Have you ever experienced the feeling of being so in love with someone that you can’t wait to see them again? You smile just thinking about that special someone and seeing them again makes you want to jump up and down with joy (but you don’t because you’re playing it cool, right? Right.)
Now, consider the possibility that your beloved pet feels the same way about you, except they couldn’t care less who sees them jumping for joy at the sight of you. If they were animated, you would see little hearts floating above their head as they danced around yipping with excitement.
Let’s be honest, who doesn’t like coming home from a long day at work and being greeted by someone so unabashedly excited to see them? Feels good, doesn’t it? So you drop your stuff down and greet your dog in happy, high-pitched voice, rubbing their head and giving them kisses on the nose as they pant and wag their tail – this is where the record scratches and the scene comes to an abrupt halt.
If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, this seemingly innocent exchange with your dog just added fuel to the proverbial fire. Your dog spent the entire day stressed out, pacing back and forth, and anxiously awaiting that glorious moment when you walk in the door. Your excited, high-pitched voice and affectionate greeting just rewarded their anxiety.
This is just one, mild example of separation anxiety. Let’s take a look at what causes this inner turmoil in our beloved pets and solutions that you can start implementing in your home today.
Causes of Separation Anxiety
Researchers have been unable to pinpoint why some dogs suffer from separation anxiety while other dogs, even dogs from the same household, remain unaffected. However, some studies have identified the following situations as possible triggers for the development of separation anxiety in your dog:
New Job or Change in Schedule
Let’s say, in the past, you were at home a lot or your work schedule was flexible enough to allow you time to visit your dog on your lunch or take them for walks when you got home. Now, your new job requires more of your time commuting or working long hours and your dog is left home alone for longer periods of time. This abrupt change to your daily routine could trigger separation anxiety in your dog.
Sadly, but understandably, separation anxiety is common in shelter dogs. One moment they are in their home with their family, the next, they are dropped off at a shelter or abandoned, never to see their family again. They get adopted into a new loving home, but how are they to know that history won’t repeat itself? The dog sees the new owner they love so much walking out the door and becomes anxious wondering if they will ever see them again.
Loss of Owner / Family Member
The primary caretaker or a family member in the house moves out or passes away. The dog has lost someone important to them which can trigger separation anxiety.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety
If your dog is housebroken and well-mannered, but displays any of the following symptoms when you are out of their sight, your dog most likely suffers from separation anxiety. (It’s important to stress “housebroken” and “well-mannered” because the following symptoms could also be a direct result of improper or lack of training! More often than not, these symptoms are not witnessed in the presence of the owner because the dog is content while the owner is home. It is only once the owner is out of the dog’s sight that the anxiety is triggered and the behavior issues begin. If your dog exhibits any of the following symptoms, it is imperative that you first rule out any medical problems or training issues.)
Are your doors scratched up? Door frames whittled down to toothpicks? Window frames gnawed on? Expensive shutters or blinds destroyed? Holes dug along your fenceline? Note that these are all exit points and this destructive behavior is a result of your dog trying to get out of the house, sometimes at the location they last saw you exit.
(Note: As stated above, first rule out that the destructive behavior from your dog is not training-related and that your dog has been properly exercised and not chewing or digging out of boredom.)
Excessive Barking or Howling
Have you come home to find an unpleasant note on your door from neighbors or Animal Control about your dog’s excessive barking while you’re away? Barking or howling that starts after the owner leaves is a common symptom of separation anxiety.
(Note: Be sure to eliminate any other possible triggers for excessive barking such as the neighbor’s cat that likes to taunt your dog by sitting on your wall all day, or the blinds you leave open that allow your dog to see everyone that walks by your home, etc.)
Urinating or Defecating Indoors
Be sure your dog is properly housebroken and not having “accidents” from being left indoors too long or from an underlying medical issue (ie: urinary tract infection).
Pacing or Circling
If your dog paces or circles intensely, chances are you’ll begin to see a path starting to form in your house or in your backyard where they walk back and forth for hours on end, waiting for you to come home.
Solutions for Separation Anxiety
Reset the Cues
Your dog probably knows your daily routine better than anyone else. They hear the alarm clock go off in the morning and know exactly what you’re going to do next, right up to the moment you grab your car keys and walk out the door. The whole time you’re getting ready for work, your dog’s anxiety is building. You walk out the door and “AAARRRGGHHHH! I KNEW IT! THEY LEFT ME AGAIN! NOOOOOOO!” Cue howling, pacing, digging, etc.
Time to reset the cues that trigger their anxiety! Instead of getting in the shower after your alarm goes off, trying going in the kitchen first and turning on the coffee maker. Before you head to the shower, grab your car keys and take them into the bathroom with you. It doesn’t require a lot of effort, just consistently mixing up the cues to minimize your dog’s anxiety leading up to your departure.
Used properly, the crate can be a great tool for keeping your dog safe and reducing anxiety while you’re away. Dogs by nature are “den animals” and enjoy being in an enclosed space that makes them feel secure. Leaving your dog home alone with free reign of the house can cause pacing, elevated heart rate, and stress, not to mention endless opportunities to get into trouble and possibly injure themselves. To learn more about benefits of crate training, see our recent post on this topic!
Find a “high-value” puzzle toy or treat (Or a combination of the two! A treat-filled KONG is a great example.) to give your dog when you leave. This toy/treat is only to be used when you leave to teach your dog that your departure is something to look forward to rather than stress about.
A happy dog is a well-exercised dog! Giving your furry friend a brisk walk allows them to burn off pent-up energy and settle down prior to your departure. Daily exercise is not only great at reducing separation anxiety but excellent for the overall health of your dog.
While some prescription medications or herbal supplements can alter neurotransmitters in the brain to induce a sense of peace and calmness in your dog, it is not a long-term solution and should only be used as an adjunct to solving the root cause of your dog’s anxiety. Consult with your vet prior to administering any form of medication to your dog.
Keep it Mellow
Remember when we talked about your exciting return home? Well, let’s take it down a notch. Actually, let’s take it all the way down to stoic. See, in your dog’s mind, your excited reaction is what they’ve been waiting to see…All. Day. Long.
It’s like throwing them a party every time you come home. “Hooray! You’re home! Woo Hooooooo! Let’s part-aaayyy! Woot woot!”
When it should be more like, “Oh hey, you’re home. Good to see ya. Saw a squirrel on the tree outside earlier, other than that nothing exciting to report. How about some dinner?” See the difference?
If your anxious dog is dancing, prancing, yipping, and jumping when you walk in the door, ignore them. Wait until they have calmed down, then praise them and give them lots of love and affection. Eventually they will learn that your return home is nothing to get worked up about.
It can be frustrating and overwhelming to come home and find your house destroyed or listen to your neighbors complain about the chronic barking from your dog. Before reacting out of anger towards your pet, please understand that your dog’s anxiety is not something they enjoy and it is extremely stressful for them. Separation anxiety is a serious issue that needs to be handled with care. Do NOT punish your dog for anxiety-related behavior as it will only create bigger trust issues and problems later on. A little patience and persistence in applying these solutions will go a long way towards creating a healthy and happy home with your dog!