This post is written by guest author, Britt Kascjak, from Shed Happens.
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The best approach to preventing, managing, and treating your dog’s separation anxiety will depend on what type of separation anxiety they have. Don’t already know? Check out part one of our separation anxiety series: Understanding Separation Anxiety in Dogs!
However, knowing what category of separation anxiety their behavior falls under will still only give us a guideline to start with. Every dog is unique and different, and so too is their response to anxiety.
Use the tips listed here as a starting point. Over time, you will start to recognize which approaches are working best for your dog and which fail to make a difference. Try combining tips where appropriate for an even better result. Most importantly, listen to your dog!
15 Tips for the Prevention & Management of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Avoid Reinforcing Attention-Seeking Behaviors at Home
One of the ways that you may be encouraging separation anxiety in your dog is by reinforcing behaviors that are associated with anxiety or attention-seeking. This is often a well-meaning escape as pet parents attempt to comfort their dogs during periods of anxiety. If your dog is showing signs of being worked up or anxious, avoid eye contact or any attention to the dog until he/she has calmed down.
It may feel ‘mean’ to ignore your dog when it is showing signs that it is upset. This is where we must consider the fact that dogs react to things differently than we do as humans. By comforting your dog, you are teaching your dog that acting up in this way will earn them attention from you.
Punishment Isn’t the Solution
Another way that pet parents will give attention to their dogs when they should avoid it is through commands to stop, pushing their dog away when they are worked up or even punishing their dog for their anxious behaviors. Punishment, like comfort, teaches your dog that anxious behaviors mean that they will get attention. It may not be the ideal form of attention, but it is still attention.
It may be tempting, when you return home to find your favorite throw pillow torn to shreds on the living room floor, to punish your dog for his or her behavior. Like we explained in the last point, the best approach is to simply ignore your dog until he or she has calmed down.
Gradual Desensitization Exercises
Studies have shown that the most successful treatment of separation anxiety in dogs is the introduction of slow and gradual desensitization to you being gone. What does this mean? Slowly building up your dog’s comfort level with you being gone over time.
When you are first starting, you may simply want to step out the door and sit on the front step or in the car. This allows you to be close enough to intervene if needed, but still gives your dog the experience of seeing you leave. The length of time that you are gone will depend on the level of separation anxiety that your dog is experiencing. If they are comfortable with you being gone for 20 minutes before they start to act up, aim for 25 minutes. However, your dog may have to start this exercise with time periods as short as 5 minutes and build up if needed.
As you see your dog becoming more comfortable with you being gone, you can move to leaving the property. Go for a walk, drive around the block, grab some groceries, or hit up your favorite local coffee shop. Whatever you choose to do, remember that you are building up the time frame, so don’t be gone for too long, if possible!
The secret to success is to allow your dog’s comfort level to dictate how quickly (or slowly) you move through this process. If you skip forward without giving your dog the opportunity to adjust, you will likely find yourself back at square one. Be patient and trust the process.
For some dogs, the anxiety kicks in long before their owner leaves the property. Dogs that struggle with Pre-Departure Anxiety will pick up on signs that you’re getting ready to leave before actually walking out the door, such as putting on your shoes or coat or picking up your keys. This then triggers their anxiety, knowing that you will be separated soon.
In situations like this, you will have to take the above desensitization exercises and apply them first to your process of getting ready to go out. Examples include picking up your keys and carrying them around the house without leaving or putting on your coat and shoes and then sitting down to watch television or read a book. This will help your dog to separate these cues from your departure, showing that they don’t necessarily mean that you are going somewhere.
Keep Exits and Entrances Calm
Whether you’re leaving the house for the day or returning after a long shift at work, avoid being overly dramatic when it comes to how you greet your dog. You are working to teach your dog that it’s not a big deal when you leave the house. Turning your exits and/or entrances into some overly dramatic or emotional experience will only add to the anxiety that they are feeling.
When coming or going, stick with a simple and emotion-free hello or goodbye. You may even take the approach to completely ignore your dog just before leaving and for a period of time after returning to further enforce the fact that there is nothing to get worked up about.
Maintain a Predictable Routine When Possible
Dogs are creatures of habit. They take note of your schedule and come to expect certain things to happen at certain times of the day. If you have a food-loving dog, you have likely seen this as your dog starts to get excited each day right before their set mealtime. You can use this attention to schedule and routine to your advantage when managing separation anxiety.
Where possible, try to create an ongoing routine as to when you leave your house and when you return. In the beginning, it isn’t going to help much as your dog isn’t sure what to expect. However, over time you will notice that your dog will recognize that you always return at the same time. This will help to alleviate concerns of when you are coming back and if you are coming back (if that is the triggering factor).
Break Routine Occasionally
On the flip side, some dogs may become distressed simply knowing that you are getting ready to leave. This is a similar concept to pre-departure anxiety, in which your dog will recognize that you will be leaving shortly as you always leave at this time of day and start to show signs of stress and anxiety.
This is an example of where you need to look at your dog individually and assess its needs.
If your dog is triggered by the routine, you may need to break that routine occasionally to remove the stress associated with that specific time of day. Does your dog get worked up before you leave for work every morning? Consider leaving a little earlier on a couple of mornings and grabbing yourself a coffee at your favorite coffee shop on the way to work.
Provide Your Dog with A Distraction While You’re Gone
One of the easiest ways to eliminate boredom when you’re not home is to provide your dog with a distraction while you’re gone. Depending on your dog’s interests and personality, this may include leaving your dog with a fun treat or activity, a puzzle toy, or simply turning on the television or radio.
