Most dogs cope well when left alone, but some show distress, anxiety, or panic when separated from the family. Generally, pets with separation anxiety may stay near family members and spend little time outdoors on their own. They may become anxious as the family prepares to leave, not eat when alone, and be overly excited during homecomings. The most common signs of separation anxiety are vocalization when the family departs and destructiveness and elimination problems during their absence. Dogs behave in these ways because of uncontrollable anxiety and not spit or anger. Dogs with separation anxiety usually display destructiveness at exits and windows, and the vocalization often includes howling, whining, or repetitive barking. If dogs target food or garbage, this may be scavenging or exploratory behavior rather than separation anxiety. Often, dogs with separation anxiety display other signs of anxiety (such as trembling, restlessness, and salivation) that may be evident as you depart or upon your arrival home. They may also vomit or have diarrhea while you are gone. If you note destructiveness, vocalization, or elimination problems while you are home, you and your veterinarian should first rule out other possible causes.
Genetics, early experience, and maternal behavior may all play a role in causing this problem. Some dogs develop separation anxiety after a change in their routine or after a traumatic experience that occurred when they were alone. Dogs that have noise phobias are more likely to be anxious if left alone. You might prevent separation anxiety if you teach your puppy to spend time away from family members in a resting area, bed, or crate, either for napping or playing with toys.
Start with a veterinary visit to rule out any medical problems. Ask your veterinarian to confirm that the problem actually is separation anxiety and then to help you develop a treatment plan designed specifically for your dog and your home.
The following training program will take some time and effort to implement, but if you work at it, your dog should begin to accept your departures.
To start, provide your dog with a predictable daily routine and enough physical and mental enrichment to meet the dog’s needs. After exercise, play, or training sessions, schedule times with no interaction so your pet learns to spend time alone in the resting area. Focus all training on rewarding your pet for behaviors that you want the dog to learn, such as relaxed stays, and not on punishing your pet for behaviors that you want to stop.
Never punish the dog for destructive behavior done in your absence. Some dogs see mild correction as a form of attention, while others will become increasingly conflicted and anxious about whether to greet you or avoid you. Most important, punishment does not reduce your dog’s anxiety about being left alone and is likely to make the problem worse.
Take the following steps to implement a training program geared toward reducing separation anxiety:
Start your training program by identifying everything that your dog enjoys (affection, play, walks, treats, toys, and food). Use these rewards to train your dog to perform a relaxed “sit”, “down”, and “stay,” especially in the resting area. Gradually encourage your dog to stay and relax for longer sessions before giving a reward. Stop rewarding attention-seeking behaviors (such a barking, whining, or pawing), and teach your dog that sitting or lying calmly is the only way to earn affection. Also, avoid indiscriminate petting and attention, and instead use exercise and reward-based obedience training to provide social interaction.
Train your dog to go to the resting area after an exercise, play, or training session. You can train her to go to and stay in the resting place by leaving toys and chews in the area. You may want to try using a head halter or crate to teach the dog to stay in the area for longer periods of times. Try using a dog-appeasing pheromone spray or diffuser or aromatherapy in the area, giving the dog a piece of clothing that belongs to a family member and/or playing music or turning on the television to further relax your dog while in the resting area.
As practice, put on your coat, grab your keys, and walk out of the home or open the garage door while your dog is relaxed or playing with toys. Frequently repeat these pre-departure actions until your dog becomes accustomed to them and they no longer trigger any anxiety. Ignore your dog for a few minutes, and while the dog is calm and occupied, leave for a very short period (one minute or less) and return while your pet is still calm. Gradually increase the length of your absence.
When you are actually going somewhere, try the following tips:
Restrict your dog to the designated resting area during periods of absence, but only if she has learned to play with toys, relax, or sleep in this area. A dog that is not used to confinement may become more anxious when confined. In this case, you may need to find a dog-sitter or doggy day care when you go out for long periods of time until the separation anxiety is under control.
Before each departure, provide your dog with play and exercise, and then encourage her to go to the resting place.
Use your dog’s favorite chewy treats or chew toys. Some dogs might be sufficiently interested in treat-filled toys and chews that you an leave while she is occupied with them. Also consider consulting with your veterinarian about anti-=anxiety medication. Anti-anxiety drugs may help reduce your dog’s anxiety and greatly improve the success of the behavior program. They can take one or more weeks to begin working and are more effective if combined with a behavior program that teaches your dog to cope with being home alone.
The Animal Medical Center of Southern California is devoted to providing the best medical, surgicalm and emergency critical care available in veterinary medicine. As important as our medical expertise is, we believe that excellent care combines state-of-the-art veterinary medicine and surgery with a focus on compassion and respect for your pet and for your family.
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