Why Does It Happen?
Anxiety related problems, in particular separation anxiety, usually occur as a result of a dog’s over-attachment to its owner. Essentially, the dog becomes so emotionally attached to its owner that as soon as it is left alone it feels enormous tension – and this manifests itself in numerous undesirable ways.
Fear is a normal emotion. It is when abnormal reactions to fear are manifested that we need to address them. Anxious and apprehensive dogs are more likely to develop excessive reactions, on account of their sensitive dispositions. It is as if they expect bad things to happen to them and fearfulness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Anxiety is fear of something that is perceived as impending rather than something that is actually happening. In other word anxiety is a type of anticipatory fear and because of this can be more sustained.
Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety may display one or all of the following characteristics in their owner’s absence: soiling, destructiveness, excessive barking/whining and even self mutilation.
Owners may make the problem worse by venting their own frustrations on their dog when they return to the house by shouting or punishing the dog. As a result, the dog not only gets highly anxious about its owner leaving but is also anxious about what will happen to it when its owner gets home. Just as we humans look for ways to relieve anxiety so dogs crave a release from their stress too. Dogs can’t light up or suck on a cigarette or help themselves to a stiff drink, they can’t go out for a run unless we take them. Their natural response to fear and tension is to chew, scratch, soil or make noise. The problem quickly becomes a vicious circle.
The only way to effectively address an anxiety problem is to address the root cause.
What is the cause of Over-Attachment?
Almost invariably you find that dogs which suffer from separation anxiety are given a huge amount of attention at home. It arises in households where the owners are at work all day and feeling guilty about the lack of attention their dog has had during the day they try to make up for things by doting on their dogs when they get home. Separation anxiety is also common in households where there are no children and the dog is treated as a child substitute, sleeping on the beds and furniture, being fed lots of treats and human food and following (and being encouraged to follow) its owner everywhere. This problem may also arise with rehomed dogs whose history is often unknown.
Owners enjoy the warm feeling they get from having their dog’s unconditional love and presence. Whilst dogs also enjoy love and attention, too much of a good thing can be bad! Dogs whose every whim is satisfied by their owners not only become clingy but usually also have dominance issues because they have unrestricted privileges and are never asked to work for anything.
Unfortunately this causes a double dose of anxiety; not only is the dog anxious when its owner is gone but it also feels an acute sense of responsibility to do something about the situation. The problem is it does not know what or how. And so it becomes even more anxious.
What Can You Do?
Damage Limitation Short Term
In the short-term you will have to do what you can to minimize the damage, mess and noise that your dog can cause while you are away from the house. That may mean crating your dog (although this is not acceptable as an all day measure) or confining them to just one room of the house where they are able to cause the least amount of damage and where it is easy for you to clean up any accidents. You should also leave your dog with a choice of good quality chew toys – Kong’s stuffed with some food are normally a good distraction. You may also need to have a word with your neighbours to explain why your dog is making so much noise and ask for their understanding and patience while you tackle the problem. If possible, get somebody else to come into the house while you are out to give your dog some attention and exercise. Be aware that some dogs will not eat whilst you are away from them.
Separation Anxiety Long Term
Alongside the short-term measures, you will have to embark on a longer-term course of action aimed at reducing your dog’s anxiety when you are not around. Initially this training will take place when you are at home. Make sure you have frequent, but initially short, periods when you completely ignore your dog and just get on with your daily routines. Even if your dog is glued to your side or whining for attention you must not talk to your dog, touch or even look at them. Then, when you are ready and at a time when your dog is calm and quiet call them to you, ask for a ‘sit’ and give them some attention.
With any luck, and provided you hold firm on not making any communication at all with your dog during ‘time-out’, you should get to a point where your dog is not following you around quite so much and you can gradually increase the time periods that you ignore them. If you are finding that your dog is still constantly following you, then you could use a child gate to partition off one room in the house where you can leave your dog. Don’t make any fuss of them when you decide to leave the room. Just calmly walk through the gate, close it behind you without looking at your dog and walk away, completely ignoring any whining or barking. When you return to your dog’s room continue to completely ignore them for at least five minutes or as long as it takes for them to become calm. You can then call them to you, ask for a sit and give some quiet praise.
You will need to gradually build up the length of time you leave your dog whilst you are actually in the house, only moving onto a longer period of separation when they are comfortable (not whining, being destructive etc) at a shorter one. Once you have got up to half an hour separation periods in the house you might then start going out of the house for short periods (starting at five or ten minutes and building up). Again follow the same procedure of not making any fuss of your dog either when you leave or return. Try feeding your dog on leaving. Put down their main meal and leave this with them. Feeding is a positive resource for your dog. If you are patient and consistent, somewhere along the line your dog will realize that their world doesn’t fall apart when you are not there and will be quite happy with their own company.
Reduce the triggers
Over time your dog will recognise your behaviour patterns and will recognise these triggers from you to alert that you are going to leave them. Often this is putting on our shoes or coat, picking up keys etc. Again similar to ignoring you will need to reduce these actions as triggers. Start by putting on your shoes and then sitting down, you dog will be expecting you to leave and may well initially be over excited. Wait for them to calm down and ignore this behaviour. Once calm call them over to you ask for a sit and then offer the praise. For the second trigger such as picking up keys follow the same routine. If you have a certain routine you follow when leaving the house perform this. Eventually the triggers will not affect your dog and when you do leave do not make an issue that you are leaving. Leave the house without saying anything to the dog.
On your return
When you return do not greet your dog initially but keep your return low key. Ignore the frantic behaviour, wait for your dog to return to a calm state and then ask for a sit and offer the praise. Pick up any uneaten food or treats. DO NOT PUNISH THE DOG FOR ANY DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIOUR.
It’s often said that a tired dog is a happy dog. It makes perfect sense that a dog that has had a long walk first thing in the morning is far more likely to settle down and rest when their owner leaves the house. So if you have to go out to work and leave your dog in the house for a prolonged period of time, make sure you set your alarm early and get out in the fresh air with your dog before you go. If you can, get a friend, neighbour or dog-sitter to come in during the day to take your dog out for another short walk or make use of doggy day care. Regular sufficient exercise will provide your dog with the positive attention they crave as well as vital mental and physical stimulation that will leave them feeling more relaxed in the house.
Products that may help with adjusting your dogs behaviour are Adaptil and Zylkene. Both are available at all surgeries. If you wish to discuss any problems relating to separation anxiety please call the surgery to book an appointment with one of our behaviour advisors.