Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety relates to problematic behaviours that only ever occur when a dog is separated from its owner. When this is accompanied by general attachment issues, it can mean some dogs won't leave their owner's side - even when they go to the bathroom! The most common signs of anxiety are vocalisation (barking/howling), destructive behaviour, escaping, and soiling the home (urine and/or faeces).

Separation anxiety is associated with separation from a human. Getting another dog doesn't bring the owner back, and unfortunately, dogs are not seen as human substitutes, so this rarely solves the problem.

The key is starting young. When your dog is still a puppy, make sure they have time on their own, beginning with very short periods, like while you're bringing in your rubbish bins or getting the newspaper. Shortly before you leave, give your dog a longer-lasting food reward or chewy treat that will last for as long as you're away. Next time, leave for a slightly longer period, and continue increasing this length of time over several days. The idea of this training is that your puppy will look forward to your departures because they'll get a tasty reward.

Even if your dog has previously coped well on its own, separation anxiety can begin in response to changes in routine, like owners returning to work after holidays, and he had become accustomed to daily company. It can also be triggered by a house move, renovation, or even a change in the family, like a new baby or a bereavement.

Unfortunately, without proper treatment, separation anxiety usually worsens over time. In the early stages of treating separation anxiety or until treatment is going well, it's recommended that you rarely leave your dog alone. This isn't terribly practical, but building up gradually is the only effective way to treat the problem without your dog's anxiety actually getting worse. 

  • To start, try distraction with food - particularly from food release devices, as these don't depend on you being there and makes mealtime more interactive. Give these as you're getting ready to leave (before your dog gets anxious) and when departing. A raw meaty bone daily will keep them occupied too.
  • Ensure your dog is getting plenty of exercise. Walk twice daily for a minimum of 30 minutes,with some off-leash activity where possible. Take one of your walks before you are about to leave your dog alone. 
  • Rotate your dog's toys daily to provide novelty and variety. Some owners introduce a different toy for each day of the week. 
  • To avoid the anxious anticipation of you leaving, ignore your dog 30 minutes before you leave and don't greet them when you arrive home until they have settled down.
  • Teach your dog to relax at a distance from you when you are home. Start by giving a chewy food reward on their bed or mat, initially right next to where you are sitting, then over a period of time, increase the distance between you until your dog is comfortable enjoying a treat in a separate room.
  • Sometimes 'sit and stay' training is useful. Using food rewards, teach your dog first to 'sit' on command, then teach them to 'stay' by taking one, then increasing numbers of small steps backwards, each time quickly returning and giving a food reward for staying in the one place. Over a period of weeks, increase the distance between you and your dog, as well as the amount of time the two of you are apart.

For dogs with severe separation anxiety, or who don't respond well to the above, there are short-term and long-term medications, as well as pheromones that can greatly assist. Contact your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviourist (see http://www.deltasociety.com.au/behaviourists).


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