Dog owners just love bonding with their pets. Our dogs love it just as much, if not more, as they are very social animals. This loyalty and love for their owners is something that has made them an essential part of cultures all over the world. However, this strong bond does have one potential downside, and that is the chance of developing separation anxiety.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Whether you’ve just got your first dog or you’re a long-time owner who’s looking into how to become a registered dog breeder, you always run the risk of your dog developing separation anxiety. It’s one of the most common problems that dog owners have, especially recently with the increase in the number of pet owners. It’s estimated that around 20% of dogs experience it.
It is still unclear exactly what causes separation anxiety. However, it has been seen that there is a much higher incidence rate of separation anxiety in dogs who have been adopted from shelters. What seems to be clear is that when a dog has separation anxiety, they become intensely fearful of being left by their caretaker or guardian. Some symptoms of separation anxiety include:
- Barking and howling
- Destructive behaviours (e.g., chewing or digging)
- Escape attempts
- Toileting mistakes
These symptoms can vary in intensity and frequency. Very serious cases of separation anxiety can be detrimental to a dog’s physical and mental health.
While the exact causes of separation anxiety may be unknown, it is also possible that your dog may be experiencing pain or have an underlying medical condition that causes the symptoms of separation anxiety. It’s a good idea to first have your dog checked by your veterinarian in case they may have an untreated health problem.
How to Manage Separation Anxiety in Dogs
For severe separation anxiety, the best course of action is to approach a trained professional for assistance. Certified animal behaviourists will be able to create a treatment plan which will have the best chance of managing your dog’s separation anxiety.
If you have a dog with mild to moderate separation anxiety, it is very possible to manage their anxiety so that they can live a normal life. Some steps you can take include:
Give your dog lots of activities
Most dogs are under-exercised and under-stimulated. This lack of mental and physical stimulation can contribute to separation anxiety. Giving your dog tasks to do helps them to manage their own stress and gives them an outlet for excess energy. In general, a tired dog is a happy dog. Some examples of appropriate activities will include:
- Daily walks
- Off-leash time with other dogs in a secure, enclosed area (e.g., a dog park)
- Interactive games such as flirt stick games or tug-of-war
- Treat puzzles that challenge your dog’s brain
- Basic scentwork
- Obedience training
- Canine sports, whether competitive or noncompetitive
Make your absence a positive experience
Dogs are smart animals, and many of them are motivated by positive reinforcement. Separation anxiety is intensely negative for most dogs, which only gets worse the more often they experience it. Dogs with mild to moderate separation anxiety can be taught that their owner’s absence is actually a positive thing by using positive reinforcement. This is an example of basic counterconditioning, changing a dog’s fearful reaction to one of relaxation.
Every time you leave the house, you can give your dog a puzzle feeder or treat that you know will take them 20 to 30 minutes to finish. This puzzle feeder or treat should be taken away as soon as you return, so that it becomes something special that the dog only gets in your absence. It will also need to be high-value treats that your dog really enjoys – many people find frozen peanut butter and bananas stuffed into a Kong toy to be a good option.
This approach only really works if the dog has mild to moderate separation anxiety because severe cases usually mean the dog will not eat or pay attention to toys.
Medication can be an option
This is one approach that you can speak to your veterinarian about, as dogs should not be given any sort of medication without the go-ahead of a certified professional. However, many dog owners find success with medication to manage their dog’s anxiety. For severe cases of separation anxiety, medication may actually be necessary to begin counterconditioning or training.
Some dogs with mild separation anxiety may also respond well to medication without any need for training or counterconditioning. However, a vast majority of dogs will do best with both medication and behaviour modification.
It’s important to remember that separation anxiety is not your dog acting out or being a bad dog. It’s a response to fear and uncertainty – and the dogs that love us the most are also the dogs that are most prone to developing the condition. Managing your dog’s separation anxiety is possible, but it requires effort and patience.