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As you’re getting ready to go to work, your dog starts to look anxious. He drools and paces.
When you go out the door, you hear frenzied digging at the door frame and barking.
You wonder to yourself: why does my golden panic when I leave?
Your dog may have what’s called separation anxiety. Some dogs panic when they’re left home alone.
These dogs don’t have fun antics like the child in the movie Home Alone.
Instead, they literally have an anxiety attack. Some have milder symptoms whereas others display much more severe ones.
The poor canine literally is afraid that we will never return home again.
In order to treat separation anxiety in your dog, professional help from a behaviorist may be necessary.
Some dogs are probably showing signs of separation anxiety related to the pandemic.
They’ve gotten used to being with us all the time. Then, as we suddenly go back to work, some dogs may develop separation anxiety.
Unfortunately, many dogs are given up because they have separation anxiety.
What Causes Separation Anxiety?
There are various theories regarding why a dog develops separation .anxiety.
Something traumatic may have occurred when the dog was alone
Workman may have been doing construction nearby and the dog has or develops a noise phobia associated with being alone.
A burglary may have taken place in your absence.
Or a thunderstorm may have occurred. And the dog associates being left alone with the scary noise and changes in barometric pressure–and the lightning.
One of my rescued goldens, Spencer, was fine being left alone. That is, until a violent thunderstorm occurred when I was away working.
The storm was so bad that we lost power for days.
Even worse, I came home after about five hours to Spencer stressed and drooling.
He also had broken a tooth while trying to get out of his crate. (He loved his crate before this.)
Some dogs may be genetically predisposed to developing separation anxiety
An event may trigger the dog who’s predisposed to develop it to exhibit its symptoms.
A dog may have had too many transfers to various owners or may have been abandoned
Some dogs may have been relocated and been stressed by that.
This sometimes occurs when an owner gives up a dog to a rescue or shelter. Then, the dog is placed in another home.
The dog may feel insecure and anxious about where he’ll live. He may have developed bonds with the people in the home. And he may be used to a certain routine.
Then, in his view, his world is suddenly turned upside down.
This happened to a dog I adopted. Mikey was a Lhasa apso who was abandoned on the street.
I volunteered at the shelter that took him in. In the beginning, before I could work with the issue, Mikey would whine and bark–and even dig at the door–when I left.
Luckily, his symptoms of separation anxiety disappeared after I did a lot of working with Mikey on the issue.
The dog may have been taken from his littermates too young
Many behavior problems may occur when a puppy’s been removed from his littermates when he’s too young.
A dog may be with his owner constantly
When a dog accompanies his owner all the time everywhere, he’s likely to develop separation anxiety when he’s suddenly left alone.
Such “Velcro dogs” may feel abandoned when they’re abruptly left by themselves.
These dogs have over-bonded to their person.
There have been changes within the household
Many changes, such as the following, can result in a dog having separation anxiety:
new schedules of family members; changes in the dog’s routine; additions or the removal of a new pet or family member; a move to a new house; or the death of a family member or pet.
Dogs are creatures of habit. Many adapt well to changes, but others may find any variations from their routine to be very distressing.
Our canine friends also form bonds with family members and other animals within the household. Any change may set off some dogs to develop separation anxiety.
What Are the Signs of Separation Anxiety?
There are numerous behavior changes that a dog may exhibit when he has an episode of separation anxiety. Some may be mistaken for other behavioral or medical problems.
Because many of these behaviors may not be seen by you when you leave, some people set up a camera to record what happens when they’re gone.
But many dogs also show signs of distress even when you’re preparing to depart.
Some dogs may become destructive
After you’ve left the house, dogs with severe separation anxiety may destroy some household items.
Usually the items destroyed may be where people enter or exit. Or where a dog may escape.
Dogs with separation anxiety may dig or chew around door or window frames in a frantic attempt to escape and reach the departed owner.
A lab mix I trained was a rescue who had been transferred to various homes before the owners who hired me got him.
He was a very sweet dog. But when his owners left, he went into full-blown panic mode.
He even crashed through a window onto a deck to try to reach his owners one time when they left him alone.
