So you just adopted a new dog. He gets along great with your other dog, and he’s the cutest dog you’ve ever seen. But then you try to leave for work Monday morning … uh oh! The shelter didn’t warn you about your new dog’s separation anxiety. Now what?
What is dog separation anxiety?
I consider a dog to have separation anxiety if she has never been taught how to cope with being alone and therefore experiences anxiety when separated from her owner.
There are varying degrees of separation anxiety ranging from a little whining to a complete panic attack where the dog or puppy howls all day or attempts to dig through walls. Before we discuss some ways to help a dog or puppy overcome separation anxiety, let’s look at some symptoms.
Signs that your dog or puppy has separation anxiety:
- Your puppy won’t stop crying or barking when separated from you.
- Your dog has an unhealthy attachment to you and wants to be near you at all times. He probably leans on you or wants to be in your lap for security.
- Your dog becomes nervous and anxious when you put on your coat or shoes or pick up your keys. Anxious behavior could include pacing, whining, fixating on you, drooling or panting heavily when it’s not hot.
- Your puppy is overwhelmed with excitement every time you return home, even if you were gone for 30 seconds.
- Your dog destroys property when you are not home. He might try to break out of his kennel, scratch at doors or chew anything near the door such as shoes or rugs.
- Your dog is deathly afraid of his kennel and tries to bust out.
- Your puppy won’t touch his favorite treats when you are gone (but he loves them otherwise!).
- Your dog has “accidents” only when he is left alone.
Just because your dog shows some of the above symptoms does not necessarily mean he has separation anxiety. He might be having accidents because he is not fully housetrained. Or maybe your puppy cries wen left alone because he has nothing else to do with his pent-up energy. Maybe he is simply bored.
If you are still not sure if your dog has separation anxiety, don’t hesitate to contact a trainer in your area to get a second opinion or talk with your dog’s vet.
How to help a dog with separation anxiety
Patience is the key. Helping a dog or puppy through separation anxiety takes a lot of time. It is definitely stressful for everyone involved (especially if you live in an apartment). Here are my tips to help your dog accept being alone:
Provide your dog with tons of physical and mental exercise.
No amount of exercise is going to cure a dog’s separation anxiety on its own, but it can help. Dogs that are always anxious usually have tons of pent-up energy. So get out there and walk your dog! I highly recommend you start running with your dog every morning. If that is not possible, then get a dog backpack and put a small amount of weight in the pack while you walk for at least 45 minutes.
Most dogs need at least an hour of structured exercise a day. If your dog is anxious all the time, then your goal should be at least 90 minutes of exercise.
In addition to physical exercise, make sure your dog gets plenty of mental challenges. Sometimes dogs carry a lot of mental energy, leading to anxiety. So practice obedience training for 15 minutes every day. Or sign up for an agility class. You should also buy several puzzle-type dog toys.
Stop feeding your dog in bowls all together and make her work for her meals by eating from Kongs or other toys. These toys will challenge your dog while rewarding her for her hard work. This type of work will build her confidence and her frustration tolerance. Hopefully your dog will learn to love these toys and will start to wonder when the heck you’re going to leave so she will get her special treat!
Purposely create mild separation from your dog.
In order to teach your dog that it’s OK to be away from you, it’s best not to give him attention 24/7 when you are home. You have to use this time to slowly decrease his dependence on you by creating barriers. You can create barriers by setting up a baby gate that prevents your dog from following you to certain areas of the house. Ignore him if he whines, but return and give him attention when he is quiet.
Another great trick is to tether your dog to a doorknob or large piece of furniture while you are in another room. You have to use common sense and keep the dog’s safety in mind of course, but this method works great for my foster dogs. You can also leave your dog in his kennel for short periods even while you are home.
With all of these exercises, make sure to ignore your dog if he is whining or barking, but reward him when he is calm. A reward can be something as simple as warm eye contact, dropping a treat or saying “good boy.”
Don’t make a big deal out of your departures or homecomings.
You do not want to make your departures or arrivals a big deal for your dog. When you leave the house, don’t feel bad. If you feel guilty or anxious about leaving your dog, guess who else will feel anxious? Your dog! It’s best to toss your dog a yummy treat like a Kong filled with peanut butter and simply leave. Don’t say things like “I’ll be back soon, baby. It’s OK. It’s OK.” That only adds to a dog’s anxiety. Instead, just go.
Your arrival should also be no big deal. Completely ignore your dog for at least five minutes when you return. You don’t want your dog to sit and anticipate your arrival all day. Ideally, you want him to anticipate your departure, because that means he’ll get his favorite treat!
These are just a few tips on how to help a dog through separation anxiety.
What other tips do you have?
Lindsay Stordahl maintains the blog and dog training forum at ThatMutt.com. ThatMutt.com is a dog blog dedicated to everything about dogs - dog training, dog rescue, dog behavior, dog health and much more!
Separation Anxiety in Humans, Monkeys and Teds: A Dog’s Perspective
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