Canine Separation Anxiety
by Terri Bright, Ph.D., BCBA-D, CAAB
MSPCA-Angell Behavior Department
More and more, we are realizing that dogs are members of our families, and they can have the same sort of difficulties, such as anxiety, as other family members. Separation anxiety is an increasingly common behavior problem seen in pet dogs; it is like a panic attack the dog has when left alone and it can manifest as excessive barking, attempts to escape, destructive behavior, urination and/or defecation. You might also see spots of drool near the door and scratch marks at doors and windows after your dog has been home alone for more than 30 minutes.
Separation anxiety is more common in dogs that have lost their homes, e.g., dogs from rescues or shelters, and it can manifest if there is an abrupt change in the family routine, members, or if the family moves.
Here are the signs of separation anxiety:
- Your dog begins to pant and shake at the earliest sign of your going out, such as your picking up your keys or putting on your shoes;
- Your formerly perfectly-housetrained dog starts to have accidents in the house when she is left alone;
- Your neighbors tell you your dog howled and/or barked the entire time you were gone.
- Your dog never used to dig in the furniture or at windows and doors, and now you see signs of this.
If you see these things all of a sudden in your dog, be sure to have them see a veterinarian to rule out any medical cause. Then, the best way to discover if your dog is really panicking is to video their behavior during the first 30 minutes they are alone. This will tell you if they were able to settle down after a few minutes. If they were in a state such as is outlined above for the entire 30 minutes, you should take action. Call a qualified behaviorist and make an appointment right away, and be sure you send your video for them to assess.
Some dogs may need medication to help them cope with being alone while you train them the alternative behaviors that will help to change the behavior. However, medication alone isn’t enough; it works best when supplemented with training. Unless you are certain your dog won’t try to break out of a crate, do not crate them. They could seriously injure themselves trying to get out.
Your behaviorist can help you very specifically with your dog; however, here are some general tips:
- A good technique to get your dog to stay home alone is to teach them to perform a reliable 30-minute, out-of-sight stay on a dog bed. Do this in gradual steps, increasing the number of steps you take away from the dog incrementally- one step, three, five, two, seven, etc. Praise/feed if you take a step and they remain on the bed; gradually move farther away for longer times. The next steps include having your hand on the door knob, turning the knob, stepping out for one second, three seconds, etc. Usually, when the dog can be alone for a good while, they are not as prone to anxiety.
- Give your dog their meal frozen into a Kong when you leave, and give them a Kong now and again when you are home, too, so it isn’t a predictor of your leaving.
- If you can’t predict your dog won’t be in severe distress, make arrangements for daycare, boarding or frequent dog-walking.
- Pair the sight of anxiety-provoking items such as keys, briefcases or purses with your sitting on the couch watching television, or making a meal, so they are not always predictors of your leaving. Carry your keys while you are training the down-stay.
- Give your dog plenty of physical exercise before leaving your dog for lengthy periods of time, especially if you leave first thing in the morning.
- Do not use collars that spray or shock your dog should they bark; this can increase their anxiety.
- In general, remember to give your dog lots of attention, praise, and treats, whenever you see them behaving in a relaxed manner.
- Don’t punish your dog or yell at them for being destructive; you will just frighten them.
For more information about Angell’s Behavior Department and Dr. Terri Bright, visit www.angell.org/behavior.