Overcoming Separation Anxiety
It’s a common experience that many dog owners face: Fido whimpers, barks, howls incessantly or exhibits any number of destructive behaviors like chewing, digging, peeing in the house or scratching at the door every time you leave home. What causes this behavior, and what’s a dog owner to do?
The furry blackmailer
We ourselves are often the ones who unintentionally train our otherwise happy and well-adjusted dogs to behave in exactly this way -Fido hates to see you go so he throws a tantrum, and our predictable response is to delay our departure and take an extra minute to reassure him, praise him, pet him and maybe even bribe him with a crunchy treat. Fido learns quickly that his display of anxiety brings him extra attention and goodies from you – so why wouldn’t he want to keep those tummy rubs and biscuits coming by continuing the goodbye drama?
Long, drawn-out farewells should be avoided at all costs; the more anxiety and attention you focus on the ritual of saying goodbye, the more it will create separation anxiety for Fido. And if you lavish him with lots of love and treats just before you go, it’ll only make the painful isolation seem worse once you're gone. He’s gotten all excited, he wants to play and to show you how much he loves you back - but suddenly you’re gone. What’s a worked-up doggie to do? He’ll either try his best to get you to come back a second time, or else he’ll have to vent his energy through chewing, digging or some other equally destructive activity.
Try setting aside regularly scheduled play sessions to give Fido your undivided attention along with plenty of exercise, and make sure that one of those scheduled sessions occurs before you leave for the day. Once you’ve exercised & played with him, give him some time to settle back down and unwind before you leave - and then leave quietly! Don't make a big dramatic scene out of your departure – just go. With any luck, your contented, thoroughly exercised doggy will get in the habit of sleeping quietly to pass the day until you get home.
If you leave me, can I come too?
Then there’s the more delicate type of doggy, the one whose world is shattered by your absence; these pups aren’t throwing a tantrum for an extra cookie, they genuinely feel terribly stressed, nervous and insecure when they are left alone without you to reassure them. Dogs have a limited number of ways to express nervousness, stress and fear - they will most likely turn to chewing, digging, barking , scratching or peeing inside the house to vent that unhappy energy. Of course, if peeing inside the house (or any of these other activities) brings anger or punishment from you when you get home, the dog will be even more stressed and nervous the next time you leave, setting up a destructive cycle of behavior that can be quite difficult to break. Read more on urine behavior problems here. In its most extreme cases, acute separation anxiety may require the help of a professional animal behavior therapist; ask your vet or obedience trainer for a recommendation.
To help prevent separation anxiety, your dog needs to feel happy, safe, loved and comfortable even when you're away; he probably also needs something to do. Less extreme cases of anxiety can usually be alleviated by working to provide Fido with the love and security he craves, along with a reason for getting up in the morning, even when you’re away. Along with the above-mentioned scheduled play and exercise sessions, give him interactive toys to play with while you're gone. And if he’s a truly determined digger, you may want to build a digging pit in the yard for him; read here for more information on understanding and kicking the digging habit. Or better still, get Fido a pet of his own to help him pass the time – another dog would most likely be a wonderfully welcome addition to Fido’s world. Read here for more on introducing a dog to other pets
Ok, you’ve addressed his underlying issues as best you can; now it’s time to drain the fear out of the departure itself. Gradually get Fido accustomed to your leaving him - practice leaving and returning without making any sort of fuss (or acknowledging your dog’s anxiety) 5 or 10 times a day, staying away for under 5 minutes each time. Do this every day until Fido is so used to your departures that your leave-taking causes no particular reaction; ideally he should even be visibly bored by the whole process. Once your sure that he realizes you’re not abandoning him forever every time you walk out the door, you can gradually leave for longer and longer periods of time.