Dogs are pack animals.
They will accept other dogs, humans, and sometimes even other animals as fellow pack members. What they don’t always deal with well is being alone. Dogs typically express loneliness in unwanted behaviors; commonly attributed to “separation anxiety.”
Why is this an issue now?
Fifty or sixty years ago this was not a common issue with dogs. The difference has nothing to do with dogs, but everything to do with changes in human society.
In the 1950’s and before, the normal family composition was a mother, a father, some children, and maybe a dog. The father went off to work, the children went off to school, but the mother, as a rule, stayed home. So the dog had company. He might have been more attached to one of the children, or the father, but still there was someone home with him.
Times have changed, and there are more dogs left alone these days. For most dogs, this doesn’t present a problem. They learn their family’s routine, determine how they fit in, enjoy the time they have with their people, and sleep when there’s nobody home.
How do I know if my dog has separation anxiety?
If you don’t get complaints from the neighbors about your dog barking or howling when you’re gone, your dog doesn’t bother to get up from his bed as you’re leaving the house, and your house looks the same when you get home as it did when you left, relax: your dog is fine.
But if you come home and find evidence that your dog has forgotten he’s house-broken, the door frame is torn off, pillows are destroyed, and/or there are twelve angry messages on your answering machine from neighbors telling you to shut your dog up, there can be a problem. Fortunately, most of these behaviors can be addressed by you with some time and patience.
Steps to take.
If you come home to puddles or messes from your dog who never has an accident when you’re home, it may or may not be a sign of anxiety. Pay attention to his routine when you’re home to let him out: if he never goes more than six hours without asking to be let out, he may not have the capacity to wait the ten hours you’re gone each day. If time isn’t a factor, have your vet make sure there are no medical issues.
Has your dog always been this way? If not, think back to when it started. Was there a horrible storm that day? Was there a street crew digging up the road in front of your house? Do you have reason to believe someone tried to break in? Anything unusual that happens can be traumatic to your dog, especially if you’re not there to comfort him. He may believe that if you leave, the experience will happen again.
As with any behavioral issue, it’s important that you try to figure out why your dog is acting the way he is so you can address the reason for the behavior.
If your dog trembles, licks his lips, paces, or otherwise appears anxious as soon as he realizes you’re getting ready to leave, he may be afraid you aren’t coming back. If there are certain things you do—grab your keys or your purse, put your shoes on, put a coat on—that trigger these reactions, then put your shoes on, grab your purse, and watch television. Repeat the trigger movements without leaving over a period of days (or weeks) until your dog becomes accustomed to them and doesn’t associate them with you being gone.
If your dog howls or barks when you leave, try stepping outside then coming back in before he howls and barks and reward him for his silence. Keep doing that, lengthening your time outside, but rewarding him for his silence each time you come in. If he starts to howl or bark, it’s important that you do not come in until he’s quiet again. You don’t want him to associate making noise with getting you back.
With any of these issues, or if he’s destructive when you’re gone, try giving him a favorite treat right as you leave. Give it to him frozen, or in a puzzle toy, so it will keep him occupied for awhile. And only give it to him before you leave, so he associates you leaving with getting a treat, not with being left alone.
Stop it before it starts.
One of the best ways to handle separation anxiety is to stop it before it starts. People tend to want to hold their puppies all the time. It’s important that you teach your puppy from day one that there will be times you are gone and he will be home by himself. Give him a crate or a quiet place where you put him. Make sure he doesn’t see it as a punishment, but a comfortable and safe haven.
This is a short article covering a very complex issue. These are a few time-consuming, but easy, steps you can take to help comfort your dog. If the issues are severe, or if these steps don’t even make a dent in the problem, talk with your veterinarian. They may refer you to an animal behaviorist if the case is extreme.
Dogs are adaptable animals. They will conform to your routine. If you give them plenty of love, keep them comfortable, are patient with them, and treat them with respect, odds are you will have the companion you want.