Separation anxiety in our beloved pets is an all too common occurrence. So, if you are experiencing it with your dog, rest assured, you are not alone. Here, we will begin by understanding what separation anxiety is and why it happens, followed by some helpful tips for you to try at home to ease you pet.
So, what is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is the extreme stress state that a dog experiences after their owner has left them alone. This usually happens soon after the owner leaves the house, or even just the room.
But what does separation anxiety look like?
The following symptoms may be displayed by your dog if he is experiencing separation anxiety:
- Excessive drooling
- Scratching at doors
- Destroying objects such as toys or furniture
The destructive aspects can lead to self-trauma, particularly the claws, paws and mouth.
Is there anything that causes separation anxiety?
There is still a lot unknown about the causes of separation anxiety, however it is believed that one possible cause stems from when the dog was still in the puppy stage of their lives. This is a prime time for dogs to develop over-dependence on their owner. Sometimes this might be from being weaned too early, sometimes not. But when an owner gets a new puppy, they often take the puppy everywhere with them. Whilst socialisation and exposure to different scenarios are imperative in the successful upbringing of the dog, the puppy comes to know you as their source of confidence and comfort.
Once they are a little older, they are then left at home whilst the owner goes to work or out to the shops. They are not familiar with being left alone all of a sudden, and their comfort has left them.
When the owner arrives home, it’s a common occurrence to greet their dog with a lot of fuss, as both the owner and the dog are glad to be together again. However, this unintentionally, reinforces the stress and concern the dog had when he was alone.
For some dogs, the root of the cause is something different altogether. Separation anxiety is frequently displayed by rescue dogs, which suggests that abandonment or a major change in situation could also be a trigger.
Other causes can also trigger the feeling of abandonment and anxiety, such as the loss of a member of the family, a change in routine such as a family member going back to work who usually looks after him, or a change in ownership.
Finally, for some dogs it is simply their temperament and no specific situation was their trigger. Whatever the root cause for separation anxiety in your dog, the good news is you will tackle it all the same.
So, how is it treated?
There are many different options to reduce the anxiety that your dog is feeling when you leave. But before trying any of these methods, it is important that you check with your vet that your dog is truly experiencing separation anxiety, and there is not an underlying medical condition contributing to his behaviour.
Neither punishment nor positive rewarding are suitable methods to reduce the anxiety of your dog, as both with worsen the anxiety he is feeling. However, here are some good tips which will help to gradually teach your dog that separation is not the end of the world.
When you leave your dog alone, don’t make a big fuss saying goodbye. This will set his adrenalin racing. By ensuring you don’t do this, he will remain in his usual calm state. Likewise, as you return to the house, initially ignore him. Greeting him and making a fuss will reinforce his anxiety. When he has calmed down after a few minutes, you can calmly say hello.
Before you leave the house, many owners find it effective to give a long-lasting stuffed toy. Kong® toys are particularly good. You can stuff it with wet dog food, pâté, or peanut butter (although check it is not one which contains xylazine as an ingredient). By having something to chew and lick, not only does this distract him, but it releases endorphins; the body’s natural relaxants. Here is a useful link on how to stuff a Kong® toy:
In between times, you can practice leaving so that your dog gradually stops associating it with being alone for a long time. Start with just performing your leaving routine, but not actually going anywhere. Pick up and jingle your keys, or throw your handbag over your shoulder, even put on your coat and shoes. Once this doesn’t trigger any anxiety, progress to leaving the room, but only staying on the other side of the door for a few seconds. Remember not to make a fuss of him when you come back, even if he was good. You can gradually increase the time you leave him to a few minutes, and even jump in your car to drive down the road and back. Once you’ve reached the hour milestone without triggering his anxiety, you shouldn’t have any issues leaving for a whole morning or afternoon.
Finally, there are some natural products on the market which have been manufactured into products such as tablets, sprays, diffusers and collars which will help your pet stay calm. These namely come in three different forms:
- Pheromones: Dog pheromones cannot be detected by our human noses but dogs are sensitive to their presence. ‘Dog appeasing pheromone’ or ‘DAP’ is released by the mother to help calm puppies for the first 5 days after birth. DAP has been manufactured into several types of products for you to use in your house, including a plug-in diffuser, a spray and a collar.
- Casein: Naturally occurring in the mothers’ milk, casein helps relax puppies, and when ingested by adult dogs, brings back the feeling of being comforted by their mother. This is available both in a tablet form, and a dry dog biscuit.
- L-tryptophan: This increases serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a naturally occurring chemical which stimulates happy feelings. However, it takes a few weeks to build up to levels which make a significant difference, so don’t expect to see an immediate change. Like casein, it is available both in a tablet form, and a dry dog biscuit, as well as a syrup for cats.
What if none of this works?
If you have tried all of the above and your vet has ruled out any ill-health, then the next step would be to seek the services of a dog behaviourist. The benefit of this is that they can witness exactly what is going on in your own home and give personalised advice to suit your specific scenario.