Is my dog suffering from Separation Anxiety?
Dogs are companion species, they enjoy our company, or that of each other. They form strong bonds with us and want to generally be with us as much as possible, whether having physical contact with us, or just knowing we are close by.
Being away from us can be distressing, and for some, it is a panic disorder – Separation Anxiety (SA).
Very young pups go through a big life upheaval at a young age when they join us from their dog mum, often to a quieter home than they are used to. They need to be with us much more at that stage of life as they cannot fend for themselves, and we need to teach them that it is ok if we disappear for a bit. It has to be done slowly and gradually, so there is less chance (but not impossible) to create a fear when they are home alone.
If your young puppy doesn’t even allow you to leave the room, get them used to quick absences – just cross the threshold to the door, and return. No fuss, just carry on. Repeat frequently. Your pup will soon learn that you do return. Progress to going slightly further past the door, and then even behind the door out of sight.
You may get some people saying – leave food down. Yes, it can help to distract your dog but as soon as the food is finished, they panic as you have disappeared and they didn’t see you go. If you only placed down a Lickimat or Kong when you leave the room, then just the sight of the food toy is a trigger to the fact you will be going, so they will start to panic at the sight of that. Use your Kongs wisely, not just for absences and leaving them.
Some dogs are more predisposed to more severe anxiety than others but first we need to recognise if it is actually SA.
If your dog is a bit older (teenage or adult), you need to determine what is happening. There are 3 main areas to consider:
1) if your dog allows you to leave and seems quite settled and relaxed, but you come home to some destruction, then this could be boredom. Does your dog have enough interactive toys to occupy them? Kongs, Toppls and similar are great – you can freeze them so your dog has a puzzle to solve to get the food, and this in itself can not only engage them, but even tire them.
2) FOMO – fear of missing out. These dogs get quite agitated when you leave, but soon settle down and are relaxed until you return. They just don’t want to miss out on anything that might be happening in their absence! This can be treated in a similar way to SA.
3) Separation anxiety is the severest form of the panic disorder, and your dog gets very agitated sometimes even before you reach the door or keys, and continues to be distressed until you return – drooling, barking, scratching, pacing or just constant more subtle stress signs of lip licking, tension and unable to settle. Leaving food does not make a jot of difference – they are too stressed to eat.
In order to determine what is really happening, you need to set up a webcam or device showing your dog and watching on a phone screen in real time and if you can record, even better.
The first step is to keep to your normal leaving routine (even if its just within the house or go outside if possible), and watch carefully. If your dog is distressed, you only want to find this baseline ONCE. If you can, keep going for a few minutes to see if your pup settles at any point – so you can determine if its FOMO or SA. Remember to set a timer – you want to keep an eye on the time so you can see the exact second your pup shows signs of stress.
Only now do you have the basic information to work out what is happening and that will be your benchmark to start from. It may be seconds, minutes or longer – each dog is different. You can also look at any patterns – is there any particular time of day, day of week or routine that upsets them more? Some dogs can be ok during the day but have real problems in the evenings, for example.
The aim of any training is to keep your dog to a level they can cope with BEFORE they get distressed, and to keep them ‘under threshold’.
A professional trainer who has good knowledge of SA will help you devise a plan to slowly build the time your dog can cope with being alone.
Have no illusions that it will be a quick fix…..it may take months to even just get half an hour apart.
But…you have to go out! You cannot be a prisoner in your own home, but each time you leave your dog longer than they can cope with, you have undone ALL of your training to date. To stop your efforts going down the pan, for the time being, you need to manage the situation. This may involve other family members, good friends and neighbours coming over to sit in your home with your dog whilst you go out. If you need to leave your dog longer, then consider dog day care for daytime.
It could be a painful expense but it may not be long term. How long depends on your dog, and how you are getting on with training.
Remember though, it can get better!