Of course dogs miss their owners when they’re gone, but for some pups, there may be a much bigger issue going on.
Separation anxiety in dogs is an extremely frustrating and heartbreaking issue to deal with. It often leaves both humans and dogs upset and sometimes close to going around the bend.
To be clear, separation anxiety is not just a dog that whines or chews up a shoe if their alone too long. Instead, a dog with separation anxiety is in severe distress from the moment their person leaves the home until they return. They can act out this distress by barking and howling, peeing and pooping in the home, even if they are otherwise housebroken, destroying various possessions through chewing, digging and clawing and even escape attempts.
In addition to the obvious psychological distress this causes the dog, these behaviors can lead to physical injuries, as well. A dog could chew or ingest something they’re not supposed to or injure themselves in an escape attempt. Fortunately, separation anxiety is curable. It takes patience, commitment and perseverance to finally help your dog overcome their anxieties. But it will make them comfortable staying at home alone.
Identify the problem
Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if your dog has separation anxiety or not. To identify if your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, look out for the risk factors or potential triggers. Some breeds, like pomskies and Bichon Frises, are more prone to separation anxiety.
Unfortunately, many of the breeds most susceptible to separation anxiety are also the small lapdogs that are also best suited to apartment living. This is also an environment that won’t have a lot of patience for torn up baseboards or a howler. However, separation anxiety can happen in any breed. This is especially true in dogs with major lifestyle shifts like moving or losing one of their people.
Some of the symptoms of separation anxiety also overlap with other possible conditions or behaviors. For example, soiling the house while you’re out can be a sign of separation anxiety. But it can also be a sign of improper housebreaking or a medical issue. If a dog that was previously housebroken suddenly begins soiling the house, check in with your vet to rule out any physical issues. Similarly, behaviors like chewing and barking can also be caused by boredom, youth or improper training.
Counter-condition your dog
This technique works by essentially rewiring your dog’s brain to associate the feared thing with a good thing, usually food or treats. Giving your dog a puzzle toy full of their favorite food, like a frozen kong, will both redirect their destructive energies toward the toy. It will also teach them that being alone is OK because it brings peanut butter.
The more complex the toy, the longer it will occupy your dog’s energies. Additionally, doing these kinds of puzzles can help enrich their life and exercise their mind more. This will make them less prone to stress and anxiety.
Make sure to only break out these toys when you’ll be leaving your dog alone, so that the association in their mind is that much stronger. However, this technique is not effective on dogs with severe separation anxiety. These dogs usually will not eat when their owner is not home, regardless of how tempting the treat is.
Desensitize your dog
If your dog has more severe separation anxiety, it will take more than a kong full of peanut butter to alleviate their distress. However, desensitization training is a difficult and intensive process. If possible, consult with a professional — like a behavioral expert, certified dog trainer or at least your vet — before attempting any at-home desensitization.
The basic principle behind desensitization, though, is simple, and similar to what humans call exposure therapy. The idea is to expose your dog to small quantities of the scary thing — in this case, alone time — to show them that nothing scary happens when you’re gone.
For dogs with severe anxiety, you might start by having them sit on one side of a door — ideally an interior door in the apartment and not the one you leave from every day. Then, you can step out of their sight behind the door for a few seconds. Make sure to praise your dog profusely when you come back and they have not freaked out. Continue this procedure, always with ever so slightly longer time increments, until your dog can spend 40 minutes on their own.
Usually, dogs begin their destructive behaviors within 40 minutes of their owners leaving the home. Once your dog can make 40 minutes, you can increase your time periods in increments of five to 10 minutes. Once you hit 90 minutes, your dog is likely ready to spend hours at a time alone.
Make life better for your dog with separation anxiety
Curing a dog of separation anxiety is a difficult and intensive process. It involves a large time commitment and also spending a lot of time with your dog when you’re not explicitly training them. However, successfully curing their separation anxiety will be a boon to both your and your dog’s quality of life.