen it! This means that when a dog shows anxiety, it should not be stroked, cuddled or comforted, because by doing so, we perpetuate the behaviour in the dog and show it that it really should be afraid.
Therefore, it is advisable to ignore the dog’s behaviour when you return, as long as he is excited and agitated, and for about 30 minutes before you leave the house. Before leaving, it is a good idea to give him an absorbing toy, such as a kong filled with treats or a sniffing mat, to distract him.
Attention: remember to give the same toy to your dog in neutral situations when you are not leaving the house, otherwise he will associate it with fear and loneliness.
No physical or verbal punishment should be used. Not only will the punishment intensify the fear, but it generally comes too late about the behaviour for the dog to be able to associate the two.
The basis for working on separation anxiety is so-called habituation, i.e. getting the dog used to situations that trigger anxiety.
First of all, it is necessary to observe and write down our behaviours that suggest to the dog that we are about to leave the house – such as putting on our shoes, pacing in the hall or, for example, taking a morning shower – and to start performing them without any consequences of leaving the house afterwards. It is also worth rewarding the dog in every such situation to associate our „bad” behaviour with something positive. Just remember to reward your dog only when it is calm and relaxed. When he is tense and stressed, we will reinforce this behaviour.
At the same time, we must teach your dog to stay at home in very, very small steps. At first, let’s not even leave the house, but for example go to another room for a while – if the dog remains calm, we should quickly reward it. Gradually, we can prolong this time and then, for example, close the bedroom or bathroom door for a while.
When the dog gets used to the fact that we disappear for a while, but nothing bad happens and we come right back (with a delicious treat!), we can practise the same procedure leaving the house – at first just for a few seconds, staying behind the door. If the dog reacts well, we can gradually lengthen the exits.
Let’s remember to always keep calm and not to increase the dog’s excitement both when going out and when returning home. It’s also a good idea to do all the same things during these short trips that we do when we go out for longer periods.
An interesting idea is to use the so-called safe exit signal, for example, smell or hearing, something which will signal to the dog that this particular exit from home is only an exercise. Eventually, when extending the duration of „practice exits”, we will combine them with proper exits.
Before a longer planned absence, it is worth taking the dog for a long walk. It is important that it should be a calm walk, without wild playing – instead of „tiring” and calming down the dog, it may stimulate him even more.
Therapy of separation anxiety in severe cases can be supported with pharmacotherapy, but only under the supervision of a behaviourist and veterinarian!
Separation anxiety in a dog is the fear of being left home alone. Neither the causes nor the symptoms are clearly defined and unambiguous. Both dogs that have been through a lot, those that have been abandoned and those that have been brought up in the same house from an early age are exposed to this type of anxiety.