Why Does It Happen?
Anxiety related problems – and, in particular, separation anxiety – usually occur as a result of a dog’s over-attachment to its owner. Essentially, the dog becomes so emotionally attached to its owner that as soon as it is left alone it feels enormous tension – and this manifests itself in numerous undesirable ways.
Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety may display one or all of the following characteristics in their owner’s absence: soiling, destructiveness, excessive barking/whining and even self mutilation. As with dominance aggression, separation anxiety is a behavior that owners find difficult to live with.
In fact, owners often make the problem worse by venting their own frustrations on their dog when they return to the house – shouting at it, rubbing its nose in its business, even hitting it. As a result, the dog not only gets highly anxious about its owner leaving but is also anxious about what will happen to it when its owner gets home. And just as we humans look for ways to relieve anxiety, so dogs crave a release from their stress too. But dogs can’t light up a cigarette or help themselves to a stiff drink. And they can’t go out for a run unless we take them. Their natural response to fear and tension, then, is to chew, scratch, soil or make noise. And the problem quickly becomes a vicious circle.
The only way to effectively address an anxiety problem, then, is to address the root cause , namely, the over-attachment.
What Is The Cause of Over-Attachment?
Almost invariably you find that dogs which suffer from separation anxiety are given a huge amount of attention at home. Often, it arises in households where the owners are at work all day and so, feeling guilty about the lack of attention their dog has had during the day, they try to make up for things by doting on their dogs when they get home. Separation anxiety is also common in households where there are no children and the dog is treated as a child substitute, sleeping on the beds and furniture, being fed lots of treats and human food and following (and being encouraged to follow) its owner everywhere.
Owners enjoy the warm feeling they get from having their dog’s unconditional love and presence. But whilst dogs enjoy love and attention too, too much of a good thing can be bad! Dogs whose every whim are satisfied by their owners not only become clingy but usually also have dominance issues because they have unrestricted privileges and are never asked to work for anything.
Unfortunately, this causes a double dose of anxiety: not only is the dog anxious when its owner is gone but (as the perceived leader of the family pack) it also feels an acute sense of responsibility to do something about the situation. The problem is, it doesn’t know what or how. And so it becomes even more anxious.
What Can You Do?
Tackling separation anxiety requires the introduction of both short and medium to long-term measures.
Separation Anxiety Short Term
In the short-term, you will have to do what you can to minimize the damage, mess and noise that your dog can cause while you are away from the house. That may mean crating your dog (although this is not acceptable as an all day measure) or confining him to just one room of the house where he is able to cause the least amount of damage and where it is easy for you to clean up any accidents. You should also leave your dog with a choice of good quality chew toys – Kongs stuffed with some food are normally a good distraction. You may also need to have a word with your neighbors to explain why your dog is making so much noise and ask for their understanding and patience while you tackle the problem. If possible, get somebody else to come into the house while you are out to give your dog some attention and exercise.
Separation Anxiety Long Term
Cool Off The Relationship
Alongside the short-term measures, you will have to embark on a longer-term course of action aimed at reducing your dog’s anxiety when you are not around. Initially, this training will take place when you are at home. Make sure you have frequent, but initially short, periods when you completely ignore your dog and just get on with your daily routines. Even if your dog is glued to your side or whining for attention, you must not talk to your dog, touch him or even look at him. Then, when you are ready – and at a time when your dog is calm and quiet – call him to you, ask him for a ‘sit’ and give him some attention.
With any luck, and provided you hold firm on not making any communication at all with your dog during ‘time-out’, you should get to a point where your dog is not following you around quite so much and you can gradually increase the time periods that you ignore him. If you are finding that your dog is still constantly following you, then you could use a child gate to partition off one room in the house where you can leave your dog. Don’t make any fuss of him when you decide to leave the room. Just calmly walk through the gate, close it behind you without looking at your dog and walk away, completely ignoring any whining or barking. When you return to your dog’s room continue to completely ignore him for at least five minutes or as long as it takes for him to become calm. You can then call him to you and give him some quiet praise.
You will need to gradually build up the length of time you leave your dog whilst you are actually in the house, only moving onto a longer period of separation when he is comfortable (not whining, being destructive etc) at a shorter one. Once you have got up to half an hour separation periods in the house, you might then start going out of the house for short periods (starting at five or ten minutes and building up), again, following the same procedure of not making any fuss of your dog either when you leave or return. If you are patient and consistent, somewhere along the line your dog will realize that his world doesn’t fall apart when you are not there and will be quite happy with his own company.
Establish Yourself As Pack Leader
As mentioned above, anxiety is often heightened when dogs have inadvertently been given the message that they are pack leaders. How are they supposed to protect the pack when the pack leaves without them? By making just a few small changes to your daily routine you can clearly show your dog that you are, in fact, in charge. Examples include not feeding your dog until after you have eaten, not allowing your dog to lie on your bed or the furniture, making sure your dog always does something for you (even a simple ‘sit’) before you give him attention, and using child gates to restrict your dog’s access to certain areas of the house. You should also involve your dog in short, daily training sessions. As above, cool off your relationship with your dog in the house: build periods into your day where you deliberately ignore your dog so that he learns that your presence doesn’t always mean attention. As soon as your dog understands that he does not have to assume the responsibilities of the dominant pack leader, he will visibly relax and be more accepting of your absence.
It’s often said that a tired dog is a happy dog. And it makes perfect sense that a dog who has had a long walk first thing in the morning is far more likely to settle down and rest when his owner leaves the house. So if you have to go out to work and leave your dog in the house for a prolonged period of time, make sure you set your alarm early and get out in the fresh air with your dog before you go. And, if you can, get a friend, neighbor or dog-sitter to come in during the day to take your dog out for another short walk. Even if you don’t have to go to work all day, regular sufficient exercise will provide your dog with the positive attention he craves as well as vital mental and physical stimulation that will leave him feeling more relaxed in the house.
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