Have you ever had the unfortunate experience of walking into your home to find inches-deep claw gouges on door frames, overturned furniture, blood-stained tooth marks on window sills, and a ton of messages on your cellphone and answering machine from neighbors whining about your dog barking and howling for hours on end during your absence?
If so, you’ve probably heard of or read about separation anxiety in dogs – an understatement for destructive and devastating behavior. Don’t despair – there are solutions!
Trauma of being left alone
It is innate for young mammals to feel anxious when separated from their mothers and siblings; it is an adaptive survival mechanism. A puppy who gets separated from his mother cries in distress, enabling Mom to easily find and rescue him.
Even a grown canine who is left alone in the wild is more likely to die due to starvation since he has no pack to hunt with; or from attack, since he has no companions for mutual protection. Thus, signs of separation anxiety in pups are expected.
When dealing with a dog with separation anxiety, the objective is to resolve the dog’s underlying anxiety by training him to at least tolerate being left alone. This is achieved by setting things up so that your dog experiences the situation that triggers his anxiety, particularly being alone, without experiencing anxiety or fear.
What Is Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
Separation anxiety is triggered when a dog that’s attached to his owner gets stressed when left alone. It is more than a bit of mischief when you go out or a little whining when you leave. It is a serious condition and one of the primary reasons why owners get frustrated with their dogs and consider even giving them up for adoption. But there are several things you can do to help.
Causes of Separation Anxiety
First, know and understand what causes your dog to act this way:
• Being left alone for the first time or when he was used to being with people
• Change of ownership
• Moving from rescue shelter to a real home
• Change in family schedule or routine
• Loss of a family member
COMMON Symptoms of Separation Anxiety
The following are some of the symptoms that indicate separation anxiety:-
Defecating and Urinating
Some dogs defecate or urinate when left alone or separated from their guardians. If a dog defecates or urinates in the presence of his guardian, his house soiling probably is not caused by separation anxiety.
A dog that has separation anxiety might howl when left alone or when separated from his guardian. This kind of howling is persistent and does not seem to be set off by anything except being left alone.
Digging, Chewing, and Destruction
Some dogs with separation anxiety:-
• Dig at doors and doorways
• Chew on objects, door frames or window sills, or
• Destroy household items when left alone or separated from their owners.
These behaviors can lead to self-injury, such as cut and scraped paws, broken teeth, and damaged nails.
A dog that has separation anxiety might try to escape from where he’s confined when he’s left alone or separated from his owner. The dog might attempt to chew and dig through doors or windows, which could lead to self-injury. If the dogs escape behavior is triggered by separation anxiety, it does not usually occur when his owner is present.
Some dogs walk along a specific path in a fixed pattern when left alone or separated from their owners. Some pacing dogs walk around in circular patterns, while others walk back and forth, usually in straight lines.
When left alone, some dogs defecate and then eat all or some of their excrement. If a dog eats excrement due to separation anxiety, he probably does not perform that behavior in the presence of his owners.
What Can You Do to Help?
Neither you nor your dog wants this cycle to continue. It’s tough seeing a beloved pet under so much stress and just as tough to come home to destruction and mayhem. While there is no magic spell, there are some things you can try to help.
In some instances, you can try to alleviate his anxiety by training him that separation has its rewards. Right now, he is conditioned to go into stress mode when he knows you are leaving him. Try countering that reaction by leaving him a treat, like a bone or a toy stuffed with peanut butter. You can even leave small treats in the house for him to discover.
Make sure his bed, toys, blanket, and anything else he likes are near and accessible. If he’s a puppy, condition him early by leaving him for short periods and gradually lengthening the amount of time you are gone.
Some dogs feel more comfortable and safer in their crate when left alone. Observe his behavior in the crate to see if he relaxes right down or if the anxiety symptoms start to show.
Make sure he gets lots of exercise, both mental and physical. A tired and contented dog that has had a brisk walk and playtime with you is more likely to relax and rest when you leave.
Sometimes, no amount of conditioning and training can help, especially with older dogs. Some veterinarians recommend medications like alprazolam, which is prescribed for anxiety and panic disorders, or amitriptyline, which is used to treat depression.
Herbal & Homeopathic Treatments
Another option is natural supplements and homeopathic treatment. Natural supplements that help ease separation anxiety in dogs include chamomile, passionflower, amino acid L-theanine, St. John’s Wort and valerian.
These essentially function to alter neurotransmitters in the brain (such as dopamine, serotonin, or GABA) to induce a sense of calm and peace.
In moderate to severe cases of dog separation anxiety, you might have to try a combination of medication and behavioral therapy. It can be a complex process, so consider working with a veterinary behaviorist or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist.
Separation anxiety is not always preventable, in spite of your best efforts. But with care and lots of patience, you may be able to minimize your dog’s suffering and the destructive behaviors it entails.