It is so sad to think that your dog suffers when you leave them alone, but it’s estimated that up to 20% of dogs are effected by some form of Separation. You can help your dog except your absence but there is no quick fix.
There are different types of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
SEPARATION ANXIETY:- Panicked when away from owners.
Bonded to one particular person or owner and only that person will do. This is rare and usually requires medication intervention = clinical separation anxiety.
FEAR: The dog is scared or anxious when left alone (any human will do)
FRUSTRATION: The dog is frustrated that they’ve been left alone(but any human will do)
Dogs who start out frustration at their owner leaving, then begin to dread the feeling of frustration and so become anxious/fearful
Within these different types of Separation Related Problems are varying degrees of anxiety, frustration and fear
MILD: If your dog has a mild case of SRP, counterconditioning might reduce or resolve the problem. Changing the dogs fearful, anxious or frustrated reaction to a pleasant, relaxed one instead.
MODERATE or SEVERE: These cases require a more complex desensitization and counterconditioning program. In these cases, it’s crucial to gradually accustom a dog to being alone by starting with many short sessions that do not produce anxiety and then gradually increase the duration of the separation. All signs of a fearful reaction need to be avoided.
What Causes Separation Related Problems (SRP)
There is no conclusive evidence showing exactly why dogs develop SRP but below are some of the more common reasons:
Breed? Yes and no, genetics play a huge part in inherited anxiety – however there is also much variation within breeds. Some breeds are just predisposed to being anxious.
Early Life Experiences?
- Lake of early socialisation (i.e. from a puppy farm)
- Maternal Care – how was mum with her pup’s, did she go to them when they needed her or did she leave them to cry it out, making the pup’s worried.
Are Rescue Dogs More Likely to Develop SRP? Older dogs who are rehomed MAY be more likely to develop SRP
A Move? Moving to a new home can trigger anxiety, which can lead to SRP.
Gender? Males tend to be more highly represented than females.
Different Personalities? Maybe neutered dogs with lower testosterone and therefore confidence may be more affected. But there is no science to prove this.
Change of Schedule? An abrupt change in schedule in terms of when or how long a dog is left alone can trigger the development of SRP.
Can you prevent SRP?
- Some dogs are just prepositioned
- Obtain a puppy from a good breeder – ask many questions i.e. have they been doing small sessions of separation from mum and littermates?
- Crate or confinement training in a positive way from the very beginning
- Do home alone training – when they are tired, fed, toileted and calm
- Give them what they need – easier to work on now than fix later.
Did I Cause This?
(owner blaming themselves) with things like:
- Sleeping on the bed
- Not being an effective pack leader ‘because I’m not the boss & my dog feels anxious’
- Being allowed on the furniture
- Talking to the dog like they are a person
- Buying gifts for the dog
- Being to close to your dog
Dog’s gain confidence from us. A happy healthy relationship with your dog is important to how your dog feels don’t self-blame.
Something’s People Try:
“shall we just get another dog, because dogs like company”
Dogs love company but favour human company. Its not the answer as you may end up with two dogs with SRP – double the problem.
But if you did have two and one dies and one remaining dog is missing/grieving, then why not try fostering first.
“what about leaving a food toy”
- Dogs can be anxious and still eat
- Still feel the same after the toy has been emptied its just a distraction
- Can be a signal the owner is going to leave and become a pre-departure cue ‘the poisoned puzzle feeder’ a common thing people do but it’s just a distraction.
“can I reward calmness upon my return?”
- Increases arousal/anxiety at your return
- Too cheap to maintain a very expensive behaviour
BUT: Your arrival is rewarding enough. By adding food/treat what can actually happen is you put more emphasis on your return when what you want them to feel is that you went away nothing bad happened then you returned and it was all like normal NO BIG DEAL
Also coming back with a treat for calm relaxed behavior isn’t reward enough.
Should I use a Crate?
Would they be better in a crate? “it depends” If they’ve never used a crate and they are showing signs of SRP probably not, as should not be used to contain. You could train them to use a crate as a safe space but you may produce CONFINEMENT PHODIA/CONTAINMENT ANXIETY. STAIRGATES and PENS often are better especially to keep them safe. Introduce CRATE games and increased value to an area can help.
