The term ‘creature of habit’ applies to many situations in life, perhaps none more so than our house pets. Their daily patterns – eating, sleeping, exercise, engagement – become a necessary routine for their bodies and minds. A significant change to this routine, such as a return to work and school after summer vacation (or a global pandemic) can have significant impacts on a dog’s mental and physical state.
Some dogs will respond to change by feeling separation anxiety, which particularly occurs when their guardians – the people they are attached to – leave them. The degrees of separation anxiety can vary from mild to severe. On the extreme end, it can be a serious condition which can leads to injury of a pet. Likewise, an owner can become so frustrated that they give up their pet – which leads to more change in an already anxious dog’s life. Addressing separation anxiety can improve the lives of both the pet and family.
What causes separation anxiety?
- Being left alone for the first time or after extended periods of time with people
- Change of ownership, introducing a new guardian to their life
- Change in residence, leaving a shelter or entering a new home after becoming comfortable in a previous home
- Change in family routine or a sudden shift in schedule
- Note: personality can play a role, with clingy dogs perhaps being more at risk than independent ones.
What are the signs of separation anxiety?
- Excessive howling, barking or whining
- Indoor “accidents” even after being housebroken
- Chewing or digging, particularly at windows and doors
- Drooling, panting or salivating
- Pacing or trembling while alone or prior to departure
- Desperate attempts to escape, potentially ending in injury
Let’s say you have experienced one or more of the signs in response to a traditional cause of separation anxiety, or you know a stressor is impending – now what? Try one of these approaches to destress your pet or prepare their home for the upcoming change. Work with your pet to minimize or eliminate these problem areas, knowing that each dog responds differently.
Establish a predictable routine
Since your dog is anxious, begin by making his day calmer and more predictable whether you are home or away. Establish a daily routine so that your dog can begin to predict when he can expect exercise, feeding, training, play and potty time. At the same time, create expectations for when he should be prepared for inattention, with the hope they take that time for napping or playing his favored toys. Try to schedule these times for object play and naps at times when you would normally depart.
Addressing separation anxiety is not a quick fix. It’s a gradual process which will normally require a stepped approach. Start by leaving your dog alone for five minutes before returning, then extend the time to twenty minutes, then an hour. Continue to increase the time you spend away until you can leave for a full eight hours without any more dog problems.
Don’t make a big deal when you leave for the day or when you return. Say your ‘goodbyes’ minutes before you actually leave, then give them a toy or treat as a pleasant distraction when you actually walk out the door. And when your return, ignore your dog for the first few minutes then calmly give them attention. This way, you are communicating to your dog that the time apart is no big deal.
Make sure your pet gets lots of exercise every day, ideally before you leave for the day. A tired, happy dog will be less stressed when you leave and may not have the energy to be destructive while you’re gone. Use both physical and mental exercise, such as training games and fetch. Leave interactive puzzles which work his mind as well as his body.
Crates sometimes have a negative connotation, being considered a place of punishment for a bad dog or puppy. To the contrary, it can be an important training tool if used appropriately. The trick is to teach him to associate his crate with wonderful things like chew toys and food-releasing puzzle toys so he’s happy to spend time inside. Some dogs feel safer and more comfortable in their crate when left alone.
However, other dogs can panic. The small space and sense of confinement can exacerbate the feeling of anxiousness. Watch your dog’s behavior to see if he settles right down or if the anxiety symptoms ramp up. Severe cases have been known to attempt escape by chewing at the bars, leading to injury. The intent of a crate is to keep him and your house safe while alone, not to make the situation worse.
Develop a Zen place
If a crate leads to additional anxiety, put a bed or mat where your dog can be taught to rest, play with his toys or (hopefully) sleep. This should be a ‘happy place” that your dog associates with good things. Consider feeding meals and treats on the bed or mat. Provide affection and play with toys while you are both on the bed or mat.
If necessary, take extra steps to make a calm space. Turn on relaxing music or install a aromatherapy dispenser in the same room to use their keen hearing and smelling senses to improve relaxation. Leave a blanket or piece of clothing with your scent on the bed before you depart. The goal is to provide a secure area where your dog might choose to settle when you are not home.
Many dogs are so fixated and stimulated by food, treats or toys that they may barely notice you’re gone. Take advantage of these ‘food-motivated’ pets by tightly stuffing dog toys with peanut butter or their own dog food – or both. If you have time to plan ahead, freeze your stuffed dog toy over night to extend the time and energy required to get out the ‘good stuff’.
Find a distraction device which motivates and occupies your dog until you are long gone or while you are out. If a particular toy is highly successful at keeping your dog’s attention, provide two or three of the same type. Remove these special toys while you return home so these high-value treats become part of the routine while you are away.
You can even feed your dog all of his daily meals in special toys. However, this approach will only work for those dogs whose appetite is not adversely affected by the anxiety. If the food-filled toys haven’t been touched by the time you return, consider a different approach for meal time.
If distracting toys or comfortable beds don’t work, your next approach may be something internal rather than external. Calming treats made with ingredients like chamomile, lavender, valerian root, tryptophan and St. Johns Wort can be given to relieve stress, nervousness and anxiety. Consider giving them to your pet while you are preparing to leave so the effects start to kick in while you are there but then last for the time you are gone.
Another popular solution are treats and oils infused with CDB (cannabidiol) or hemp. Basically, CBD affects receptors in the dog’s central nervous system to increase the availability of serotonin, the “feel-good chemical.”. This impacts important functions such as sleep, mood and appetite, making it easier for the dog to calm down while not having any of the hallucinogenic effects associated with cannabis.
Availability of CBD and hemp oil products for dogs varies by state. While not a medicine, it’s important to follow instructions for dosage based upon size. Generally start with a low dose, and only increase if you don’t see results. And certainly ask a veterinarian if you have questions or your pet shows any negative results.
Despite your best efforts, separation anxiety in puppies and dogs isn’t always preventable. And once a dog starts to experience severe physiological and emotional breaks as a result, it can be a complicated process to treat. If none of the home remedies work, you may want to connect with a certified animal behaviorist to work with you and your pet. With patience and a positive attitude, you may be able to reduce the negative impact of the anxiety they are feeling.