Separation Anxiety: What It Is, How to Avoid it & How to Overcome It
Puppies are clingy little things and that is one of the things we love about them. Man’s second favorite pet on the other hand only plays with you when it wants food, yeah I’m talking about your whiskers! However, despite our fondness for attention-seeking canines, what happens when it becomes too much? What happens if your dog cannot stand not being without you, not even for a moment?
Separation Anxiety is exactly that: a condition in which a dog cannot be left alone without exhibiting highly disruptive, disturbing or dangerous behaviors. This is an attitude that goes beyond the usual sadness of a dog watching you leave, but rather one which sends them into an uncontrollable panic that threatens their safety and well-being.
When this condition manifests, most dog owners don’t know what to do, and this is when, unfortunately, a lot of dogs get abandoned, which only worsens the condition. If only they knew what it was and how to solve it, we would have many happier dogs, and that’s why we created this post.
What Are Some Symptoms of Separation Anxiety?
It isn’t always easy to tell the difference between when a dog just misses you and needs to learn independence and when it suffers from separation anxiety. This is because some of the symptoms are similar, while others overlap with other behavioral traits. This makes it difficult to distinguish when your dog needs more training from when it has a genuine problem. These signs, therefore, have to be measured against other criteria to make sure you reach the right conclusion. If unsure, contact an animal behaviorist or a dog trainer. Here are the signs to look out for:
1. Depressed Outlook Before You Leave The House
The first thing to watch out for is a drastic mood change when you are preparing to leave the house. Most dogs will continue wagging their tails as they see you leave, hoping even to steal a kiss before you depart. When your dog has separation anxiety, it will begin to look gloomy or even fearful as you prepare to leave. It might even try to keep you from going, by clinging onto your leg, biting your shoes, or standing in front of the door and barking you away.
2. Makes A Lot of Noise After You Leave
If your dog doesn’t succeed in stopping you from leaving, it could make a lot of noise once you do. Loud continuous barking, or more common, howling, are ways to get you to come back. This could drag on for minutes and in some cases, hours.
3. Your Dog Tries To Escape
When your dog realizes you are not coming back, it might try to get to you. Scratching repeatedly on the door, trying to dig beneath the door or window, or trying to squeeze through whatever open space you have that could lead it to the outside, even an air vent. Scratch marks and broken windows are signs to look out for.
4. Uncontrolled Excretion
If you come back to find your home heavily soiled, despite having successfully completed housetraining, it could be a sign of separation anxiety. Dogs often urinate or defecate when they are scared, thus seeing it all over the place can be a sign of panic. The poop is often softer and smaller in quantity than normal, as it has not come out naturally.
Other symptoms may include pacing, destruction of property, hiding, and even aggression when you try to leave home.
What Causes It?
Knowing what causes or what might trigger separation anxiety is helpful in preventing it in many cases. There are many inconclusive studies on what causes them, but one thing we know is that they are more common with abandoned dogs than those chosen from a litter or born in your home. In either case, there are things we do, despite the dog’s own history that can cause it.
1. Being Too Attached
There is such a thing as being too attached to your dog, and one of the outcomes can be separation anxiety. I have met owners who never let their puppy out of their sight, from sun up to sundown, even when they go to the toilet. While they think this is responsible for parenting, this leads to a situation where you are all the dog knows, and without you, it feels helpless.
When a dog has been left behind by a previous owner, either intentionally or through death, it might fear a repeat, thus causing it to worry every time it sees you leave.
3. A Change in Living Arrangements
A new home, a new owner, a new environment, and new family members can all trigger separation anxiety symptoms. It is hard to know which one of these would cause it, thus making it a difficult one to control.
How To Help Your Dog
There are medical ways to deal with separation anxiety, but it is important to try non-medical alternatives either before or alongside it. In most cases, medication would not be needed at all, all you require is a delicate touch.
1. Incorporate Separation Drills Into Regular Training
One of the first things to try is separation games. Give your dog something to play with, and while it is chomping down, move away for a bit. Don’t wait for your dog to get agitated or leave the toy, just come straight back. This paints the picture subconsciously that whenever you leave, you always come straight back. Read our article on independence training to find out which toys are good for holding its attention.
When teaching your dog to stay, sit, come when called and play fetch, try to do so from longer distances each time, and move on to being in different rooms. Tell your dog to stay while you go to the bathroom to relieve yourself. Throw a ball far enough to be out of sight etc.
2. Introduce Your Dog To Other People and Pets
Get your dog to socialize. Let it mingle with other dogs, people, and animals. You should not be the only pleasing contact your dog has. By getting him used to others, he will realize that it does not need the company of just one person to be happy. Soon, he will be content chasing a flock of birds or trying to play with geckos. And before you know it, everything will trigger its excitement, including floating butterflies.
3. Change Your Environment
In some cases, you might need a change of location. It may seem over the top to change homes for a dog, but if he or she is a part of the family and you really care about its well-being and you are in a position to do so, please do. Sure, many people won’t understand your position, but in all likelihood, your dog’s separation anxiety will affect you too, either at work or your social activities, so what is good for him would be good for you.
Before you make a permanent move, try spending a day or two in the new environment and see how well your dog gets along. Try some of these training there and see if your pooch progresses quicker in those locations. Again, remember this is an extreme case, of more severe anxiety, after all, other attempts have failed.
4. Make Use of Distractions
Before you leave your dog at home, try putting on the radio or the television and see how well he responds to it. If he gets glued to it as we humans do, then you know that will hold his attention for a while, or even the rest of the day. Don’t be surprised if when you get back home, he doesn’t acknowledge your return.
5. Keep Your Puppy Busy
Emotions are tricky things, we tend to feel them most when we are idle. The trick, therefore, is to load your dog on activities while you are gone. Hide food around the house and use puzzles and frozen kongs to keep him occupied.
Another tactic is to give your dog a thorough work-out before you leave, so it is too tired to miss you, or it just sleeps for a few hours while you are gone. Make him run around chasing balls or squeaky toys, or get on a treadmill.
When trying to enforce some of these things, you might find your patience being tested. Always refrain from training your dog in anger, or it could cause other problems. Remember that your dog’s pain is not self-controllable, so it is up to you to train it. When you return, don’t make coming back such a big deal. Give your dog time to relax before you start playing with him.
There are other things you can do to help desensitize your dog to your departure, such as going through your routine without actually leaving the house. Pretend to be getting dressed for work, then just lounge around. That throws him off, so he learns not to freak every time he sees you getting ready. Leaving the good food home only when you are absent is another good method.
Finally, do try and get a sitter for your dog. Do not leave it by itself for more than two hours, until it graduates. You’ve got this!
Check out these dog beds for separation anxiety.