So what does SRP BEHAVIOUR LOOK LIKE?
- Destruction – exit points (including crate) Is the destruction by the dog just distracting them or a displacement behaviour by the dog i.e. I’m feeling stressed I’m going to chew!
- Excessive vocalisation – howling, whining, barking. This can start and stop during owners absents.
- Elimination, in an otherwise trained dog, defecating and weeing can make a dog feel better
Dogs don’t have to show all three.
How will I know if its SRP?
- Film the dog to see what happens. What is the dog doing? film a short session if they get really upset.
- Make sure there is a device that can clearly see the dogs face. Put camera low.
- Ask a qualified trainer or behaviourist to view the film for their opinion.
The Next Step
STEP 1 Does my dog have SRP or could it be something else?
Before concluding that your dog has SRP it’s important to rule out other things.
- Elderly Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (like Alzheimer’s or dementia)
- Boredom: Counter Surfing, Bin Raiding, Generally having a Party. All done when nobody is looking ‘I’m bored, what can I do’
- Territorial/Alarm Barking or Howling, something setting the dog off such as loud car, dog barking.
- House Training/Marking: Some dogs will wee & poo with stress. Marking over. Puppy not very well house training. New Rescue. Submissive or Excitement Urination
- Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) ‘you’re gone and I want to go with you’.
- Noise Phobia
- Pain / Medical
- Juvenile Destruction: Young dogs may engage in destructive chewing or digging
STEP 2 Film your dog – Slow it down, turn off the sound and watch the dog
STEP 3 Seek help from a qualified trainer or behaviourist for an in-depth specifically designed training program for you and your dog.
STEP 4 So you’ve filmed your dog and you think they are struggling with being left, what do I do?
STOP LEAVING THEM– Suspend all absences. By continually leaving them you are going to make their sensitivity worse.
HOW DO I DO THAT?
Doggy Day Care Pet Sitters Pet Nannies
Dog Walkers Friends Work from home
Neighbours Retired People Take your dog to work
Students Share your dog with another dog owner
Ask around, advertise locally (people love a sob story), look at ‘borrow my dog’
Find a solution that means your dog isn’t let alone.
Once you’ve gone through the training process your dog might be okay with being left for a while so the care can be reduced.
ARE THE DOGS BASIC NEEDS BEING MET?
- Vet Check Is the dog in good health?
- Nutrition Correct diet for dog, regularly fed (blood sugars, is the dog hungry)?
- Physical Exercise Under or over exercised? High adrenaline, over exercised, body tired but mind racing, physically exhausted or not enough (some little dogs aren’t exercised enough.
- Enrichment/Mental Stimulation Enough or too much?
- Training for an all round, happy & healthy dog. Not just enrichment toys when you leave. Scent work/scavenging is mentally exhausting. Training can also give dogs confidence.
Physical health is important to how they feel (their emotions), just as it is in humans.
MEDICATION– Does the dog need medication? Medication can elevate overall mood by an increase of specific Neuro transmitters (happy pills). Many dogs with anxiety have low levels of serotonin
- Medication gives a larger window of learning – speeds up training. The dog isn’t so quick to react, panic, get frustrated and react
- Not as useful on its own, should be done with a training program
- Talk to your vets
ALTERNATIVE THERAPIES (can change the way the dogs brain works)
- Plug in diffusers
- Nutraceuticals – Zylkene, Yucalm
- Thundershirts – some dogs can shut down using a shirt. Also you shouldn’t leave a dog wearing one.
- CBD – oil, additives (must be good quality and from a trusted source – NO HHC)
Alternative Therapies can’t hurt but might help. But they can also be a waste of money.
What NOT to DO
- DON’T let them ‘Cry It Out’ – puppies or rescue’s need you and your emotional support. Create an emotionally resilient puppy. Crying is an emotional response not a thought behavioiur.
- DON’T Scold or Punish your Dog. Anxious behaviours are not the result of disobedience or spite. They are distressed. Your dog displays anxious behaviours when left alone because they are upset and trying to cope with a great deal of stress. If you punish they may become even more upset and the problem could get much worse.
- Do NOTHING and hope it will get better or they will grow out of it.