Luckily, he wasn’t physically harmed. But he was obviously in a lot of distress.
This sweet dog had a severe case of separation anxiety.
It took months of working with the family and dog until he could safely be left alone. But it was worth it.
The dog may salivate and drool
These are stress signals.
The dog might pace back and forth in a frenzied state
These demonstrate that he’s distressed.
He may bark, howl, or whine incessantly
For dogs with separation anxiety, this isn’t just a few yips or whines.
Instead, the distressed dog may vocalize for hours–even the entire time you’re gone.
The dog may be a “Velcro dog” who always follows you around and needs to be with you
Not all dogs who want to be with us a lot have separation anxiety. But it can be one of the signs that he has that distress.
The dog has house training accidents when you’re gone
Some dogs may just not be house trained.
But some may express their anxiety by urinating or defecating in the house when alone.
Trembling or shaking may be a sign of distress
The dog may be overly excited when you return home
Most dogs are happy and may jump around, wag their tail, and even squeal when we get home from work or an errand.
But some are so excited because they’re so relieved that we’ve actually returned and haven’t abandoned them.
The dog may show excessive signs of distress when you do your normal routines before departing.
Dogs with separation anxiety often watch our departure cues. And they usually become anxious.
Most of us have routines before we go out. We may take a shower, brush our teeth, get dressed, put on our coat, and pick up our keys.
Meanwhile our dog may pace, salivate, whine, tense up, or show other signs of distress.
A dog with severe separation anxiety may attempt to escape
He may try to get out of windows or doors to reach you.
Some tell-tale signs are scratch or chew marks at the door or window frames or on the door.
Your dog may eat his own poop while you’re gone
It’s known as coprophagia can be a sign of distress.
How Do I Rule Out Other Issues?
Sometimes what appears to be separation anxiety is another behavioral or medical problem.
So, in determining whether something that your dog does is really separation anxiety, other problems must be ruled out. These include:
What appears to be separation anxiety may actually be the results of a young dog who’s been given too much freedom too soon.
Young dogs usually have a lot of excess energy to burn. If they’re allowed out-of-sight freedom before they can handle it, they may become destructive
Unsuccessful or no house training
You come home to urine or feces. Does your pup have separation anxiety?
To help rule it out, determine whether he’s been adequately house trained.
Go over your routine. Does your dog have other house training indiscretions while you’re home?
If so, it may just be a house training problem. Then, re-house train your pup.
Or, if you have house-trained your dog, it may be a physical problem like worms or a urinary tract infection that are causing his house training indiscretions.
If so, it’s advisable to have your vet check out any physical reasons for the problem.
Submissive or excitement urination
You’re so happy to get home from work! Your sweet, happy dog’s there to greet you–a spinning, tail-wagging ball of fur.
Then, you look down at your feet and see it: a puddle of urine.
Your dog may have just urinated out of the excitement of the moment or may have submissively urinated when you reached to pet him.
So determine whether he usually does this in front of you in other settings, not just after your longer departures.
You find urine on the floor, on the side of your favorite chair or on the leg of the kitchen table.
You want to determine whether this is a sign of separation anxiety.
Then, watch whether your dog does this marking when you’re home too. If so, it’s probably urine marking not related to separation anxiety.
Make sure that you’ve cleaned up all the places he’s marked so that he’s not drawn back to those spots. Use an enzymatic cleaner that’s meant for the surface you’re cleaning.
If you’re not sure where he’s urinated, you can use a black light made for the purpose of discovering such indiscretions. Ten, you can clean it up and the dog shouldn’t be drawn back to that spot.
Some medications may cause a dog to defecate or urinate more than normal. So he may have unavoidable accidents when you’re not home.
Check with your vet whether any of your pup’s medications, including new ones, may be the cause of such problems.
A dog may bark, whine, or howl because of something that occurs while left alone, unrelated to separation anxiety.
An alarm may go off; a doorbell may ring; or there may be a noise outside the house that triggers your dog’s vocalizations–even without any separation anxiety.
It may be just a dog barking because that’s what dogs do.