There are also pet-focused webcams like the Furbo Dog Camera that will allow you to check in on your dog throughout the day, as well as interact with them by talking to them through the device or using the device to give them treats.
Leave Behind Something with Your Scent
If your dog isn’t destructive, you may be able to leave behind an article of your clothing, a blanket, or a stuffed animal with your scent. This will often act as a source of comfort for your dog during the time that they are home alone. One of the easiest ways to do this is to sleep in an old t-shirt or snuggle up at night with a blanket or stuffed animal that you can then leave for your dog when you go to work the next day.
Never Forget, Tired Dogs Are Happy Dogs
One of the most important things to remember when dealing with behavioral issues in dogs is that a tired dog is a happy dog. What does this mean? If your dog is well-exercised, they are less likely to experience anxiety, stress, or boredom.
For dogs that are exhibiting signs of separation anxiety due to boredom, try including a little extra exercise in your schedule before you leave. Some options include taking your dog for an extra walk just before leaving or including some extra playtime with high-energy games like fetch and tug.
Consider Doggy Daycare
Some dogs simply can’t overcome the stress of being left home alone all day. This is especially true if there is no one coming to check in on them at all throughout the day. In these situations, you may want to consider enrolling your dog in a local doggy daycare program. Your dog will get to run and play all day with other dogs of similar size and temperament, making friends and burning energy (remember, tired dogs are happy dogs).
Many doggy daycare providers will keep you updated each day with pictures on social media showing your dog having a great time. Others even have webcams available where you can check-in and watch your dog play if you have a moment between meetings.
If your dog isn’t dog-friendly, you may want to consider making arrangements with a friend or family member that is home through the day as an alternative. This will allow your dog to spend the day with someone that they know and love instead of being alone at home. It’s also a great opportunity for those doggy aunts and uncles that want to enjoy all the fun of owning a dog without the financial commitment!
And if doggy daycare isn’t feasible for one reason or another, you could also explore getting a dog walker or pet sitter to check on your dog and give them some exercise once or several times throughout the day.
Take Steps to Keep Your Dog Safe
In some situations, you may need to make important decisions with your dog’s safety in mind. If your dog is at risk for injuring itself in an attempt to escape or ingesting foreign substances while chewing up or destroying your belongings, then you need to create a ‘safe space’ where your dog can be contained without adding to their anxiety. Many experts recommend not using a crate for this since it is such a small and constricted space.
Instead, choose a room in the house where your dog can be secured. Remove all risks from the room including items that they may chew on or destroy and anything that your dog could ingest. Some experts recommend choosing a room with a window so that your dog can benefit from natural light and the window will help to ease the feeling of being confined.
If isolating your dog to one room isn’t working, you could also try doing the opposite. By keeping your dog in a main area of your home (such as a living room) and closing off all other rooms and blocking stairways, you are able to limit what your dog has access to while also giving them enough space to feel comfortable.
Do NOT Get Another Pet as A Solution
It may seem like a good idea to add another pet to the equation, giving your dog a friend to play with and a distraction from their boredom. However, this is an approach that rarely works. Your dog’s separation anxiety is in relation to being separated from you specifically. There’s no guarantee that adding a new pet will help reduce this attachment or that your existing dog and new pet will create a meaningful bond.
Additionally, adding a new pet to your family presents new challenges and stressors that you’ll have to collectively overcome. Your new pet may also sense the existing anxiety and add to the problem that you’re trying to solve.
While dealing with an existing case of separation anxiety shouldn’t completely forbid you from adding to your family, it also certainly isn’t a solution to the existing problem.
Reduce Anxiety with Natural Supplements and Therapy Options or Medication
If you find that training isn’t enough or that your dog is taking longer than anticipated to adjust to the training, you may want to consider using natural supplements or even looking into prescription medications from the veterinarian.
For dogs that struggle with separation anxiety due to underlying issues like depression, anxiety, panic disorders or traumatic experiences, medication may be the best solution. Just like with humans, these medications work to help reduce the signs of mental health-related problems in your dog.
Another option to consider is the use of natural supplements to help calm your dog’s anxiety. This would include natural oral supplements, the use of CBD supplements, pheromone collars or diffusers for dogs, aromatherapy techniques and anti-anxiety compressions shirts and jackets like the Thundershirt.
Consult the Professionals
Reaching out to a professional for help isn’t a sign of failure or an admission that you are somehow incapable of caring for your dog properly. These individuals are a source of valuable information and are more than willing to make this information available to you if you reach out. This includes dog trainers, dog behaviorists and veterinarians.
Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions whether you are just getting started and want to be sure that you are on the right track, or you have exhausted all options that you are familiar with and need help in determining what to do next.
A dog that suddenly starts showing symptoms of anxiety for the first time with no clear explanation or life-changing event warrants a call to the veterinarian. This anxiety may be the result of a change in your dog’s medical well-being. Injuries, loss of sight, and loss of hearing are all conditions that often lead to a dog feeling unsure or uncomfortable, which can manifest as anxiety. If you address the root cause of this anxiety, you may be surprised at how quickly the problem can be resolved.
Still confused about what separation anxiety is or how to tell if your dog has it? Check out part one of our separation anxiety series: Understanding Separation Anxiety in Dogs!
Do you have experience with managing separation anxiety in dogs? If so, we’d love to hear your tips and tricks in the comments below!
About the Author: Britt is a proud pet mom, sharing her heart (and her home) with her ‘pack’ which includes her husband John, their 2 dogs Daviana and Indiana and their 2 cats Pippen and Jinx. She has been active in the animal rescue community for over 15 years, volunteering, fostering and advocating for organizations across Canada and the US. In her free time, she enjoys traveling around the country camping, hiking, and canoeing with her pets.