How to deal with separation anxiety in dogs
Dogs are pack animals in the wild, that have adapted to live socially alongside humans for thousands of years. For the dog you share your home with that means they may not be too happy about spending time alone. Many will be able to cope with it, at least for short periods, but others may show signs of separation anxiety.
What are the signs of anxiety in dogs?
The signs of separation anxiety aren’t always obvious. You may only find out that your dog is unhappy about being left alone when your neighbours let you know it won’t stop barking once you’ve left the house. Other signs that you might discover on your return include messing, and chew-marks on woodwork or items that contain your scent.
You might not immediately associate these signs with distress at being separated from you, as they happen when you’re out, but you should look out for changes in your dog’s behaviour as you get ready to go out. They will have learned very quickly your habits when preparing to leave the house – putting on shoes or a jacket, picking up keys, and may start to show anxiety as you get ready. This may take the form of following you around, seeking attention, panting, becoming vocal and even trying to block your path to the door. They may also be effusively happy when you return. Now this could just be normal dog behaviour, but there may be subtle indicators that something more is going on. For example, if your dog only eats food you left out before leaving when you return, this might be a sign they were too anxious to eat while you were gone.
It’s important not to punish your dog for this behaviour, however annoying it might be. It’s unlikely your dog would associate your punishment with something it may have done hours earlier, and all you may be doing is giving them new reasons to fear you going out without them.
How to help a dog with separation anxiety
There are any number of reasons why a dog may be prone to separation anxiety. There may be something that happens when you’re away every day, like the postman arriving, that unsettles them, a close animal companion may have passed leaving them alone for the first time, they may have become strongly attached to a specific person and struggle when they disappear, or it might simply be boredom. If you catch the behaviour early enough, before it becomes ingrained, you may be able to teach a young dog to get used to spending periods of time alone.
You’ll need to choose a room where your dog can be comfortable for a period of time. You might choose a utility room or the kitchen, as these tend to be spots where it’s easier to clean up any mess. The key thing is that’s it’s not somewhere you only put them when leaving, as they will start to associate it with isolation and become immediately anxious. Ideally you want to close this room off with a gate, rather than a door. Then your dog can see, hear and smell what’s going on outside the room. Put their bed and some toys in the room with them, and leave them in there for a while each day while you go about your business around the house. The idea is for your dog to become more relaxed with the idea of there being a little distance between you. After a while, you can increase the amount of time you leave your dog in this space, eventually spending part of that time out of sight and earshot. Once they seem comfortable with that, you can begin to leave them alone in the house for short periods. You might find leaving a radio on, tuned to a talk station, will help them feel more relaxed.
It will take patience, but over the following days, with luck you should be able to extend the amount of time you spend away from home without causing your dog anxiety.
If this policy of slowly getting them used to separation doesn’t seem to be working, your dog may have deeper-seated behavioural problems, and you should seek professional help. Contact your vet first to make sure there are no medical problems, and they should be able to recommend a qualified behaviourist.
Pet Insurance could help with your unexpected vet’s bills
It’s not just behavioural problems that could send you to your local vet for help, and vet bills can mount up fast. You might want to consider pet insurance. While our Pet Insurance doesn’t cover routine veterinary visits or vaccinations, it can help you to cover the cost of unexpected bills when your pet needs treatment due to an accident or illness. (Please note we do not cover behavioural problems unless caused by or directly resulting from a valid illness or accident).