Home Alone: Dealing With Dog Separation Anxiety
Understand, identify, and learn how to help your furkid cope with separation anxiety
Ever left home for work in the morning (to the reluctance of your dog) only to find the corners of your favourite maple wood cabinet gnawed or worse, droppings in the middle of the living room? These may be signs that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety.
What is separation anxiety?
The concept of separation anxiety is literally what it reads — that a dog feels anxious and exhibits some behaviour that shows its discomfort when it is left alone. However, the tricky issue is to identify whether a dog is truly sufffering from separation anxiety. One has to consider an array of factors before conclusively identifying a dog’s separation anxiety.
Despite the signs that it displays, a dog may not be suffering from separation anxiety. On some occasions, a dog may display signs of separation anxiety, knowing that by doing so will get it attention. In such situations, behaviours may manifest from factors including not being able to expend fully its energy, the general dislike when it is left home alone, or when it is seeking your attention. It may be bored or frustrated from its pent-up energy. However, in a true separation anxiety case, a dog will clearly display signs of stress from being separated. Surveys have pegged the prevalence of separation anxiety at about twenty percent. To put things into perspective, roughly one in five dogs will suffer from separation anxiety. While there is currently no conclusive evidence to explain this phenomenon, do look out for the following specific behaviour patterns that help in establishing whether your dog suffers from separation anxiety.
Identifying separation anxiety
One may look to identify signs of separation anxiety by considering the behaviour displayed by their furkid during the following instances:
1. The “before” instances
Dogs may emit subtle signs that point toward its distress when it picks up departure cues. For example, a dog may exhibit excessive vocalisation, or start pacing and panting, upon picking up cues that its owner is leaving, such as picking up keys or putting on shoes.
2. The “during and after” instances
Owners often realise only upon the aftermath that their dogs suffer from separation anxiety; be it coming home to a torn pillow or poop on the dining table. These after factors include:
• Urinating and defecating: Assuming that the dog is potty-trained, that it urinates and defecates in other spots when left alone even though it usually does not
• Causing destruction:
Where owners find scratches or chew marks on doors, window ledges
During the periods of anxiety a dog may suffer from self-inflicted trauma
• Untouched food:
General reluctance to eat when alone
In the “during” phase, a pet may face such overwhelming stress that it may make the attempt to escape. Also, dogs may whine or bark excessively, pace around and take repetitive actions. Such behaviours are vastly different from when the dog is with you. Typically, separation anxiety signs are observed during the “before” and “after” instances. While such signs do point toward the issue of separation anxiety, a missing piece that may conclusively establish that your dog is indeed feeling distressed when alone, is what it does during the period it is alone. Therefore, it is recommended for one to observe their dog’s behaviour when left alone. This may be done either by installing a video camera or to ask a neighbour to take note of your pet’s whining and barking.
Separation anxiety be gone!
Research suggests that subjecting a dog to punishment for disobedience is ineffective when dealing with separation anxiety. As such, do consider ignoring clingy and attention-seeking behaviour, and progressively train your dog to remain calm when it detects departure cues.
It is possible to teach your furkid that departure cues do not necessarily mean that you are actually leaving. This may be conditioned where owners pick up their keys but do not leave the house. Before leaving the house, try to ensure that their fur-kid is in a calm state of mind. The behavioural technique, known as systematic desensitisation, may also be implemented. This is done by exposing the dog to short periods of separation, before gradually increasing the periods to the required period of absence.
If the situation permits, have another pet accompany your furkid during periods of absence.
In more severe cases, you may consider engaging professional help, whether by seeking treatment from a veterinarian (through the use of medication to reduce anxiety and promote learning), or advice from a professional dog trainer.
It is understandable that coming home to poop on your sofa, or a chewed up pillow may not be the most pleasing of sights, and may be frustrating, especially after a long day at work. The unfortunate fact is that research has shown that separation anxiety is a common cause for undoubtedly the most regrettable outcome – relinquishment to animal shelters. To avoid these situations, it is advisable for pet owners to understand, identify, and rectify such separation anxiety that may affect your furkid, at the earliest.