By Richard Cross, Editor of The Dog Clinic
Do you often come home to destroyed dog beds and ripped cushions? Or have neighbors complained that your pet barks during the day?
If so, your dog could be suffering from separation anxiety. Symptoms include barking, crying, loss of bladder control and destructive behavior – especially when you initially leave the house.
The good news is there are plenty of techniques you can use to reduce separation anxiety. These might not work immediately, but over time can help your pet to feel more comfortable when alone.
An Anxious Dog Isn’t Being “Bad” or “Naughty”
It’s easy to get angry when you’re greeted by another ruined cushion or torn dog bed. You’ll often hear owners talk about how their dog was “naughty” when they were out – and it can certainly seem that way.
Without delving too deep into canine psychology, however, it’s important to understand that dogs are pack animals. They instinctively want the security of companions and can become distressed when left alone. While a dog is not a wolf, they feel the same vulnerability and fear when separated from the pack as their wild ancestors.
With this in mind, barking, howling and destructive behavior are all symptoms of a dog feeling an overwhelming sense of panic. The dog isn’t trying to be “bad” or misbehave – it just doesn’t have another outlet for its emotions.
We should still try to prevent the behavior. But it’s important to approach training from a compassionate perspective.
Teach Puppies to be Alone from a Young Age
Many people take time off work when they first adopt a puppy. This is a wonderful idea, as puppies need a lot of care and attention – especially during the first few weeks in a new home.
The downside is that the dog becomes used to having 24/7 companionship. It’s also difficult to avoid giving your new pup attention when he barks or howls – who can resist a puppy who just wants love?
For this reason, try to desensitize a puppy to being left alone from a young age (more on how to do this in a moment). The earlier you start the process, the less likely a dog is to suffer from separation anxiety.
Defuse Signals of Your Departure
We all have routines when we’re about to leave the house. Perhaps you change from tracksuits into jeans, get your coat from the closet, or check your appearance in the bathroom mirror. Even if you don’t have a long routine, everyone puts on shoes and picks up their keys when they leave the house.
Dogs are adept at picking up on these signals. If your dog has social anxiety, he’ll start to feel fearful as soon as he recognizes the “leaving” routine. By the time you leave the house, he’s already on his way to a state of high anxiety.
One way to prevent this is to be more unpredictable. Occasionally put your shoes on without leaving the house, then continue with whatever you were doing. Practice picking up your keys or changing into smart clothes at random times. Over time, these signals become less of an anxiety trigger for the dog.
This is also why “goodbyes” are a bad idea – especially if your dog suffers from anxiety about being left alone.
Don’t Punish After the Event (Or At All)
A natural reaction to coming home to a mess is to scold the dog. This might make sense to us humans – but it’s extremely confusing for a dog.
Dogs with social anxiety feel anxious and fearful when left alone. When someone arrives home, they feel relief and happiness – but they aren’t thinking about earlier when they ripped a cushion.
Scolding a dog at this time won’t teach it to not be destructive when you’re out. Your dog won’t understand the punishment is for something that happened earlier in the day.
Instead, scolding teaches that humans are something to be afraid of – especially when they first come home. The result is that the dog feels even more anxious when you leave.
Gradually Increase Time Spent Alone
The best way to reduce anxiety is to reinforce that separation isn’t scary. The key, however, is always staying within your dog’s current tolerance. If your dog becomes anxious at any point during the process, you’re potentially making the problem worse.
Here’s an overview of this training method:
- Start by discovering your dog’s current tolerance. Do they need to be near you at all times? Are they relaxed in the same room but rush to follow when you go to the kitchen? Or are they happy for you to be out of sight in the next room, but become anxious when you leave the house? It’s important to understand your pet’s tolerance, as this varies for every dog.
- The goal is to gradually increase the dog’s tolerance without causing him to feel scared or anxious. Start by walking to a distance that your dog tolerates, then calmly walk back, give praise and a treat.
- Next time, go slightly further, then praise and give a treat. The idea is that your dog learns you always come back and that being alone (temporarily) is associated with a treat. Make sure you wait a bit between each repetition, so your dog isn’t excited from seeing you return.
- Over time, you should be able to increase the distance until you are out of sight (but only for 1-2 seconds). Once you can do this, gradually increase the time you are not visible before returning and giving a treat. When the dog is comfortable with this, start practicing going outside and eventually leaving the house for short periods. Don’t rush the process though – it might take several sessions and plenty of patience.
While this process seems straightforward, every dog requires a different progression. Increasing the difficulty too quickly can make fear worse, so it’s essential that you go slowly and know how to identify signs of anxiety.
If you’re having trouble building up your pet’s tolerance, or don’t feel confident training on your own, get help from a behavioral expert. They can advise you how to adjust the plan for best results with your pet.
Tip: Clickers can be a useful tool when training a behavior. Unlike praise, which varies in pitch, timing and tone, clickers always sound the same. Once your dog associates a “click” with a treat, you can use it to give positive feedback at precise times.
Try Calming Supplements
Aside from training, there are a range of calming supplements that may help reduce anxiety. These usually aren’t enough to solve the problem, but may help your pet to relax, which can reduce destructive behavior. Your vet may also recommend medication for severe anxiety.
Supplements and medication are only a temporary solution though. They can be great for quick anxiety relief, but should be combined with a gradual positive reinforcement plan.
While a positive reinforcement training program is the best way to improve social anxiety, there are other things you can do to make the training process easier:
- If your dog regularly destroys his bed, look for a chew proof bed that’s designed to withstand digging and chewing. These cost more than the average bed, but should last a lot longer. The Dog Clinic has a useful list of options, but for strong chewers a metal elevated bed is probably the best choice.
- Make sure your dog is getting enough exercise – especially in the morning. Even if you can’t go for a walk, a game of tug or some ball throwing can burn excess energy.
- If possible, leave your dog with a friend or family member during the training process. This can break the anxiety loop that’s reinforced when you need to leave the house.
Separation anxiety can be solved, but it takes patience, understanding and dedication.
The most important advice is to never scold a dog for anxiety behaviors. Punishment will make the dog more fearful and can increase unwanted behaviors.
Instead, gradually teach your dog that spending time alone isn’t frightening. This requires patience – some dogs need weeks of training – but it’s worth it in the long run.
Richard Cross is editor of The Dog Clinic – a website dedicated to helping dog parents develop a stronger bond with their pet. When he’s not writing, Richard spends his free time reading and hiking with his wife and two dogs.