Your dog may become destructive or vocalize because he’s bored.
Sometimes a dog may become destructive or vocalize because he hasn’t had a sufficient amount of exercise before he’s been left alone.
How Do I Treat Separation Anxiety?
There’s usually no quick fix for dogs with separation anxiety. There are many things you can do to help your dog who has separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety isn’t cured as much as it’s managed. It can be successfully managed though to the point that no manifestations of anxiety occur.
In order to correctly manage his separation anxiety, you’ll probably need a multi-level approach involving physical exercise, training, behavioral exercises, and environmental control..
But if you’re uncertain whether he definitely has separation anxiety or whether his symptoms are so severe you aren’t equipped to deal with them, get expert help.
A behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist who’s dealt successfully with the issue may be required.
If you don’t have access to one, a positive reinforcement trainer who specializes in dealing with separation anxiety may be necessary. Even some vets have a lot of success treating such distress.
Some of the following actions may help a dog with separation anxiety:
Make sure that your dog has a sufficient amount of exercise before you depart.
What’s sufficient of course will depend on your dog’s age, breed(s), and health status. Generally, young dogs require more exercise than older ones.
And dogs from the working, hunting, herding, and terrier breeds usually have high drive and require a lot of exercise.
A walk, fetching, or playing with a comparable dog may help meet his needs.
Young goldens and labs should have energy to burn. They really need a lot of exercise in order to not engage in destructive, unwanted behaviors.
Although physical exercise isn’t in and of itself a cure for separation anxiety, it can help relieve any stressed dog’s anxiety.
Then, if your dog’s received enough exercise prior to your departure, any destructive or unwanted behaviors may be the result of separation anxiety.
Make sure that your dog has enough obedience training
Dogs who have obedience training can still suffer from separation anxiety.
But obedience training can help a dog’s self-confidence and his understanding of his world.
It can also reduce a dog’s anxiety because he knows the rules of his world.
Give your dog mentally-stimulating things to do while you’re gone
This is important for all dogs, but can help a separation anxiety dog relieve some stress.
Dogs with severe separation anxiety may not engage in them, but those with milder cases may.
Also, giving a dog some activity toys will help relieve boredom. So you can then rule out problem behaviors like destructive ones or excessive vocalizations.
I recommend Extreme Kongs frozen overnight stuffed with pate dog food.
Keep departures and greetings uneventful
Some experts theorize that making a big fuss when you leave your dog or when you return can cause or exacerbate separation anxiety.
So it’s probably best not to say something like the following to your pup: “Mommy’s going out. My liittle baby pup will be fine. Mommy has to go out…” as you pet and kiss your dog while leaving.
The same is true when you get home.
I like my dogs to know that I’m departing but don’t make a big fuss. Then, they don’t search the house to see where I am.
I consistently say “I’ll be back” on my departure. My dogs have learned the routine.
When I return, I just give them a quick pet and take them out to potty, matter of factly.
Leave an item like a towel with your scent on it
Some dogs may be comforted by items with your scent on something. You may put it on his bed.
This may help in only milder cases of separation anxiety.
Take your dog to the vet to rule out any physical problem
If you’ve ruled out other reasons and still aren’t certain why your dog is behaving with certain signs of separation anxiety, a vet visit is in order.
Use certain calming products that can reduce anxiety
Some mimic the pheromones of the dog’s mother. Others have various essences that lower stress.
As with any such product, first check with your vet before using it.
Some have natural herbal components that have calming properties.
Teach your dog that calm behavior is rewarded
You can praise him when he’s calm around you. I use a “settle” cue.
I actually teach my dogs how to relax on the cue. When I say “settle,” they’ve learned to chill out.
Then, when I say “good settle,” they understand what I mean.
Desensitize your dog to your departures
This is usually best done under the direction of a qualified dog trainer or behaviorist.
This is done slowly, at the dog’s pace. If you do the behavioral work too quickly, it can even worsen the problem.
Departure cues. In one of the behavioral exercises, you may start by using your departure cues–then not leave. You may do them in the order you really do (shower, dress, put on coat, pick up keys)–and not leave.
