I hear this all the time: “My dog has separation anxiety, and I don’t know what to do.” A lot of the time these cases are mild. The dog is new to the home, or something has changed in its world (e.g, the kids have started school, someone has started a job with longer hours, or a construction crew has taken up permanent residence on your block). They might not do well in a crate, or with too much freedom. Genetics can also play a role in the appearance and degree of anxiety. Every dog is different, and while this behavior can take a long time to fix, it can have a happy ending if the owner is willing and able to put in the work.
What is separation anxiety?
What the average person thinks of when they hear “separation anxiety” usually means that a dog presents with certain anxious behaviors when left alone. Anxious behaviors can include things like:
- Panting and drooling
- Incessant barking, whining, or howling
- Extreme self-soothing behaviors (licking or chewing themselves nonstop)
- Chewing baseboards
- Hurting themselves trying to get out of the crate
If your dog is unable to take a nap and be calm when you leave for the day, separation anxiety might be the issue.
For extremely severe cases, such as if your dog is hurting himself or destroying the house, you will need to call a skilled trainer for help, or even a veterinary behaviorist (who will do a detailed medical/behavioral assessment and possibly prescribe medication).
For less severe cases of separation anxiety, I recommend two things:
Change your routine when leaving the house. If you always put on your shoes and then grab your keys, try putting your shoes on last or grabbing your keys when you’re watching TV. Also, start giving your dog something to do while you are gone, like a peanut butter Kong. Your dog focuses on that while you’re leaving and has a positive association instead of a negative one. It can also help to block your dog’s view of the door, so they can’t actually see you leave.
Ignore your dog when you get home. I know a lot of us have dogs because we want someone to be excited when we come home, so this doesn’t have to be a forever change. When you come in, put your bag down, take off your coat, go to the bathroom, etc., before engaging with your dog. Try not to speak or touch him for about 10 minutes. If your dog needs to go outside as soon as you come in, try to do as little interacting as possible. What you’re doing is making the dog realize that you coming home isn’t such a big deal, so being alone isn’t all that bad.
This can be a pretty slow process, so be patient with the dog and yourself.