Does my dog have separation anxiety?
For dog owners, it’s hard to imagine life without your pet. Their snuffles and footprints characterise the home. They give us a give us a reason to go out and explore, then snuggle by our feet at the end of the day. In the bustle of daily life - work, life admin and family commitments - dogs are a constant.
To dogs, we humans are the centre of their world and when we leave for work, the weekly shop or off on holiday, the feeling of being apart can cause our pets distress. This high level of this upset is known as ‘separation anxiety’.
What can trigger separation anxiety?
Dogs are very social animals that naturally live in family groups and have evolved over time to become domestic animals living side-by-side with humans. This pack mentality means they view you as their leader - a dependable figure vital to survival so being alone can feel very unsettling.
When you first get a dog, especially if they’re a puppy or recently re-homed, the instant bond and feeling of protection can be difficult to detach from. For instance, at night they may cry and scratch the door so it’s important to train them as soon as possible - introduce a bedtime routine in a warm space but whilst resisting the urge to come down and calm them if they cry.
It is not always dogs that are new to the family that experience separation anxiety. The following situations can also trigger the condition:
- An abrupt change in your schedule such as getting a new job which sees you transition from spending the majority of your time at home to leaving for an office five days per week
- Uprooting the family to a new home - unfamiliar surroundings can take time to get used to
- The sudden absence of a resident family member, whether they’re moving out to start a new chapter or a more sombre situation like a break-up or death
Spotting the signs
For a highly dependent dog, the first fifteen minutes after you leave are the hardest. Physiological signs of fear include:
- Quickened heart rate
- Heavier panting
- Increased saliva
- A need to go to the toilet
Once you leave, these heightened feelings can cause a dog to act out in the following ways:
- Persistent howling, whining, barking
- Causing destruction - from jumping on window sills to digging, scratching at doors and destroying household objects. These behaviours can go as far to cause self-injury such as broken teeth, cut paws and damaged nails
- Pacing up and down in a fixed pattern or turning in a circle
- Urinating or defecating
After a frantic episode, your dog may settle and chew on something that carries your scent. Dogs chew these belongings into small pieces and curl up in the debris, creating a barrier of your scent for comfort.
When you return your dog may seem besides themselves with excitement - spinning, jumping and howling with joy. If they seem wet, they may have salivated excessively or drunk lots of water due to stress. From then on, your furry friend may follow you wherever you go. If they suspect you’re leaving again, the anxious cycle of panting and pacing could re-start.
Why do dogs feel unsettled when left alone?
- They have little to no experience of being left alone
- They feel at risk and vulnerable
- If they’re of a nervous disposition. - from the fear of a daily occurrence, like the postman arriving, or an infrequent, unexpected event like a thunderstorm or fireworks, the slightest noise can shake a sensitive dog
- If an animal companion sadly passes away, your pet may feel loneliness - especially if they have shared a close bond
- Boredom - especially for young, energetic puppies. If these pooch personality types are left alone for too long and if they haven’t had exercise in a while they may create their own entertainment, like rummaging through bins or chewing household objects
- If you own a rescue dog, the feeling of insecurity caused by the stress of kennels and adapting to a new home can mean the process of settling in can take longer
Regardless of whether your pet is a puppy, a rescue dog or an older dog who has slipped into dependent habits, it’s never too late for training to give you greater freedom, reassurance and ensure your dog is self-sufficient. Because a dog that enjoys their own company and being with their owner is a happy dog.
Finding a ‘safe space’ for your dog to relax
Decide on a space where you feel comfortable leaving your dog. The kitchen is a popular choice, due to the ease of cleaning up mess. Create a cosy space for your pet to relax in so they don’t associate it with isolation and add the following creature comforts:
- Ambient noise, by playing the radio softly
- A couple of chew toys as chewing will keep your dog occupied
- An item of clothing that you’ve worn recently as your scent will reassure them
- Add blankets and low heating if it’s chilly, or a fan in the summer if it’s hot. The right temperature is essential in ensuring your dog feels comfortable
Training your dog in ‘time alone’
Although dogs should never be left for too long, familiarising them with the feeling of being alone for short periods of time will soon mean they feel relaxed and comfortable when you leave in future.
Stair gates are a great solution to help dogs acclimatise to being alone because they aren’t as intimidating as shutting a door. To introduce your pet to the habit of staying behind a stair gate and settling in their ‘safe space’, try the following tips:
- Gradually create distance by staying in the next room initially so they can still see, smell and hear you
- At random points in the day, pop a tasty treat or chew behind the stair gate to encourage your dog into that space
- Check in on your pet after a while. Hopefully they’ll still be engrossed in a treat!
- If they’re distracted by you and stick by your side, sit in the space for a while. Don’t interact with them, just stay there quietly. Your dog may feel confused at your behaviour initially and look to play
- Over a few days, gradually increase the time your dog is left behind the stair gate until you feel relaxed enough to leave their sight completely
Settling your pet, before you set off
So you’ve experimented with minutes, or hours, away from your dog. They’re perfectly content to be left to their own devices and you’re planning to leave for a full day. Before you go it’s worth doing the following:
- Walk them. Just like us humans, our pets need physical and mental stimulation in order to lead healthy, happy lives. And a pet that’s well exercised will easily settle down to sleep in the peace and quiet of an empty house!
- Ensure they’ve gone to the toilet to minimise a mucky homecoming for you
- Feed them a small meal as this will help relax them and induce sleep
- Remember that dogs are attuned to sound. They’ll quickly pick up on familiar noises that form part of your ‘getting ready’ routine such as the jangling of keys to the clunk of a bag. Desensitise them by rehearsing this routine within the training (without actually leaving). Over time, this routine won’t faze them
- Don’t punish them if they aren’t playing ball when you need to leave as it’s a sign they’re simply not ready and will undo your progress
- Equally, try not to create an excitable scene when you return. Greet your pet in a friendly yet calm way. If you notice they have inflicted damage while you were away don’t scold as they won’t understand and this will only fuel the fear of being left alone
Include your pet if they can’t face total independence
For some dogs, the prospect of being without their owners - whether it’s for five minutes or five hours - is too much to bear and may spotlight an underlying issue. To minimise stress for your pet, find opportunities to include them. Ask your boss if you can bring them into the office. Allow them to spend time with close friends and family, who you can call on to dog-sit if you have plans. If you’d like to go on holiday, there’s always the option of travelling with your pet.
While some dogs will progress without a fuss, others may take longer to get used to being alone. Ultimately, patience and perseverance are key to paving the way to time apart - so you, and your pet, can relax!
*The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian or other qualified pet health provider with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s health*