Eventually, you may do them in various orders–and not leave. You may even do just a few of them–and not leave.
You get the idea.
Usually dogs with separation anxiety become very stressed when they see these departure cues. So, if done correctly and not too often, a dog may become desensitized to them.
And the cues won’t be such a big deal. So your pup won’t be in full-blown anxiety by the time you go out.
Departure times. Once your dog is used to your departure cues, you also need to deal with his reaction to your leaving.
I say it should be your dog’s party when you leave. If all these great things happen when you leave, the rationale is that he should eventually see your departure as a great thing–or at least tolerable.
Then, eventually, as he’s able to handle it without visibly stressing, you will go out of sight and reappear. You can do this at first in your house.
Add longer departures as he’s able to handle them.
Eventually, you’ll go outside and back inside. Then, add longer times to your departure before returning.
At first, you may add only seconds to being out-of-sight or outside.
The goal is to eventually be able to leave for a normal business day.
Caveat: This process is usually very slow–depending how severe your dog’s separation anxiety is.
These protocols are often administered by an expert who’s successfully dealt with dogs with separation anxiety. Working with separation anxiety is very challenging.
Take your dog to a vet if such intervention is required
Some dogs require veterinary drugs to help lessen their separation anxiety.
These are prescription items. Talk with your vet whether they’re appropriate for your dog.
Of course, you’ll also need to also engage in an appropriate desensitization and counter-conditioning program too.
PRO TIP: If you’re home more than usual (as has occurred during the pandemic), try to maintain a normal schedule. If your dog hasn’t developed separation anxiety yet, try to leave him for a short time every day.
If you don’t want to or can’t go out, pretend to leave and go to another area of your house without your dog.
Every day, I pretend to leave my new puppy Millie. I got het in July during the pandemic.
She’s crated for about four five hours in the family room and I go to another area in the house.
This way, she’s less likely to develop separation anxiety when I go back to my normal work routine outside of the house.
Additional Advice While Working With Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety
Some dogs may need additional help while you work on the issue. While you engage in your behavior modification, some experts advise not leaving your dog alone so that they gradually accept your departures.
Obviously for many people this isn’t practical. But we always try to set up our dogs to succeed.
If possible, though, while you’re working with your behavior modification program, you can do the following:
Take your dog with you
If you can take your dog to work or on errands, it may help his behavioral program.
Arrange for someone to stay with your dog when you go out
A family member, friend or pet sitter may help your dog.
Many dogs with separation anxiety are fine as long as someone they trust stays with them.
I did this while I worked with my golden Spencer’s separation anxiety. It took weeks for him to really progress. During this time, friends helped out by staying with him while I was gone and worked through his issues.
At the end of about three weeks, he could successfully be left alone again.
TRAINER’S NOTE: Most dogs with separation anxiety are fine if not left alone. However, some are attached to a specific person and exhibit symptoms if that one person is gone.
Take your dog to a dog sitter’s house or a doggy daycare
This can help many dogs who qualify and whose separation anxiety isn’t to one specific person.
What Shouldn’t I Do?
Any harsh treatment won’t solve the problem. Instead, it may make it much worse.
Don’t confine a dog to a small area like a crate unless that’s his safe space
Dogs who aren’t used to a crate and are just shoved into it may panic. Add to that separation anxiety, and the dog may injure himself trying to escape from it.
However, some dogs actually feel safer in their crate even when left alone.
Don’t scold or punish the dog when you return
Even if you see he’s had an accident or scratched up the door frame, being harsh will just exacerbate the problem.
It will justify in his mind that bad things happen because you’re gone. Then, the next time you leave, he may feel even more anxious.
Don’t make departures and returns too emotional
You don’t want to add any stress.
Separation anxiety is a very complex behavioral problem.
Even if your canine buddy exhibits some of the symptoms of dogs who have separation anxiety, you still must rule out other behavioral, medical, and environmental reasons to determine whether he has such departure stress.
There are various ways to successfully manage dogs with separation anxiety. It’s often advisable to get assistance from an expert because of the complexity of the problem.
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