Separation anxiety in dogs can be a very difficult issue for both dog and owner. Separation anxiety is a complex challenge that requires a multifaceted approach in order to achieve the desired results.
Check Overall Health: It is critical that we first make sure the dog is in good overall health. It would be unfair and ineffective if we tried addressing the separation anxiety when there is a medical cause. It is important to have your veterinarian do a thorough medical checkup (physical exam, blood work, stool and urine sample, etc.). Once we have ruled out any medical cause, we can move on with the process.
Safe Containment: If your dog is particularly destructive to the home or harming themselves, it may be best to crate your dog when they are left alone. Make sure to properly crate train your dog so it is not looked at as a negative experience. Ensure that your dog is safe in the crate. Some dogs may chew on the crate, scratch/claw, and fight to get out. You do not want your dog to hurt itself in the crate. If this is occurring, you may need to look at another safe containment option (such as a safe room with no windows or items the dog can hurt themselves with). Safety is the #1 priority. Learn about my Structured Crate Protocol.
Now let’s begin looking at how to help improve the situation.
Reduce Affection and Create Separation: A big component of separation anxiety is your dog’s withdrawal from the physical, verbal, and spatial attention that you provide them when you are home. It is normal, and a big part of dog ownership to want to be with your dog and to show them attention/affection. However, over indulgence (as with anything) can have negative repercussions.
We want to start off by being conscious of how much attention and time we spend with our dog. This means: Instead of having your dog sit right next to you on the couch, have them sit on the floor next to the sofa; instead of petting your dog for long periods of time, pet your dog less frequently – this will make petting more of a reward and reduce the over indulgence that they will miss when you are gone. Give you and your dog some “alone time” when you are home. Your dog does not need to follow you all over the house and go with you to every room. Your dog can relax in one room while you go into the other. This is a great way to reduce dependency and begin desensitizing your dog to you not being with them all the time. This is the first step in the equation because it is one of the most important components. Learn more about Sharing Affection and Attention With Your Dog.
Establish Set Routines: Establish a bathroom routine that YOU control, not the dog. We want the owner to let the dog know when they can go out to the bathroom, not the other way around. Your dog also needs to be on a predictable bathroom schedule and a consistent and predictable feeding schedule. This is typically twice a day: a.m. and p.m. feedings approximately 12hrs apart.
Daily Mental and Physical Exercise: Daily exercise is essential in order to leave your dog physically and mentally tired. Take your dog for a long structured walk before you leave for the day. Structured being the operant word; you don’t want your dog adrenalized and dragging you down the road. Utilize a 5-10 min obedience session as an opportunity to get some training in, but also to drain your dog’s mental energy prior to you leaving. As the old saying goes, “A tired dog is a good dog.” A dog with less pent up physical and mental energy is less apt to get into mischief when left alone.
Use a High Value Distraction: Leave your dog with a high valued “special treat” that they don’t usually have (ex. Bully stick, Kong toy stuffed with peanut butter, treat/puzzle ball, etc.). This is an item the dog only gets when you are about to leave.
Desensitize: If the above mentioned options do not significantly improve your issues, the next option is to start desensitizing your dog to you leaving. Dogs are very good at noticing routines and predicting when you are getting ready to leave. You want the act of your getting ready (picking up car keys, putting on shoes, getting dressed in work clothes, etc.) to become neutral, and for the dog to no longer associate these actions with you leaving.
Desensitizing your dog is a very slow and gradual process. You can try shaking your keys, putting on your shoes, but never actually leaving the home. Once the dog is used to that, the next step is for you to leave for very short intervals and build up the duration of time you are gone for. This will help the dog to realize that when you leave, it is not always for long periods of time (the entire work day), it may be just for a moment. This is a very slow and progressive process. Start with 30 second intervals, 1 minute intervals, 2 minute intervals, etc. (move at your dog’s pace –this will set both you and your dog up for success). Make sure not to draw specific attention to you leaving and arriving home. That means no big “Hellos” and “Goodbyes.” Simply enter and exit the home very nonchalantly. After a few minutes of arriving home, when you and your dog have both settled in, then you can greet the dog.
It is important to have proper structure, routine, and leadership in place in order to set a proper foundation to work off of. Dogs thrive on structure and a sense of being led by their owner. Dogs do not want to feel like they are in charge, that is a responsibility they are not prepared to handle and should not feel like they have to handle. If we set proper expectations and rules for them to follow, they will feel reassured, comfortable, and in turn less likely to experience separation anxiety.