The words â€˜home aloneâ€™ are scary words to a dog with separation anxiety. Understanding the disorder is the first step in dealing with it. There isnâ€™t a simple fix, but there are things you can do to help your dog cope with being alone.
Separation anxiety is defined as a dogâ€™s panicked response to being left alone. Symptoms include destructive behaviour, soiling indoors, continual barking, excessive drooling/panting and/or attempting to escape a room or crate. Since certain behavioural or medical problems can produce similar symptoms, proper diagnosis is crucial to effective treatment.
First, consult your vet about health issues that may be causing your dogâ€™s behaviour (e.g. soiling can be due to incontinence, infection, diabetes and certain medications). Second, rule out other causes of your petâ€™s behaviour (e.g. soiling may be due to incomplete house training, no access to suitable elimination areas, lack of exercise, fear or excitement from outside stimuli or unreasonable expectations requiring your dog to â€˜hold itâ€™ for 10 plus hours). Third, rule out behavioural problems (e.g. urination to scent mark, boredom and juvenile destruction).
Usually, there are three specifications used to confirm if your pet has separation anxiety, such as the behaviour happens each time you leave the house, only happens when youâ€™re away and starts even before you leave. So, what causes separation anxiety? Dogs are social animals, live naturally in groups and arenâ€™t built to be alone all day. Separation anxiety can also be caused by traumatic events (e.g. being abandoned or lost, death of a person or another pet and moving). It can be prevented if you start with a puppy.
Teach him to be quiet or calm for increasing periods of time and reward this behaviour. Heâ€™ll learn to associate your departure with something positive. If your dog already has separation anxiety, the following can help:
â€¢ If they start whining when you get your coat, grab your coat but go sit on the couch instead.
â€¢ Exercise them before you leave so theyâ€™ll have less anxious energy and will be more content to relax while youâ€™re away.
â€¢ Just before you leave, give them a Kong toy stuffed with treats to take their mind off your departure or avert boredom.
â€¢ If they enjoy music or TV, leave it on since a familiar background can help them feel secure.
â€¢ Try a spray or diffuser that emits a relaxing odour, such as Adaptil or Comfort Zone.
â€¢ Try leaving for short periods of time and gradually extend them.
â€¢ Crate train your pet. Crate training has many benefits but must be introduced slowly and used appropriately. If they find crating stressful, try confining them to one room with a baby gate.
â€¢ Make your departures and returns low key. When leaving, simply pat their head, say goodbye and leave. When arriving home, say hello and donâ€™t fuss over them until theyâ€™re calm.
â€¢ Consider doggy daycare or arrange for a friend or dog sitter.
â€¢ Consult a behaviour professional if youâ€™re struggling. If they have severe separation anxiety, your vet may prescribe medication to help them cope. Never scold or punish your pet. Their anxious behaviours arenâ€™t a reflection of disobedience or spite; theyâ€™re a reflection of distress.
With time, patience and consistency, you can help your dog overcome separation anxiety and enhance their quality of life.
Judy Layne is a volunteer with the Nova Scotia SPCA. She is committed to speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves. She believes that each one of us who cares about animals can make a difference and together we can make the world a better place for animals.