Today is World Mental Health Day, so we’re taking a closer look at one of the most common dog anxiety problems: separation anxiety.
What is separation anxiety?
This broad term covering a range of behaviours dogs display when they become anxious when separated from their owners. Dogs with separation anxiety can struggle with situations including being left home alone, or in more severe cases, even being in a different room to their human family.
Signs of separation anxiety:
- Accidents around the house
- Barking, howling or whining
- Excessive dribbling (hyper-salivation)
- Destructive behaviours, like chewing or digging
- Pacing and attempting to escape – some dogs may even damage doors and windows
Why do some dogs struggle when left home alone?
It’s typically a mix of factors – past experiences, socialisation and habituation, individual temperament and genetic makeup. Just like people, dogs are individuals, so it varies from dog to dog.
Who’s prone to separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is common in younger dogs between 9 months and 2 years, or in older dogs who may become increasingly dependent on their owners as their sense of smell, sight and hearing begins to deteriorate. It’s also more common in rescue dogs.
How common is separation anxiety and separation related behaviour?
Scientific surveys suggest more than 30% of UK pet dogs show obvious signs that they are anxious when home alone* – that’s the signs in the box above. However, there are lots of less obvious ways dogs show that they’re unhappy: not being able to settle, looking for their owner, and anxious body postures.
These less obvious signs are hard to spot without videoing your home-alone dog – so many owners don't know how their dog feels. Some experts suggest up to 80% of dogs could be suffering in silence.
Does my dog have separation anxiety – or is he badly behaved?
Damage and destruction can be misinterpreted by some owners as ‘revenge’ or ‘spite’, which couldn’t be further from the truth. If your dog isn’t behaving as you’d hope when left home alone, please don’t punish your pet – their actions may be a symptom of acute distress.
How to diagnose separation anxiety
It’s best to talk to your vet or a behavioural expert. They’ll help to discount other behavioural issues as well as potential medical problems like gastrointestinal or urinary disorders, or seizures. Once you know you’re dealing with separation anxiety, they can also give essential guidance on how to work with your dog to help them feel better.
Is there a cure for separation anxiety?
With the right help, most dogs can feel much less anxious when you leave them home alone. Your vet or behaviourist is the best person to put together a plan for your dog, which might include:
- Counter conditioning
- Anti-anxiety medicine – often tricyclic antidepressants
- A natural calming supplement like YuCALM Dog
Counter conditioning for mild dog anxiety
Many behaviourists and vets recommend counter conditioning for mild cases. This technique turns a bad experience that the dog fears into something that becomes enjoyable. If your dog’s separation anxiety isn’t too serious, your expert might recommend that you try things like:
Stuffed Kongs – giving your dog one of these hollow rubber toys filled with something tasty like peanut butter, cream cheese or banana, or stuffed with wet dog food and frozen to make it last! Plenty of walkies – a good run helps to tire your dog before you leave them home alone, so they’re more relaxed and likely to snooze through your absence. Brain games – mental exercise is also good for tiring dogs. A clicker training session before you leave can help them relax too.
Help for dogs with severe separation anxiety
In more severe cases, your dog may need complex counter-conditioning and desensitisation. It’s important to only do this kind of work with guidance from a vet or the right behavioural expert.
It’s a process that will vary depending on your dog, but to give you an idea of what to expect, it’s likely that your expert will work with you to help your dog feel more comfortable with ‘pre-departure cues’ – that’s things like putting on your shoes or picking up your car key. Then they’ll expose your dog to ‘graduated departures’ – that’s absences of increasing length. They’ll also advise not to leave your dog alone for long periods while you work on separation anxiety.
If possible, take your dog to work with you. If your employers say no, why not try doggy day-care, or a dog-sitter, like the services on offer with DogBuddy. Your expert may also suggest anti-anxiety medication or calming supplement like YuCALM Dog to increase your dog’s chances of feeling better, faster.
Remember always, if your dog struggles with separation anxiety, they can’t help their behaviour – and they’ll need your help to feel happier and more confident home alone. Just like when friends and family members are struggling with life’s challenges, patience, understanding and love will make the world of difference to your dog.
*Blackwell, E. J., Bradshaw, J. W. D. & Casey, R. A. (2013). Fear responses to noises in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear related behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 145, 15-25.