How to help your dog with separation anxiety
Those 4,793 lockdowns had some nasty effects on most of us. Many of us had feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, depression, and a longing to leave the house for a reason other than exercise or food shopping. It was dire.
But it wasn’t awful for everyone.
Our pups had the time of their lives. For the first time ever, they were with us 24/7. We hung out with them all day and gave them much more attention than usual. It was their dream come true.
But all good things must come to an end. Many of us were called back into work, school, or university and began meeting with sorely missed friends and family. And our pups were left alone. If you adopted a lockdown puppy, it was probably a whole new experience! And this sudden change wasn’t easy for all doggos to deal with.
Research suggests that 8 out of 10 dogs find it hard to cope when left alone. And only 50% will show signs they’re struggling. So even if you think your pup loves having the house to themselves, they could actually be putting up a front.
As the pawrent of a pup that suffers from separation anxiety, I know how tough it can be to leave in the morning knowing they’ll struggle. And I know you don’t want to leave them stressed, scared, and unhappy.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are steps we can take to help our pups cope better while we’re away. Before we get to that, let’s look at some symptoms of separation anxiety.
I know what you’re about to say. If half of all dogs don’t show any symptoms, how will we ever know? Well there are some common signs to look out for:
- Whining, howling, or barking
- Trying to escape the house to find you
- Chewing, digging, or destroying objects around the house
- Pooping and peeing in the house (and sometimes eating it)
On that last point, you’ll know they’re eating poop due to separation anxiety if they only do it while you’re gone. If they regularly chow down on it, that’s a different matter entirely to look into. And the same goes for the other symptoms. For example, if your pup barks a lot when you’re there and they continue to do it while you’re away, you might just have a very vocal pup who likes the sound of their own voice.
Why do dogs get separation anxiety?
There is actually no evidence that reveals exactly why our pups develop this problem. But those who were adopted from shelters display symptoms much more than those who’ve stayed in the same household their whole lives. This could mean that losing an important person or group of people can cause it.
Pawrents can also, unknowingly, make it worse by applying human emotions to them. For example, they have no concept of time. They have no idea you’ll be back in an hour. Even if they did, they don’t know how long an hour feels. And when we give them lots of love before we go, to them, it seems like they’re just receiving affection and then being abandoned. They don’t see it as a temporary goodbye.
So our pups may begin to associate affection with being abandoned. Animals don’t hug each other before they pop out for a few hours, so we’re just confusing them. It’s just one of our normal, seemingly harmless behaviours that can contribute to their anxiety. And it’s possibly why so many doggos suffer from separation anxiety.
There are other potential causes too, such as a sudden change in schedule – us returning to work after lockdown, for example. Moving house can be to blame, too.
Health problems that mirror separation anxiety
Most pet parents have heard of separation anxiety. So when their pup displays unusual behaviour, it’s easy for your mind to jump to the conclusion that it’s the cause. But it isn’t always the case.
In fact, there are many behavioural and medical problems that can mirror the symptoms. Before you start trying to treat them for separation anxiety, you need to make sure that’s the actual issue.
The one symptom that’s hard to miss is pooping and peeing around the house. If your pup is house trained, it may seem obvious that separation anxiety is the culprit.
But health problems such as kidney disease, diabetes, bladder stones, urinary tract infections, weak sphincter caused by old age, and hormone-related issues could all be the reason behind your pup not being able to hold it until you get back. Even certain medications can cause incontinence.
As many of these issues can have serious health consequences, we recommend getting them checked with a vet.
Behavioural problems that mirror separation anxiety
If your puppy’s bladder, kidneys, and hormones are perfectly fine, it’s possible they just haven’t learned all these new house training rules yet.
A pup may also pee all over the house because they’re marking their territory. If you think your doggo’s doing this, make a mental note of where they’re peeing. If it’s on a vertical surface such as a cupboard, fridge, or bookshelf, it’s likely this is the case.
Other times, they’ll literally wee themselves with excitement. If they can hear your car engine or you talking on the phone on the way to the front door, the anticipation might be too much for them. When you come in, all you see is pee on the floor. So you wouldn’t know they just did it 2 seconds ago.
Other behaviours, such as ripping your new pair of trainers to shreds, could be the result of something as simple as boredom or teething.
So how can you treat your dog’s separation anxiety?
If all signs point to separation anxiety, here are some tips that may help them adjust.
When we’re leaving, we love giving our pooches big hugs and telling them we’ll be back soon. But, sadly, this won’t help. So when you’re heading out of the door, calmly stand up, grab your keys, and leave without the fuss. Otherwise, you’ll be making a huge deal out of something you need your pup to see as normal.
Our pups can understand tone. We’ve all seen the way our pups react to the warning voice. Those sad, guilty eyes they whip out. It doesn’t even matter what we’re actually saying because they understand what we mean. So if you sound relaxed, they’ll take the cue.
While you’re out, you can get them a special, mentally stimulating toy. It’ll keep them entertained for longer and can help combat boredom. But only give it to your pup when you’re leaving and take it away when you come back. If the toy is stuffed with treats, deduct the calories from their daily allowance to prevent them from getting too chonky.
Some doggos become distressed from loud noises or when they can see people walking by outside. It could help to leave the TV on a low volume or play some soft music and close the curtains so your pup is less likely to be disturbed.
And try to leave them in a nice, relaxed mood before you go. Taking them out for a walk allows them to stretch their legs, go to the toilet, and may encourage them to nap when they get back. Give them a small meal too, so you know they’re comfortable and ready to relax.
What worked brilliantly for George was crate training. The whole idea behind it is to help your pup see their crate as a familiar, safe space for them. This way, when they’re feeling anxious or scared, they have a sanctuary to retreat to. An area where they’re in control.
But the key word here is training. You can’t just put them in one day as you’re leaving and expect them to be fine. It takes time. You need to build on it every day until they’re happy.
You can start by calling them over with a happy voice and leaving treats in it. If they don’t want to go in, that’s okay. Don’t force them. Then you can start putting their food in there so they develop positive associations with it, placing the bowl further inside each time.
When they’re comfortable eating there, you can start to close the door for short intervals, increasing the amount of time slowly. Then you can start putting them in while you’re at home, sitting next to them. Eventually, you’ll be able to go to another room while they’re inside. But then you’ll come back and sit with them again.
Over time, you want to increase the amount of time you’re away until chilling in there is second nature to them. The whole process takes several weeks, but it can work a treat for separation anxiety.
What not to do
Never punish your pup for separation anxiety. Positive reinforcement has been shown to be more effective, while punishment can result in your pup being scared of you.
And separation anxiety isn’t an obedience problem. It’s something beyond their control. Think back to a time where you were really stressed. Maybe you had an important exam or a tight deadline to meet at work. If someone you love came along and shouted at you for feeling stressed, it wouldn’t suddenly snap you out of it, would it? It’d make you feel worse. The same applies here, as punishing them can just exacerbate their separation anxiety.
This is why the special toy works so well. Every time you leave, they get a little treat. It’s a perfect example of positive reinforcement.
Separation anxiety is awful. It’s frustrating that our pups can’t understand that we’ll be back soon and that they’re perfectly safe at home. With training and positive reinforcement, we can help our doggos cope better while we’re away. And even if your doggo has never displayed symptoms of separation anxiety, they could still benefit from these tips.
But every dog is different. Some will benefit a lot from these tips, while others may have severe anxiety that is much harder to treat. If they’re really struggling while you’re away, speak to a vet or dog behaviourist. They’ll be able to give your pup the help they need and teach you how to help them too.
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