Being highly social animals, dogs are capable of feeling lonely. Even before humans began shaping canine evolution, these descendants of wild wolves ran in packs – hunted, played and nurtured each other. As pets, dogs see humans as part of their pack and the bonds established are quite intense, to the point that when we have to leave them behind for work or vacation, sometimes leading to separation anxiety. This can be quite unpleasant for our furry friends.
While some dogs will simply sleep while their human family is away, others working through the anxiety might manifest in scratching at the door, tearing a couch apart or constantly barking, howling and annoying neighbors. Otherwise, potty trained dogs might also urinate or defecate in the home as a result of separation anxiety.
Common separation anxiety behaviors:
- Compulsive behavior
Have you ever noticed that when you leave your house without telling your dog that you’ll “be right back,” that they exhibit heightened levels of anxiety? Try going through a routine as you’re leaving. For example, crouch down and calmly tell your dog as you stroke them that you’re leaving but will return. You can also tell them to “hold the fort” or something with a sense of purpose. Veterinarians will typically tell you to shy away from using such phrases as “I will miss you so much” or other emotional pleas, as they can do further damage or create further anxiety.
Using the same language helps, as dogs respond well to repetition. Instead of wondering why you disappeared, there’s a good chance your dog will become accustomed to your words when leaving and know that you indeed will return.
Another behavioral approach is to give your dog something they love right before you leave. Try freezing peanut butter in a Kong (or any toy that is designed to hold treats) or put treats in a puzzle toy that keeps your dog occupied while you’re out. Instead of having a negative association to your absence, they will see the positive in it. This could be a favorite toy, or it could be a shirt you’ve worn that has your scent on it.
Another idea is to walk or exercise your dog right before you go, as this will make them a little tired and more likely to sleep while you’re gone. Dogs that are not allowed to expend their vast amounts of energy are at risk for using it in unpleasant ways, especially when your absence causes anxiety. A brisk walk before an anxiety-triggering event is a proactive way to keep the bad behaviors to a minimum.
Some dog owners have had success leaving on a radio or television for familiar sounds or noises, which can help calm your dog. And for puppies, a warm water bottle or towel with a toy or ticking clock can comfort them.
Training Tips for Reduced Anxiety
Desensitizing your dog to your leaving requires some gradual training. Practice leaving for a few minutes at a time and increase the length of absence until you see your dog become more comfortable. You are basically taking their mindset of “my human friend is leaving and will never return,” to a more relaxed “my human friend is going out for a while but will return.” A relaxed dog is more likely to sleep while you’re out rather than work through anxiety with destructive behavior.
Highly observant dogs will pick up on cues that you’re leaving and begin to react. For example, packing a suitcase can trigger them, because they associate the suitcase with your absence. The goal here is to not make a big deal out of the fact that you’re about to depart, because it’s basically antagonizing them and can make the anxiety worse.
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