Separation Anxiety | Winnipeg Humane Society
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Separation Anxiety

Dogs with separation anxiety exhibit behaviour problems when they’re left alone.

Typically, they’ll have a dramatic anxiety response even before their owners leave them. Some common related behaviours are:

  • Digging, chewing and scratching at doors or windows in an attempt to escape and reunite with their owners
  • Howling, barking and crying in an attempt to get their owner to return
  • Urination and defecation (even with house trained dogs) as a result of distress

It is important to realize that the behaviours that occur with separation anxiety are not the dog’s attempt to seek revenge for being left alone. They are part of a panic response. Separation anxiety can develop:

  • When dog has never or rarely been left alone.
  • Following a long interval during which the owner and dog are constantly together. For example, a vacation together.
  • After an event such as a period of time spent at a shelter or boarding kennel.
  • With a change in the family’s routine or structure (a child leaving for college, a change in work schedule, a move to a new home, a new pet or person in the home).

How do I know if my dog has separation anxiety?

Because there are many reasons for the behaviors associated with separation anxiety, it’s important to identify the reason for the behavior before proceeding with treatment. If most, or all, of the following statements are true about your dog, he may have a separation anxiety problem:

  • The behavior occurs exclusively or primarily when he’s left alone.
  • The destructive behaviour is directed toward exits such as doorways and windows.
  • The behavior always occurs when he’s left alone, whether for a short or long period of time.
  • He follows you from room to room whenever you’re home.
  • He reacts with excitement, depression or anxiety to your preparations to leave the house.
  • He displays effusive, frantic greeting behaviors.
  • He dislikes spending time outdoors by himself.

What do I do if my dog has separation anxiety?

For a minor separation anxiety problem, the following techniques might be helpful:

  • Keep arrivals and departures low-key. For example, when you leave don’t fuss over your dog. When you arrive home, ignore your dog for the first several minutes. When he is calm, provide a low key greeting.
  • Leave your dog with an article of clothing that smells like you, an old tee shirt that you’ve slept in recently, for example.
  • Play calming music such as classical or canine lullabyes to reduce anxiety.
  • Provide safe and enjoyable toys for him so he can relieve some of his anxiety. Give him something that he doesn’t have when you are home. It could be a stuffed kong or treat dispensing toy.

Severe cases

The primary treatment for more severe cases of separation anxiety is a systematic process of getting your dog used to being alone. You work on your departure cues, as that is when the anxiety begins to build. You must teach your dog to remain calm during “practice” departures and short absences.

Dogs with severe separation anxiety are at risk to harm themselves in their efforts to escape. They are difficult or impossible to confine in a crate or room. Severe cases might require a combination of medication to relieve the anxiety and the assistance of an experienced trainer that uses positive training methods.

Interim solutions

Because treatment can take a while and because a dog with separation anxiety can do serious damage to himself and/or your home, some of the following ideas might help in the short term:

  • Consult your veterinarian about the possibility of drug therapy. A good anti-anxiety drug should not sedate your dog, but simply reduce his anxiety while you’re gone. Such medication is a temporary measure and should be used in conjunction with behavior modification techniques.
  • Take your dog to a dog day care facility or boarding kennel.
  • Leave your dog with a friend, family member or neighbor.
  • Take your dog to work with you, even for half a day, if possible.

What not to do

Punishment is not an effective way to treat separation anxiety

In fact, if you punish your dog after you return home it may actually increase his separation anxiety.

Get another pet

This usually doesn’t help an anxious dog as his anxiety is the result of his separation from you, his person, not merely the result of being alone.

Crate your dog

Your dog will still engage in anxiety responses in the crate. He may urinate, defecate, howl or even injure himself in an attempt to escape from the crate.

Obedience school

While obedience training is always a good idea, it won’t directly help a separation anxiety problem. Separation anxiety is not the result of disobedience or lack of training, it’s a panic response.