By Dr. Beth Leermakers
“Please don’t let my new foster dog have separation anxiety,” I pray as I bring home a shelter dog. In my experience, separation anxiety is one of the most challenging canine behavioral issues to manage. One of my foster dogs destroyed three crates and tore up the carpet and door trying to get out of my spare bedroom. Fortunately, he didn’t hurt himself in the process.
Separation anxiety is a feeling of nervousness, fear or panic that develops when a dog is unable to be in contact with his people.
You may not realize your dog has mild separation anxiety, since you aren’t home when it happens, or you may think his clingy behavior simply means that your dog really loves you. Your dog may have separation anxiety if he:
• Frequently seeks your attention (through pawing and barking) throughout the day
• Follows you around the house
• Seeks comfort from you whenever something unexpected occurs (e.g., the doorbell rings, it rains)
• Greets you exuberantly when you return home
• Stops eating, acts depressed, hides, whines or pants
• Urinates or defecates in the house (when he’s house-broken)
A dog with established separation anxiety has more obvious, extreme symptoms:
Barking, whining or howling when left alone (set up a camera or ask your neighbor)
Destructive behaviors (e.g., chewing and clawing at objects in your home, digging)
Attempts to escape from doors, windows, crates or fences
Other behavioral issues may look like separation anxiety, so it’s important to analyze your dog’s symptoms and history. His distress may be due to a medical problem, so start with a trip to your veterinarian. If your dog has severe behavioral issues, he may benefit from a visit to a veterinary behaviorist (available at some vet clinics) who can evaluate your dog and recommend appropriate treatment.
Assess Your Dog’s Behavior and Environment
What does your dog do as you get ready to leave?
What do you do as you get ready to leave?
What does your dog destroy?
Where does your dog stay when you’re gone? Are there other pets in that area?
What toys does your dog have available?
Dogs with separation anxiety are truly terrified when you’re gone. They’re not being “bad” and should NOT be punished. Punishment doesn’t help with fear and will only make the situation worse. Appropriate treatment of separation anxiety includes avoiding behaviors that encourage and reinforce “neediness” (such as coddling your dog when he’s afraid), teaching your dog to relax and rewarding him when he’s relaxed.
Pretend to leave (e.g., pick up your keys or purse) but then stay or walk out the door but immediately come back in. Your dog needs to learn to be calm when you leave and when you return. As long as your dog remains calm, gradually increase the amount of time you stay away.
• When you get home, ignore your dog (don’t talk to, look at or pet him) until he or she is calm.
• Reward your dog’s calm behavior by paying attention to him.
• Do not allow your dog to sleep in your bed.
• Ask someone else to do fun things with your dog (e.g., going for walks).
• Provide more mental stimulation. Try an interactive, treat-dispensing toy. Rotate different toys.
• Give your dog a special, treat-filled toy when you leave, and put it away when you return. By doing so, you’re showing your dog that good things happen when you’re gone.
• If you often have a television or radio on when you are at home, keep it on when you leave. Anxiety medications (for your dog) may help. Medications, supplements, and/or pheromone products should be used to enhance the effectiveness of behavioral modification — not replace it. Your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist can help you manage separation anxiety.