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Separation Anxiety

It’s not uncommon for dogs to seem a little upset when their owners leave, especially when they are puppies. After all, many owners have a tight bond with their dogs, and dogs are much happier when they have company. However, if a dog becomes too dependent on his owner, it can make life difficult for both of them. Here is some information on how you can help your feel comfortable being alone, but also what to do if you think he might be suffering from separation anxiety.

Home Alone

Helping your dog learn to be independent has to start as soon as you bring him home. He has to get used to being left alone gradually, so during the first few days, be sure that someone can be home with him most of the time. You should also set aside a place for your dog, such as a puppy pen, where he can feel safe and secure. Over time, increase the time spent away from your puppy, first by leaving him in another room, and then eventually by leaving the house for short periods of time.  Just remember to build up gradually so that your puppy does not feel panicked or abandoned. In general, if you want your dog to feel comfortable being home alone, you have to spend enough time away from him. If your dog is used to being around people constantly, it will be hard to him to adjust if the situation changes.

Causes and Signs

Even if you train your dog well, sometimes changes in routine or other events can trigger separation anxiety. For example if your working hours change so you are gone at different times or for longer amounts of time, your dog might have trouble getting used to this. Also, if something frightening occurs when your dog is home alone, such as a loud thunderstorm, he might not want to be left alone again. Some dogs are simply predisposed to the condition because of genetics. And if you choose to adopt a dog, experiences in his former home may have caused him to be prone to separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety is exactly what it sounds like; it means that your dog becomes exceptionally distressed when you leave. Signs of separation anxiety begin when you are getting ready to leave (i.e. picking up your keys, putting on your coat, etc). Your dog will be visibly upset (whining, barking, etc.) and may try to follow you. After you’ve left, you may still hear him whining and scratching at the door. This behavior often continues while your dog is alone, and he may even become destructive of his surroundings or even himself. He may chew on furniture, scratch at doors and windows, and even urinate on furniture or flooring. He may also chew on or scratch himself excessively, or refuse to eat or drink.

Getting Past Separation Anxiety

If, despite your initial training, you think your dog is suffering separation anxiety, there are several things you can do to help him get past it. First, remember that as frustrating as the behavior may be to you, it’s not your dog’s fault, and no punishment will be effective. Rather, you have to change your dog’s mindset so that he does not feel scared or abandoned when you leave. This will take time and patience on your part. 

If it’s possible, before you leave, exercise your dog well and give him some time to wind down afterward. If he’s feeling tired, this will most likely calm him down and make him more likely to be well-behaved when you leave. Don’t make your departures or arrivals events that stand out; in other words, don’t make a show of saying goodbye, and do your best to ignore your dog if he starts to get worked up. Similarly, don’t pay too much attention to your dog the minute you step in the door. 

Incorporate “departure actions” into your daily routine so your dog becomes desensitized to them and his anxiety is no longer triggered by you putting on a suit or picking up your car keys. For example, pick up and put down your keys throughout the day while you are home, or set your alarm early on a weekend, but turn it off and go back to sleep. Also, don’t make your departure routine predictable; pack your briefcase the night before and leave it in your car or put your keys in your coat pocket an hour before you leave. Having a “safety cue”: a word or phrase such as “I’ll be back,” a certain toy to play with, or even leaving on the television or radio, can help reassure your dog that he’s not being left alone for good. But limit using these to when you can keep your promise and return at your normal time. 

Still Feeling Frustrated?

If you don’t think the above steps are doing enough to eliminate your dog’s anxiety, you might consider working with a behavior professional, or even consulting with your vet. You should also consider that what may seem like separation anxiety could be an indicator of a larger problem, like a generalized anxiety that becomes set off by certain triggers, or even a lack of training. This is especially true if you adopt a dog who has already lived with another owner. Consulting a professional can shed light on what the problem might be, but even these issues can be treated if you are willing to invest the time, patience and dedication.