It is common among dog owners to complain that their dogs are destructive and disruptive when left alone; dogs may urinate, defecate, excessively salivate, howl, bark, chew, dig, destroy household items, scratch walls, or try to escape. Sometimes these symptoms may indicate that the dog needs to be house trained, but in most cases the dog is experiencing separation anxiety.
There is no definitive reason as to why some dogs develop separation anxiety, but this condition does occur more often in dogs who have been adopted from shelters than in dogs raised by a single family since puppyhood. The experience of being abandoned, left to a shelter or given to a new family can trigger the development of separation anxiety. Changing residences and changing daily routines can further increase separation anxiety. The loss of a family member or important person in a dog’s life can also lead to separation anxiety.
Dog owners often make a big fuss when leaving or coming home, and in doing so the dog’s separation anxiety is unknowingly encouraged. The dog’s fear of being separated from the owner is heightened, and the dog becomes increasingly stressed every time the owner leaves.
It is important to not make a big deal when leaving or returning home. When leaving the house, don’t touch, talk, or make eye contact with your dog. This practice communicates that it’s not a big deal when you’re not around. If the separation anxiety is severe, this technique can be used for five minutes or up to an hour before leaving, and similarly when returning home. When you are ready to leave home, be sure to project confidence to your dog; show your dog that everything is going to be okay when you leave. Try not to make a big fuss of saying goodbye to your dog close to your departure time; saying goodbye is more for the owner than the dog, so make your farewells in advance and remember to avoid contact when actually leaving.
Taking your dog for a walk before leaving the house is a great way to alleviate separation anxiety. Your dog will be left in a quiet, rested state before you leave, and you can reward the dog’s calm behaviour.
Counterconditioning is also effective in treating mild separation anxiety. Counterconditioning attempts to change the anxious, aggressive, and destructive reaction of a dog to a pleasant reaction. The treatment is conducted by associating good things, like food, with a fearful or negative situation; over time, the dog will expect good things from the feared situation. Offering your dog a puzzle toy stuffed with food, such as a KONG®, before you leave the house can be effective in creating this kind of positive association. Remember to remove such toys when you return home, so the dog only associates the positive reward with situation of being alone.
Moderate or severe cases of separation anxiety will require more complex counterconditioning programs spread over time. The dog will need to start with short separation sessions and have the duration of the separation increased over many weeks of daily sessions.