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Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Know Before You Go

By Lea Jaratz

dog resting in crate

Pet owners commonly find themselves at the hand of a sneaky issue with their canine pals: separation anxiety. Some dog’s needs run a bit higher than others – especially when it comes to their humans leaving them. If you’re having a hard time getting your dog to decompress when you leave the house, you’re not alone! In fact, people frequently reinforce their pet’s anxiety without even meaning too. The first step to conquering this dependence, is learning how to identify separation anxiety.

Signs of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

While signs of separation anxiety can come through in different ways, there are common negative reactions to a pet parent leaving such as:

  • Vocalization
  • Destructive behavior
  • Accidents in the house

These symptoms can be seen right before the pet parents leaves or very soon after. Many people come home to find their belongings trashed or find chewed possessions if their pet is destructive. Dogs that bark or howl when their person leaves could be voicing unhappiness or distress at the situation. Bathroom accidents can be attributed to fear or inability to hold their bladder for the time span their human was gone. This should be evaluated on an individual basis with regards to dog’s age and house training status.

How To Help a Dog with Separation Anxiety

While there is no set route that fits every dog out there, there are multiple steps you can take to help calm an anxious dog:

Establish A Routine

There are commonly two extremes when people begin combating separation anxiety. One extreme are those who want their dog to get used to their routine without much introduction. Commonly, this can lead to people leaving their dog for long amounts of time, or that of a work day, and thinking this will help them adjust. The other side of the spectrum are those who won’t leave their dog for more than hourly increments which can harvest bad manners in the future. Most pet parents want to land right in the middle. In order to do so, begin by leaving your dog for growing amounts of time (15 minutes, then 30, then an hour, and so on). Most importantly, set a routine for your dog to expect. For example, you should have a daily routine put in place so that your pup can begin to track when you are home and giving him attention vs. when you will be gone and he will have to entertain himself.

Set An Expectation For Leaving

Your first instinct to calm an anxious dog is to provide them with reassurance that you’ll be gone only a little while, that you’ll be back soon, and to snuggle the heck out of them when you get back. Your first instincts are wrong and, sadly, making it worse. Instead, when you go, say a simple goodbye, maybe give them a treat or Kong to make the farewell a bit sweeter, and go out the door with little fuss or eye contact. When you get back, don’t even acknowledge the dog until he’s calmed down completely. No hello, no butt scratches, no cookies. Once he’s chill, commence the calm snuggles.

Use A Variety of Tools

Positive Crate Training

Crate training is the easiest way to keep your dog from destroying things. Make his crate a happy place and he just might learn to enjoy it. Additionally, practicing feeding your pup in the crate, and giving them alone time in there while you’re home, are great steps towards getting them comfortable.

Environmental Enrichment

It is very important to exercise your dog – a tired dog is a less destructive one. Depending on the breed, or generally energy level of your dog, it may be a good idea to take them on a run, fine-tune tricks, or wear them out a bit prior to leaving them unattended in your home. This will provide relief in both physical and mental boredom while you’re gone, giving them ample time to nap- ideally.

While you’re gone, make sure to provide enrichment. Kongs and other durable toys provide environmental enrichment while you’re away. By turning alone-time into a chance to play, you give your dog a healthy, productive activity. (Pro tip: keep the quantity to a minimum and offer them only in your absence. Giving your dog 10 toys can actually decrease their desire to actively play.)

Tools to Discourage Chewing

If the destruction is shown through bite marks, there are a few ways you can cure chewing behavior. Bitter apple spray and other taste deterrents can be a stuff-saver. While it can be inconvenient to apply the spray, it can help stop your dog from making a snack out of your couch.

Proper Exercise

That’s as simple as it sounds. A sedentary dog has no positive outlets for his anxiety or frustrations. Walks, runs, a quick game of fetch, even chasing a tennis ball up and down the stairs can help your dog clear his head. If you have the option to enroll your dog in daycare or hire a walker for quick outings, it’s worthwhile.

Promote A Calm Atmosphere

It’s easy enough to offer comforting elements while you’re out. Tuning into a calm, soothing TV or radio station can help a dog feel less alone. Stay away from programs with loud or upsetting noises such as sirens or shouting as these can distress sensitive dogs. If your dog can be trusted not to shred it, a favorite snuggly toy or blanket (perhaps one that smells a bit like you) can be of solace as well.

Train “Settle” or “Relax”

By training your dog to settle on cue allows them to know your expectations through one command. You should focus on having your dog lay down in their crate, or safe space, without reward. All attention-seeking or excitable behavior should be ignored. Once your pup has it down that only calm movements are acceptable, you should begin rewarding the good behavior and ignoring the bad. You can use food, clicker training, etc., to achieve these results.

Set A Safe Space

While training your dog to relax, you should choose whether or not you want them to rest in their crates or free range. If you opt out of crate training, you should train them to relax in a comfortable area, like a bedroom or couch. This will serve as the relaxation point in which they will associate a relaxed attitude. You should start with a barricaded area, if not a crate, so that your dog is in a restricted area that will keep them safe. In this area, they will gradually learn how they are expected to act. Additionally, the background noise, aromatherapy, or comfortable blanket will all help in this transition.

No doubt, separation anxiety is heartbreaking for both pup and pet parent. If you try these steps and don’t succeed, it might be time to discuss other medical or behavioral options with your vet.

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