Most dogs dislike being left by their owners. If leaving a dog alone results in destructive or erratic behavior, your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety.
Dogs suffering from separation anxiety panic when their owner leaves them. A dog’s erratic behavior and destructiveness are not attempts to punish owners for leaving the dog alone: this behavior may be a symptom of a canine panic attack.
Separation Anxiety Symptoms
Separation anxiety is one of the most common canine behavioral problems. Leaving dogs alone if they have separation anxiety causes a number of canine panic symptoms and erratic behaviors, including:
- destructive behavior
- excessive barking
- inappropriate defecation or urination
- refusal to eat or drink when the owner is away
- scratching at doors and windows
- whining, crying or howling.
Erratic behavior caused by separation anxiety reaches a peak approximately thirty minutes after leaving dogs alone.
Some of the less common symptoms of separation anxiety are vomiting, bouts of diarrhea and self-mutilation—chewing on or excessive licking of body parts.
Because separation anxiety stems from the owner’s departure, dogs with separation anxiety are hypersensitive to their owner’s comings and goings. Such dogs can often tell when owners plan to leave them alone, like when an owner grabs a purse or a set of keys.
As soon as he knows that the owner is leaving him alone, the dog’s erratic behavior begins and can include following the owner around the house, crying or whining. In severe cases of separation anxiety, erratic behavior may include aggression towards the owner in an attempt to force the owner to stay home.
After leaving dogs alone for a day, dog owners can expect cheerful greetings from their pets. Dogs with separation anxiety are excessively glad to see their owners, fawning on them and seeking attention long after a normal dog’s greeting would subside.
Traumatic Events and Separation Anxiety
Traumatic events during puppyhood increase the chances that a dog will suffer from separation anxiety later in life. Such traumatic events may include:
- the absence or death of a family member (including other pets)
- changes in the environment
- a change in the person-to-dog relationship (such as an elderly person’s inability to tolerate a dog in her lap)
- early separation of a pup from her mother
- a new addition to the family (including other pets)
- a lack of emotional attachment or proper socialization early in life.
Animal shelters and pet stores may hamper the progression of a dog’s socialization by preventing him from forming emotional attachments with a human or other dog. Consequently, these dogs are more susceptible to separation anxiety.
Preventing Separation Anxiety
The best way to prevent separation anxiety in a puppy is to keep him on a predictable daily schedule and, therefore, minimize traumatic events early in her life. Other ways to curtail the development of separation anxiety include the following:
- Avoid situations where puppies become too dependent on owners.
- Crate train the dog while she’s young as part of obedience training (not as a punishment for erratic behavior).
- Gradually lengthen the time you’re leaving dog alone.
- Prevent the dog from following you everywhere.
- Socialize the puppy with other dogs and humans.
Treating Separation Anxiety
Before attempting to treat separation anxiety, consult with your dog’s veterinarian. He or she will be able to determine whether your dog’s erratic behavior is a result of separation anxiety or other health conditions.
Gradually desensitizing your dog to isolation is the preferred treatment for separation anxiety. Begin by leaving your dog alone for only a few seconds: simply exit and reenter the house. Don’t let the dog know you’re leaving, and don’t praise the dog excessively if erratic behavior doesn’t occur. Leaving a dog alone should be a normal part of his routine, rather than an overly emotional event.
As soon as your dog ceases his erratic behavior or signs of anxiety (including extended greetings), slowly increase the time you leave him alone. Being able to leave him for thirty minutes without erratic behavior is a key step in the process, as separation anxiety symptoms generally peak within thirty minutes of leaving dogs alone.
Once the dog is comfortable being left alone for thirty minutes, keep extending the time you’re out of the house. A dog that allows you to leave the house for ninety minutes without separation anxiety is usually capable of spending the day alone without erratic behavior.
Separation Anxiety Medication
A desensitization program for separation anxiety takes time and is likely to be interrupted by work and other demands. Leaving dogs alone for long periods during desensitization only slows the process and most likely results in more erratic behavior.
To help your dog cope with long absences during separation anxiety treatment, ask your vet about canine anti-anxiety medication. Anti-anxiety medication like clomipramine can be used to calm your dog while he gets used to being alone for extended periods.