Spending more time at home hasn’t been all that bad, especially if you have a dog to keep you company. However, a concern that owners may have during this extended period at home is: can my dog get separation anxiety?
Research has shown that in the UK, between 13-29% of dogs exhibit signs of separation anxiety or separation-related behaviour - and this was before we were staying at home. So, with the help from our pawsome pals at My Family Pets and Clinical Animal Behaviourist, Rosie Bescoby, we’ll be sharing some great advice for dealing with separation anxiety in dogs and how to avoid it.
Why might dogs feel uncomfortable on their own?
Before we look at separation anxiety training or treating separation anxiety in dogs, it’s useful to consider the causes of it. First off – it’s important to understand that dogs are, like humans, naturally sociable creatures. In the wild, they’d be part of a pack – many dogs relish the company of other canines and they certainly prefer to be alone with their owners than with their own devices.
For dogs, it simply isn’t natural or instinctual to be alone. Further causes of separation anxiety can include:
- The dog is experiencing being alone for the first time
- A change to their home environment (moving house, fireworks during Bonfire Night)
- The loss of a canine companion
- Boredom, or lack of suitable mental stimulation (known as Separation Related Behaviours).
Does my dog have separation anxiety?
It’s not always easy to tell if your dog is suffering from separation anxiety because most of their symptoms will take place when you’re apart. Video footage can be useful to determine how ‘settled’ your dog is when left alone – owners are often surprised at what they see!
As you get ready to leave the house, take notice of your dog’s behaviour. Dogs can pick up on the small details that indicate whether you plan to leave the house with or without them – you picking up your car keys, for example, or putting on your work shoes – so a change in their behaviour can become apparent a little while before they’re left alone. They may follow you around, whine, or even lie in front of the door.
Symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs are often more obvious when you get home. Anxious dogs are known to scratch doors and furniture, chew certain objects and go to the toilet indoors. They may also be over excited to see you, and follow you wherever you go.
Dog separation anxiety training: prevention
It’s important to recognise that preventing separation anxiety in young puppies and treating a pre-existing condition are two entirely different processes – the latter may well require the help of a behaviourist.
As an owner, it’s a great idea to get your young dog used to their own company fairly early. Do it in stages, gradually increasing the amount of time your puppy spends on their own.
It may be worth trying these steps when you’re now at home with your older dogs too, this will help them to understand it’s OK to spend time alone.
- Choose the location – the place your dog will spend their time while you’re out (so somewhere they associate with comfort when you are around).
- If you can, use a safety gate rather than closing the door, so your pet can still see you.
- Use long-lasting treats to make sure your dog associates this location positively.
- Once your dog has their treat, go about your usual business with the safety gate between you.
- Gradually increase the length of time your dog spends on their own until they’re comfortable for 30 minutes.
- Once they’re fine with this, you can start leaving the house for short periods. Consider videoing them to ensure they are settled.
It’s important for your dog to associate their alone time positively; for them to be aware that you leaving the house is a normal occurrence, and that you always come back.
Make use of their crate
Your dog’s crate can be a godsend if they can learn to associate it positively – as a place of comfort, where they’re always given a treat. That said, be sure not to use their crate as a solution to separation-related behaviour, or without first training them to enjoy spending time in it – this can create further issues associated with confinement.
Treating separation anxiety in dogs, where the dog’s condition is pre-established, will likely require the help of a professional veterinary behaviourist. They will use a process known as ‘desensitisation and counter conditioning’, designed to teach dogs that being left alone is OK (in some cases even enjoyable and relaxing!)
Methods of treatment will vary according to your dog’s symptoms and the severity of their condition. Behaviourists will usually use therapy-based methods, although pheromones and stress-relieving products may be advised in some cases. Currently, many behaviourists can still advise you over the phone and video calls, but of course, due to government guidelines won’t be able to do house visits.
When treating separation anxiety in dogs, you should always seek the advice of your vet. They’ll advise on the best course of action to take and may even be able to recommend a behaviourist.
Punishment: why it only makes things worse
Coming home to discover that your dog has made a mess of your living room can be frustrating, and your first instinct may well be to shout at them. It is, however, important NOT TO DO THIS.
Your dog will not associate the mess they made (often as far back as eight hours ago) with you coming home and shouting at them. All punishment will do is confuse your dog, and likely add to their anxiety further. Shouting at them will not train negative behaviour out of them and in many cases, will make it worse. Behavioural training should always be reward-based.
Need more info?
For more information on dog separation anxiety training, or any aspect of their welfare, have a chat with your local vet.