Why does my dog have separation anxiety?

Dogs are social animals and most dogs will find it stressful to be separated from their dog-human pack for extended periods.   We may have to teach them how to cope.

Dogs with a lack of appropriate socialisation to being alone as puppies may find that they have a higher level of anxiety and are slower to adjust to time alone as adults.  It may also be that some dogs develop separation anxiety as a result of a change such as a new baby or a move of house.

It’s also worth thinking about you and your own feelings towards separation from your dog.  Some owners find it stressful to leave their dogs and inadvertently communicate this to their dogs.  Our dogs are super sensitive to our body language and even slight changes to our breathing rates and even pupil dilation!  So if your are anxious your dog may well know it!   If leaving the dog is difficult for you, it may be tempting to let the dog follow them from room to room when they are in the house so that the dog never learns how to separate calmly. 

This is all a little bit different from the many dogs who are left home alone for extended periods, and for whom, when their owners are home  the owners often have little energy to exercise, socialise or mentally stimulate their dog.  Such dogs often suffer from chronic anxiety of which separation anxiety may be just one manifestation.  

Dogs who are anxious when left alone can become destructive or develop toileting issues and gradually get confined to a smaller and smaller part of the house providing them with a gradually more and more boring, lonely and stressful existence.

So, what can we do about it?

Firstly, have a careful look at what is actually happening.  Is your dog anxious about you leaving the room or the house?  For 1 minute or 10 minutes?  Is it anyone leaving or just the last person leaving?  Having a clear benchmark helps you know if you are making progress.

You may need to change things up at home.  You can manage the dog’s environment by ensuring the dog has a safe, quiet, appropriate place to sleep when left home alone such as a utility room with a bed or crate.  I would make sure that the dog has access to fresh water, soft blankets, natural light and fresh air.  Some dogs enjoy having a shaded crate to relax in during the day. I would also introduce the use of temporary stairgates so the dog doesn’t follow the owner everywhere at home but can still see the owner if they are in a different room.  Make these separations reward for the dog by giving them something to enjoy as you leave and avoid giving lots of attention or treats on your return.

I would also recommend introducing a program of enrichment and ensure that the dog is getting plenty of appropriate exercise and stimulation.   Many dogs are chronically under stimulated in their human families.  Enrichment will not only help build the dogs confidence and reduce boredom but will also help the dog feel genuinely tired when they are left alone. 

Try to develop a selection of special toys, food puzzles and food dispensing toys to help the dog to settle when they are home alone.  Your dog should only have these when you decide and not have access to them the whole time.  If they enjoy chewing this can keep them busy so freezing their usual kibble (pre-soaked) in a kong toy may bring them an hour or two of fun time alone.  This classically conditions a positive connection between being alone and feeling good.   You can start this when you are in the house but not in the same room as the dog for the first few days.  If the dog is very anxious at this stage, you may have to only be out of sight for short periods.

When your dog is capable of being left in a different part of the house for an hour then I would start to desensitise the dog to you leaving the house.  You can perform leaving activities such as picking the car keys up or putting on shoes but not leaving the house a few times each day to desensitise the dog to these pre-leaving activities.  Teach the dog to go to their bed, special part of the house or to go to their crate for a treat or other positive reinforcement.  Reward them again, give them their special toys and leave alone for less than the time it takes them to get anxious.  This could be just 5 minutes/day to start with but increasing to twice a day and then 3 times/day.  You could then increase this to 15 minutes and build up from there, but each time making sure that the dog has the same routine when the dog is left.

It’s a good idea to change your own personal schedules around when you start this so that the dog is not left home alone for 3 -5 days before this training is started and during this process.  We want to avoid triggering their high stress responses because these stress hormones take longer than you think to subside.

Also remember not to punish any lapses, instead to see a ‘lapse’ as an attempt to progress too quickly.  Remember not to greet your pet when as soon as you return home in too much of an enthusiastic and high energy way.  The immediate return of the owners needs to be less rewarding rather than more rewarding than the dogs special toys which he gets when he is home alone.

Finally, remember to get a bit of professional help at the start of this process.  It can save a huge amount of time and worry too 🙂