Is our four-pawed friend just bored? Or is he anxious? Has he been out-of-the-ordinary destructive and excessively vocal? Is he having "accidents" when he's left alone? Perhaps he's chewing on the furniture? What about when we are home? Is your pup extra attached and needy? Maybe Fido is even showing signs of moodiness or aggression? All these behaviors are typical of either boredom or separation anxiety, but a different approach is needed to resolve each condition. We must find out for sure if our best bud is suffering from separation anxiety so we can immediately give him the help he needs.
Why do dogs experience separation anxiety?
Understanding why our furry friends experience separation anxiety is not a complex mystery, but being aware of the condition will allow us to address it appropriately.
In fact, more and more dogs today are suffering from separation anxiety in large part because more and more of their human companions' are living increasingly busy and distraction-filled lives. While a lonely lifestyle isn't the only reason for dog anxiety, it is a significant contributor. A lack of physical and mental stimulation can cause anxiety. A fear of abandonment can cause separation anxiety. This fear of abandonment is especially common among rescued animals.
Identifying the symptoms of separation anxiety
If we can provide our pooch all of his basic needs - food, comfort, shelter, socialization, plenty of time for play and exercise - but he still exhibits the following symptoms, he might be suffering from separation anxiety:
- Destructive behaviors, particularly involving attempts to escape or to enter the house (if left outside). This might look like torn curtains or carpet. It might also be chewed shoes and shredded clothing or furniture.
- Unintentional self-harm, usually concurrent with destructive behaviors, such as getting bloodied paws or cracked teeth from digging, chewing, and other similar behaviors.
- Lack of appetite and unwillingness to drink water or eat when left alone.
- Extreme physical attachment. This usually manifests when Fido knows we're about to leave, and when his anxiety is not relieved by the presence of other individuals.
- Excessive vocalization, especially barking, whining, and howling, as soon as we leave. We know this is happening when it begins as we leave, when we see and hear it on home the security cameras, and when the neighbors let us know.
How to prevent separation anxiety in dogs
The simple answer is to keep our dogs physically and mentally stimulated, so much so that they'll be content to just spend more of their time alone at home. Of course, this is often easier said than done, but it is something that we need to do to help keep separation anxiety at bay. As Fido's anxiety slows over time, we can lessen his exercise and play regime to something more manageable and aligned with his size and breed.
Remember that this mental and physical stimulation can include daily walks, but can also include running, hiking, swimming, dog park visits, games at home, and more.
Putting Fido on a reliable schedule can mean the world to him. If he can trust that he will see you in just a few hours, it can be a huge relief. It does take time to build this trust. And the best way to build trust is to be committed to the schedule. We can consider setting alarms. We might have someone on standby to run over and visit Fido on lunch breaks when we just can't make it home ourselves.
For those of us who think Fido's personality and demeanor can handle it, we might consider putting him in doggy daycare one to three days a week. It isn't recommended to do this more often than those three days a week, mostly because it can add to our pup's insecurities and cause over-stimulation. That said, doggy daycare can be a useful tool to introduce playtime and socialization into Fido's week.
Dog training has a lot to do with conditioning. If we punish our pup for acting out when the reason he's displaying bad behavior is anxiety, it will only add to his insecurities. Instead, adding training with a professional to his weekly schedule can help him learn obedience as well as self-control. Training, whether it's obedience training or just a way to teach him fun commands, will add some regularity to his schedule.
Making sure he has toys to play with when he's home alone will also help. Help him find his favorite toy. When we are home with Fido while he barks, we teach him to use his toy to work out his frustrations by taking a different approach than many people. When he barks or displays destructive behavior, we can calmly but firmly, and in a positive tone, say, "thank you, Fido. Now get your toy." Until he understands that command, we can show him the toy and play with him and the toy for a moment. Eventually, we will know that he needs to get his toy and bring it to us when we wants to bark. And further down the road, he'll just run for his toy without barking at all.
Puppyhood is the ideal time to train him to keep himself preoccupied and entertained when we're not with him. That said, any dog can learn to self-soothe with the right tools and opportunities.
When leaving and arriving home, we should say goodbye and greet him in a relaxed manner. If we get excited, it will get him excited, which then gives him a bunch of energy just as we're leaving or arriving. We need to be soothing, not exciting, especially when we're leaving the house. The goal is to teach him to remain calm when we leave. As much as we're happy to see him when we get home, we have to resist becoming overly excited. This can create a pattern of exciting build-up while he anticipates our arrival. That anticipation can lead to bad behavior. Instead, be happy, but calm, and direct him to a few minutes of play with you and his toy, as needed.
If Fido’s separation anxiety persists, we can choose to ease his discomfort with soothing scents and hormones. We might want to visit the vet to see what they recommend. We can consider CBD oil in low doses. There are calming hormones that we might choose to put on his collar to help him relax. Whatever we choose, remember that doggy noses are sensitive, so we don’t need to overwhelm them with scents, no matter how soothing they are supposed to be. Well intentioned as we may be, too much of these mixtures can have negative effects. So, start small and introduce larger doses under the supervision of a trusted vet or dog behaviorist.
Separation anxiety is a big deal, for us as well as our canine companions. It will take some work, but we can build a better relationship with our pup, and while doing so, build more trust and patience. His insecurities will fade, and we'll find that we have a loving, well-behaved pup under all that misguided anxiety.