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Home alone: separation anxiety in dogs and how to deal with it

What is dog separation anxiety and how to treat it

Every time you leave your dog alone, it’s a tragedy!What is he trying to tell you? How can you combat separation anxiety? Here’s a few things to understand the situation and find your way around it.

Why does a dog get anxious?

When their mother can no longer nurse them or wants some “alone time”, she pushes her pups away. This way, they learn independence and detachment. When they find a new home, they’ll attach themselves to a family member whom they’ll see as their new mom. If that person doesn’t pursue teaching them to be alone, pushing them away at the right moments, the puppy will develop an overly attached relationship. This is key to understanding troubles of anxiety that arise later on.

Factors contributing to a dog’s anxiety:

  • A predisposition in certain breeds like the Jack Russell and the Boxer.
  • A puppy taken away from its mother too early.
  • Dogs that have had multiple owners.
  • Changes in the environment (moving, arrival of a child, return to work…)
  • Not teaching a puppy detachment when it comes to your home.
  • Lack of stimulation.

Signs of anxiety in a dog

When you’re away, you feel guilty about leaving your dog alone. You pet him, reassure him, and make promises with a smile in your voice. Your dog thinks: “My owner seems very happy, but he’s leaving me, I don’t get it!” Contrary to belief, a dog doesn’t seek revenge, but expresses deep distress, and it usually happens just minutes after you leave.

  • Dog separation anxiety symptomsHe might destroy things.
  • Bark, cry, howl like it’s the end of the world.
  • Do his business inside your home.
  • Self-harm by licking his paws to the point of bleeding or viciously biting his tail.
  • Refuse to eat or drink.

When you return, your dog throws a party. You think: “He’s happy to see me!”. In reality, he’s telling you “You left me alone, I hope you won’t do it again”. If you pet him, he thinks you’ve understood.

Helping your dog overcome anxiety

From the moment your dog joins your family, you need to teach him detachment, independence, and frustration management.

  • Don’t give him full roam of the house.
  • Find a place that’s his own, away from doors, where he won’t spend all his time watching you. If space is tight, consider a safety gate or indoor crate (occasionally). Dogs find comfort in smaller spaces.
  • Don’t allow him to follow you everywhere.
  • You should be the one initiating cuddles and playtime, not the other way around.
  • Never let your dog bark for no reason. A barking dog wants to dominate. You need to be firm and never give in. Tell him no or ignore him. A training collar with citronella spray can yield great results without violence.
  • Practice fake departures. Put on your shoes, grab your keys, leave for a minute, then come back. Repeat this exercise multiple times so your dog gets used to seeing you disappear, gradually increasing the length of your absences.
  • For breeds that are particularly anxious, consider getting a second dog or accustom your puppy to cohabitate with a cat or bird to better manage his loneliness.

Before you leave:

  • Treating dog separation anxietyTake your dog out. He’ll be more relaxed.
  • A few minutes before you leave, put him in his place and ignore him. No goodbyes.
  • Leave the radio on for him.
  • Consider using pheromones (similar to those released by their mother) dispersed in the air with a diffuser plugged into a power outlet (your vet can sell you one).
  • Leave some toys out for him. Rotate them so he’s always surprised. A ball that dispenses kibble is a great distraction.

When you get back:

  • Ignore your dog.
  • If he’s made a mess, don’t scold him. Take him outside and clean up without him seeing.

Typically, separation anxiety disappears when your dog realizes that your departures are followed by your returns. You just have to give him time to get used to this ritual.

Smart tip about dog anxiety

  • Consult with a behaviorist.
  • In severe cases such as self-mutilation, your vet may prescribe antidepressants while waiting for the situation to improve.
  • Use an E-collar to prevent your dog from worsening his injuries.
  • Learn to relax, your dog feels all your emotions. A zen master who makes wise decisions equals a calmed and balanced dog. An anxious and emotional master equals a worried dog who lacks guidance.
  • If no solution works, consider finding a new family for your dog. Retirees often make a perfect fit as they have ample time. Even though it’s painful, this alternative should be considered.

A quote to contemplate:

“When someone you love is gone, you feel all alone.” Lamartine

Images: Pixabay: Amit Karkare, kazuo, nonnysnapp

Written by Lydie Dronet | With over 20 years in the field of animal care, Lydie shares her paws-on expertise and experience. Other topics she loves delving into are nutrition and the medicinal uses of plants.
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