In my many years as a Colorado Springs dog trainer and behaviorist, I have seen my share of dogs suffering from separation anxiety (SA) when left alone. This behavior problem disrupts your household routines, leads to frustration for you as the owner, and harms your canine’s overall well-being.
In this guide, I hope to provide a few proven strategies to help your furry friends overcome the anxiety of being alone.
Understanding the Symptoms of Canine Separation Anxiety
Understanding what your dog is going through when left alone is the first step in successfully managing their behavior. When left by themselves, a dog with SA may display a wide range of symptoms:
Excessive Barking and Howling
A dog experiencing this very real form of distress may resort to persistent barking or howling when left alone, seemingly triggered by nothing apart from the absence of their owner.
Urinating and Defecating Indoors
Even house-trained dogs may urinate or defecate indoors when left alone. This is a response to their anxiety and not a sign of regression or that you failed in housebreaking your dog.
Destructive behavior may manifest in chewing on furniture, door frames, window sills, or digging at doors and doorways. You may find your favorite shoes or their dog bed destroyed. While coming home to a mess is annoying, your pup is exhibiting behavior that can injure them.
Attempts to Escape
Dogs with separation anxiety may try to escape the area where they are confined when left alone.
Some dogs find a groove (literally) by pacing in a fixed pattern when left alone or separated from their owners.
A less common symptom (thankfully) is that some dogs may defecate and then consume their excrement when left alone.
These symptoms may not necessarily be due to SA and could be indicative of other behavior or health problems. (Coprophagia, in particular, can result from parasites, malabsorption disorders or dietary deficiencies.)
If you suspect your pup is experiencing SA, have a professional, such as a certified dog behaviorist and trainer or a veterinarian, evaluate your dog’s behavior to rule out other potential causes.
Unraveling the Causes Behind SA in Dogs
The exact causes of canine SA remain unclear, but certain situations and experiences can trigger this behavior. Dogs may develop separation anxiety due to the following:
Dogs who are not used to being left alone may experience anxiety when they’re suddenly separated from their owners.
Change in Routine or Environment
A sudden change in the family’s routine, moving to a new residence, or losing a family member can all trigger SA in dogs.
Yes, even our beloved pets can experience post-traumatic stress. For some pups, a past traumatic experience, such as time spent in a boarding kennel or shelter, also leads to the development of separation anxiety.
Dogs accustomed to constant human contact and then suddenly left alone may exhibit symptoms of separation anxiety. For instance, recent years saw a sharp increase in people working from home. Your dog may be a perfect angel when you are with them 24/7, but if you have to return to the office for extended periods, your dog may start to exhibit the above signs.
Addressing Mild Separation Anxiety in Dogs
If your dog shows signs of mild SA, there are strategies you can employ to help your furry friend cope:
Downplay Departures and Arrivals
Avoid making a fuss when leaving or returning home. Keep your tone calm and your actions low-key.
Establish a Safety Signal
Develop a word, phrase, or action that reassures your dog you’ll be back. This signal will eventually be associated with your return, reducing your dog’s anxiety in time.
Provide Engaging Toys
Leaving your dog with a toy they love can distract them and help reduce the anxiety associated with your departure. And if your dog is a chewer, you have the added benefit of giving them something other than your shoes to gnaw on.
Implement a Consistent Exercise Routine
Just as exercise is vital for humans managing stress, regular physical activity can reduce your dog’s anxiety levels. Try to walk your dog before you leave the house to help them relax.
Reduce the number of stimuli that could trigger your dog’s anxiety. This could involve closing the curtains, confining your dog to a quiet room, or, in some cases, leaving the radio or TV on, anything that can help your furry friend relax.
Dealing with Moderate to Severe SA
The above strategies are great if your dog has mild SA, but if they are experiencing moderate to severe separation anxiety, a more comprehensive approach may be necessary. This may involve a systematic program of desensitization and counterconditioning under the guidance of a professional dog trainer and behaviorist. Since situations where SA is prevalent mainly involve being at home alone, working with a Colorado Springs dog trainer who offers in-home training is ideal.
This process involves gradually accustoming your dog to being alone by starting with short separations that do not provoke anxiety and then slowly increasing the duration of these separations over time. Be patient, as this process can take several weeks or even months.
The Role of Medication in Managing Separation Anxiety
In certain severe cases, your vet may recommend medication to help your dog cope with their distress at being alone. Always use medication in conjunction with behavior modification strategies and under the guidance of a veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist.
What Not to Do When Your Dog Has SA
As mentioned above, as annoyed as you may be to find your couch destroyed or a pile of poo as you walk in the front door, you must remember that your dog’s anxious behaviors are not acts of rebellion or attempts to punish you for being gone.
These behaviors are a response to the stress and fear your dog experiences when left alone. Therefore, punishment or scolding will only intensify your dog’s anxiety and could exacerbate the problem.
In-Home Dog Training Can Be the Game-Changer You Both Need
Remember, a dog suffering from SA is not a ‘bad dog.’ They’re simply a dog in distress who needs your understanding, patience, and help. If you’re struggling with managing your dog’s separation anxiety, seeking professional help can be a game-changer – for you and your dog.
As a certified dog trainer and behaviorist, I have worked with many Colorado Springs families to ease SA in their dogs and navigate this challenging journey.
Even aggressive dogs benefit from the right kind of training – the kind that results in a happy and well-adjusted member of your family.
Contact me today for your free canine consultation and to see the positive differences a personalized training approach will make in your relationship with your dog.
Developing an individual training approach for every dog in Colorado Springs? That’s Dog Training – Laurie’s Way.