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How to prevent and reduce separation anxiety

One of the most common behaviour problems in domestic dogs is separation anxiety, as research has reported that it is diagnosed in 20-40% of dogs that were referred to behaviour practices in North America.


Given the current climate, a lot of us are now home more often and dogs have grown accustomed to their owners constant presence. Once we stop working from home, however, separation anxiety is likely to present itself.


What is separation anxiety in dogs?

A state of distress and anxiousness induced by separation from their owner.


What does it look like?


Common distress signs that dogs display in response to being left alone can include:

  • Digging and scratching at doors or windows attempting to reunite with their owners

  • Destructive behaviour (e.g., chewing pillows, blankets, toys, scratching curtains, breaking crate, etc)

  • Vocalizing (howling, barking, yelping, and whining)

  • Urination and defecation (even if housetrained)

If your dog has severe separation anxiety, these behaviours may also be seen when you are simply not in the same room as them.


What dogs are more likely to have separation anxiety?


Dogs that..

  • follow their owner around the home

  • receive an excited greeting upon owner return

  • get anxious prior to owner departure (e.g., when car keys grabbed, or jacket put on)

  • are housed with only one adult 

  • are sexually intact 

  • adapt into a home after a period away or for the first time (e.g., newly adopted dog)

  • experience change in their routine (e.g., guardian is working new hours and either left alone for a longer time, or is absent at a different time of day)

  • experience change in the family dynamics (e.g., the loss of a family member)



How to manage separation anxiety in the home:


1. The less you make of your absence the better!

Ignore your dog during your departures and arrivals. When you arrive, for the first few minutes do not give your dog much attention. Once they are calm and settled then you can pet and greet them. Prior to departing, avoid giving your dog a big goodbye before you leave, in fact not saying goodbye is ideal.


2. Leave your dog with recently worn clothes that smell like you.

People often ask, why does my dog sleep on my bed? Well it smells a lot like you. Dogs with separation anxiety from their owners may calm down easier if they are surrounded by their owners scent.


3. Crate-training your dog (*Not if severely anxious*)

Crate-training your dogs allows them to have a place to feel safe and secure in your absence. Providing them with a food puzzle/toy in there with them will provide mental stimulation and can serve as a distraction during your absence. Tossing these items in before you leave for the day is a good trick to distract them. 


Please note that if your dog has severe separation anxiety this may not be the best solution, as dogs will still display destructive behaviours in the crate, and they can even injure themselves in an attempt to escape the crate. If your dog suffers from severe anxiety, provide a place in the home (e.g., bedroom) where they can stay comfortably, filled with toys, used clothes, and other sources of mental stimulation.


4. Ignore neediness, reward confidence.

Ignore or remove your attention from your dog when they are expressing signs of separation anxiety (e.g., when they are barking for you while you are in the other room or whining towards you when you are watching tv and not giving them attention). 


When they are calm and no longer showing signs of anxiousness or attempting to get your attention (e.g., stopped barking), this is when you can reward them. Your reward can just be your attention - after all, this is what they want the most! Soon, as their patience and confidence is continuously rewarded, they’ll learn that whatever they were doing doesn’t work to get your attention, and the behaviour can fade away. 


5. Provide enrichment

Providing food puzzles, hiding treats around the house, or even keeping the blinds open so they can see the outdoors can keep them active, distracted, and mentally enriched during your absence.


6. Pheromones

Research has shown that pheromones can be beneficial in reducing signs of distress in domestic dogs. The dog appeasing pheromones (DAP) releases calming signals when detected by your dog. There are a number of over the counter products that can be purchased, these include: Adaptil wall plug-ins, collars, or spray.


7. Maintain distance

Often dogs with separation anxiety follow their owner around the home. To increase the distance between yourself and your dog and to prevent them following you, close doors behind you or put baby gates in rooms where this isn’t possible. Baby gates, although not the most practical for some dogs or spaces, allows the dog to still see their owner. Maintaining visibility but allowing distance is a good first stop to reduce their anxiety and allow them to slowly gain the confidence to be separated from their owner. By practicing this in the home, the dogs can slowly increase their confidence and learn that they will be okay without you with them. They may vocalize or try to remove the barrier between you, so it is best to do this process as slowly. With your attention being the reward for good behaviour only. 


8. Practice short trips away

Practice leaving the house, for a few minutes up to a few hours. The duration of time they are left alone during these practice trials will depend on your dog's degree of separation anxiety, e.g. if you live in an apartment and are receiving noise complaints, it might not be a good idea to start with a 10-minute trial run. Build up to a longer period of time until you are confident that your dog’s anxiety is becoming less of a problem. It can be helpful to either set up cameras to watch your dog during these practice trials or wait hidden a few paces away from the door to monitor their vocalizations. 


The following steps are made to enable your dog to become accustomed to your absence.


Step 1: Grab your keys and your wallet or purse and prepare to leave the house as you normally would.

Step 2: Go outside and close the door behind you (make sure you are not visible and your dog still cannot smell you, this may require moving a few paces away from the door).

Step 3: Ask yourself: do you hear your dog barking? How long were they barking before they stopped?

Step 4: Go back inside calmly and note where your dog was and if there was any destructiveness in your absence.

Step 5: Repeat steps 1-4 adding more time away each time.


What to avoid doing:

  • Punishment – punishing their separation anxiety behaviour can only exacerbate the issue.

  • Bringing another dog into the house – a dog with separation anxiety is missing you, not another animal. The problem will not be solved with the addition of another pet.

  • Giving your dog attention whenever your dog makes attempts to gain your attention. The best way to reduce their anxiety is to reward with your attention when they are not showing signs of this behaviour. 

Managing this behaviour can be challenging as we always want to make them happy and give them whatever they want. But it is important to remember, that dogs with this behavioural problem experience a significant amount of stress when you are not with them. So, to improve their welfare it is important to be patient with this process, and build up their confidence and independence slowly.


If the above strategies are not effective for your dog, there are other paths to take, including:

  1. Seeking a behaviourist/trainer to assist you in managing the issue. 

  2. Asking a veterinarian for how to reduce their overall anxiety.

  3. Bringing the dog to work with yourself or modifying your schedule to shorten your dogs time alone (not usually possible).

  4. Having a dog walker come in routinely to reduce the time they are alone.

  5. Leave your dog with a family member, friend, or neighbor when you’re away.


If you have any questions regarding how to manage your dog’s separation anxiety, please seek an appropriate professional.


References


Flannigan G, Dodman NH. 2001. Risk factors and behaviors associated with separation anxiety in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc., 219:460–466.


Gaultier, E., Bonnafouse, L., Bougrat, C., Lafon, C., Pageat, P. 2005. Comparison of the efficacy of a synthetic dog-appeasing pheromone with clomipramine for the treatment of separation-related disorders in dogs. Vet Rec., 156(17): 533-538.


Sherman BL, and Mills DS. 2008. Canine anxieties and phobias: an update on separation anxiety and noise aversions. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract., 38:1081–1106.


Voith VL, Borchelt PL. Separation anxiety in dogs. 1996. In: Readings  in companion animal behavior. Trenton, NJ: Veterinary Learning Systems, 124–139.

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