What is Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
Separation anxiety is one of the most common problems that dogs develop and it is
very very common in small/toy breeds. It’s an anxiety disorder, and is defined as a
state of intense panic brought on by the dog’s isolation/separation from her owner
(s). In other words: when you leave for work in the morning, your dog is thrown into a
state of nervous anxiety. This anxiety increases very quickly. Why does this
happen? Well, for one thing, dogs are social animals, just as humans and they
need lots of company and social interaction to keep them happy and content. No
dog likes to be left alone for long periods of time, but some dogs do a lot worse than
others: these are the ones most prone to separation anxiety.
There are a number of causes of separation anxiety disorder and they fall into the
areas of genetics and early socialization. Some breeds are genetically predisposed
towards anxiety and insecurity, which is something you should consider when
deciding which breed you’re going to go for (particularly if you’re going to be absent
for long stretches of time). A few of these breeds include Weimaraners, Springer
Spaniels, German Shepherds, and Airedales. But it is by no means limited to large
breeds. Many small dogs suffer from separation anxiety as well. A significant
proportion of dogs from shelters develop separation anxiety. Most of these ‘shelter
dogs’ have undergone substantial trauma in their lives. They were abandoned by
their previous owners, and thus they have little trust that their new owner, namely
you are not going to abandon them as well.
Dogs that were separated from their mothers and siblings too early have been
identified as being especially prone to separation anxiety also. Puppies from pet-
stores are a perfect example of this: they are usually taken from their mothers well
before the earliest possible age, which is 8 weeks, and confined to a small glass box
or a cage in the pet store for anywhere between a few weeks to a few months. This
early weaning, together with the lack of exercise and human affection while in the
pet store, is mentally distressing for the dog. Puppy separation anxiety can be very
stressful to you and your dog.
Neglect is the number-one cause of separation anxiety in dogs. If you must be
absent more than you are present in your dog’s life, separation anxiety is pretty
much inevitable. Your dog needs your company, affection, and attention in order to
be happy and content.
The symptoms seen in dogs with separation anxiety are pretty unique. First, your
dog usually learns to tell when you’re about to leave because they are very good at
picking up the cues you give off such as keys jingling and will see you putting on
your coat. They begin to feel anxious. They may follow you from room to room,
whining, trembling, and crying. Some dogs even become aggressive, in an attempt
to stop their owners from leaving. When you have left, the anxious behavior will
rapidly get worse and usually peaks within half an hour. They may bark nonstop,
scratch and dig at windows and doors in their mistaken belief that they can get out
and be with you. They might also chew inappropriate items, and even urinate and
defecate inside the house. In extreme cases, she might harm themselves by licking
or chewing their skin until it is raw or pulling out their fur. Some dogs will also
engage in obsessive-compulsive behaviors, like spinning and tail-chasing.
Upon your return, she’ll be excessively excited, and will leap around you in a state of
delight for a long period of time, much more than the usual 30 seconds to one
minute that is common in happy, well-adjusted dogs. Some owners misunderstand
this extended greeting. These owners do not understand that such a greeting
actually signifies the presence of a psychological disorder (i.e. separation anxiety
disorder). Instead, these pet owners actually encourage their dog to get more and
more worked up upon their return by fuelling the dog’s excitement, encouraging her
to leap around.
If you’re behaving in this way with your dog, please stop. I know it’s tempting and
very easy to do, and it seems harmless, after all, she’s so happy to see you, what
harm can it do to return her attention and affection in equal measure?
What is actually happening is that you are endorsing her belief that your return is
the high point of the day. So she is happy when you return but, when it’s time for
you to leave again, gets even unhappier when you walk out that door.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to help your anxious dog. Here’s a short
list of do’s and don’ts:
DO’s for Helping Your Anxious Dog deal with her Separation Anxiety
|Give her plenty of opportunities for exercise. This is really important for larger dogs, |
|but small dogs benefit from a short brisk walk too. Larger breeds need more. |
Remember, if you’re leaving for work in the morning, she will probably be by herself
for at least four hours at the least. If you have a dog-walker to take her out mid-day
instead of coming back yourself, she won’t see you, the most important person in
her life, for at least nine hours! So she needs a good, vigorous walk (fifteen to
twenty minutes is the absolute minimum here!) before you walk out that door. More
is even better. Exercise is essential for dogs with separation anxiety.
|Distract her from her boredom, loneliness, and anxiety by giving her a substitute for |
|her anxious pacing, and whining. All dogs love to chew – why not play on this |
predisposition? Get a couple of bones and give her one about 15 minutes before
you leave. It’ll keep her happy and occupied, and will help ease the anxiety she feels
when you leave.
|When you leave, put the radio on to a soothing station: classical music is ideal, but |
|any station featuring lots of talk shows is also ideal. Keep the volume quite low, and |
it’ll calm her down a bit and give her the feeling that she’s got company. Any
soothing sounds will help with puppy separation anxiety.
|If at all possible, supply her with a view: if she can see the world going by, that’s the |
|next best thing to being out and about in it.|
|Acclimatize her to your leaving through a conditioning process. Pretend to get |
|ready to leave, jingle your keys and put on your coat, and open the door. Then, |
turn around and sit back down. Do this until she’s not reacting any more. When
there’s no reaction, give her a treat and lavish praise for being so brave. Next,
practice actually walking out the door, and returning immediately, again doing this
until there’s no reaction. Gradually work up until you’re able to leave the house with
no signs of stress from her.
DON’Ts for Dealing with Separation Anxiety in Dogs
|Act overtly sympathetic when she’s crying. Although it sounds very cold-hearted, |
|trying to soothe and comfort your dog by patting her and cooing over her is actually |
one of the worst things you can do. What this does is validate her feelings.
|Make sure she can’t tell that you feel sorry for her: don’t ever say, “It’s OK, good |
|girl” when she’s upset!|
|If you’re interested in getting a more detailed look at how to deal with your dog’s |
|separation anxiety, you might like to check out Secrets to Dog Training. It’s a great |
learning tool for anyone who wants to learn how to deal constructively with their dog’
s problem behaviors. All of the common behavioral problems are dealt with in detail,
and there’s a great section on obedience commands and tricks too.
You can visit the Secrets to Dog Training site by clicking on the link below:
Secrets to Dog Training