Separation Anxiety is a catch-all phrase we tend to use for pets that suffer stress and anxiety issues when they are left alone. Separation distress may be a better term to use for most of these disorders. Dogs can become distressed for many different reasons and their anxiety can be displayed through many different behaviours. They may bark or howl, chew up furniture or other items, urinate or defecate, tremble and drool, self-mutilate, just to mention a few. There are studies that show as many as 50% of dogs suffer from some level of distress or anxiety when left alone.
Following are a few things we can do (and some we should not do) to help lessen your pet’s stress level when left alone.
Before leaving prepare nice treats that will take some time for your pet to eat, this could be a hollow ball that you can fill with kibble and treats through a hole; your pet can roll it along the ground or toss it in the air to get the food out. Stuff a Kong or other hollow food toys with kibble and favorite treats. There are also time release food dispensers you can purchase. Remember to consider all the calories your pet eats when alone and reduce these from the regular feeding accordingly. When you are ready to leave or better still a few minutes before, drop the ball or stuffed treats on the floor. Finish getting ready and leave, you may say a quick goodbye but do not make a big fuss about leaving. Please note, making a big deal about leaving will only fuel your pet’s separation issues.
When you come home remember again not to make a big fuss with your pet. This may be difficult for both of you but please, a quick hello is fine, we do not want to fuel the separation issues by making your pet think home coming is a “big event”. After a quick hello, you could put your coat away and look around to see if there are any physical signs of distress such as not eating, chewing furniture, scratching doors, peeing or defecation. If you do find signs please try to stay calm, reprimanding your pet will not help solve the problem. These are fear based separation issues that cannot be solved by telling your pet off for being a bad dog. When your pet has calmed down and is behaving normally, this is the time to pet and play, as enough time has passed that your pet will not associate your home coming with the attention you are now giving.
Barking and howling are two major behaviours that can cause problems for you with your neighbors. In addition to the above suggestions here are a few more you can try. Leave a radio or T.V. on, tuned to talk radio or easy music, no loud music or hard rock, or you could purchase CD’s with music designed to lower the stress level of dogs. There are products that emit pheromones that help relax dogs. Exercise can help, take your pet out for as long a walk as possible to use up some of his energy before leaving. The walk should be tailored to your pet’s physical abilities. Hire a dog walker to help break up the day, consider doggie day care, or maybe you have family or someone willing to look after your pet while you are away.
Dogs generally do not like to be left alone, they like to be with their family. Sometimes we unintentionally reinforce their distress by making them over dependent on us or paying lots of attention to them shortly before leaving. There are many reasons why dogs have or develop separation issues. The above suggestions should help most dogs with mild separation distress. For the more serious cases you will need help from a qualified dog trainer, behaviour specialist or animal behaviourist, with up to date knowledge of conditioning procedures. These professionals should make an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan for the separation issues. The serious cases will require a comprehensive programme that will address all the issues. Over time the programme should condition your pet to accept being left alone.
Paul Storrie CPDT-KA