Does Your Dog Have Separation Anxiety?
Coming home to that wagging tail of joy is the best part of the day. However, some of us, come home to extra surprises, a hole in the sofa, a chewed up shoe, a disturbance complaint from the neighbours or toilet troubles.
They haven’t had a house party here while you’ve been away, nor do they face a lack of house manners. The issue runs far deeper, that issue? Separation anxiety.
To your dog, you’re the centre of their world and when you’re away from them, they can find it incredibly difficult to be alone.
Our very own Chief of Barketing, Charlie has suffered from separation anxiety in the past and together we have had a long road of training and setbacks. It’s a topic we’re passionate about at Dog Furiendly and we want to help other dog owners to understand it and to work through it.
We’ll be sharing exactly what that term means, the signs to see if your dog has separation anxiety and how to overcome or prevent it.
What is separation anxiety?
It’s a heartbreaking fact that 8 out of 10 dogs struggle to cope when left at home alone. Some dogs will bark, howl, chew or destroy things to show the distressing feelings of being separated from their ‘pack leader’.
While others won’t show any signs of destructive or disturbing behaviour, suffering from separation anxiety in silence – this often goes unnoticed by owners. In fact, 3 million dogs are suffering, but don’t let on.
Signs and symptoms
Our dogs are so happy when we arrive home, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t been suffering while you’ve been away. So how can we tell if there’s a problem?
- Destructive behaviour – chewing and destroying furniture, clothes, shoes, toys, bean-bags – you name it! Sometimes the damage can be targeted at the door you left the house from. Our Charlie used to gnaw at the door frame!
- Vocalisation – howling, barking, whining.
- Toileting or vomiting
- Trembling, shaking or pacing
- Salivation or self-directed behaviours (licking or bite themselves excessively)
- Repetitive behaviour
Some signs are easier to spot than others. You’re not always going to come home to something destroyed, and you won’t be there to hear them whining, howling or to see them pacing.
Check for these signs by filming your dog home alone
This will help you reveal any potential issues (even if you don’t believe there to be any). We didn’t know Charlie had separation anxiety until we filmed him, then he howled, the saddest howl repetitively throughout the day. It was heartbreaking to watch, especially while at work and no way to get home to comfort him, but we knew he needed help.
Check out our review of the Furbo here.
Teaching your dog that it’s all right to be alone
Just like humans need support when suffering from anxiety, dog’s need to be treated with similar care. What your dog is displaying is emotional trauma, and just like us humans it’s something that can’t be cured overnight. There is no quick fix.
We would always recommend that before training, always visit your vet to check there are no underlying issues which could be causing the behaviour.
Luckily, separation anxiety is preventable and easily treated, but remember, you have to tackle the cause, not the symptoms! Leaving them in a crate may stop them from being destructive, but they’ll still feel emotional with separation anxiety.
With Charlie and Minnie, we regularly do desensitisation training to help them with separation prevention and recovery. Below we’ve outlined the steps we took with this training.
1. Finding the Threshold
Before you begin, you need to work out your dog’s threshold, which is the level they begin to feel something. To find your dog’s threshold, set up a camera that you can view outside (we used our iPad and phone with FaceTime). Leave the house as normal and start a stopwatch as you close the door.
Watch their behaviour and stop the watch when they start displaying any signs of distress mentioned above. This includes pacing, whining, barking, howling, digging, yawning, jumping on the door or window sill. The time it stopped, is your dog’s threshold.
If they start to show signs before opening the door or just after closing it, that is where your training needs to begin.
2. Desensitise them to a Longer Goodbye
Now that you know the threshold, you can begin to slowly desensitise them. In this next part of the training, you’re going to close the door and step outside the house for variable periods of time. Again the best way to do this is by watching with a camera inside to see their reaction while you’re outside.
If their threshold starts before you’ve left, start by going to the door and opening/closing it (not leaving the house). Then when they’re okay with that, the next step would be, stepping outside, closing the door and immediately re-opening. Gradually make the time you’re waiting outside longer. Start with 30 seconds then 1 minute. Afterwards progressively prolong the time of absence by 1–2 minutes.
When you return, enter calmly and tell them to sit. When the dog sits, reinforce this behaviour with praise or a treat the dog enjoys the most.
Do this for no more than 30 minutes a day (it can be a highly emotional task for your dog). Between each step do something “natural” like watching T.V, sitting on your phone, or washing some dishes. If more than one person lives in the household, be sure that everyone is involved in at least 1 training session per week.
3. Pre-departure Cues
Your dog knows exactly when you’re going to leave them before you’ve stepped out the door. You will need to desensitise them to your pre-departure cues, like putting on your shoes or picking up your keys. When working them into your training, use one cue at a time. Perhaps take the door key off and put it in your pocket, if another cue is putting on your shoes. Hold off adding a new cue until you’ve had a couple of days with the previous one.
Other Things To Try
Leave mentally stimulating toys
Imagine as a human you couldn’t understand the language on the TV, didn’t have the knowledge to use things like laptops, phones and perhaps you couldn’t read. Then you were locked in at home, or in a confined space for 7 hours. How bored would you be? Well, now you know how the dog feels!
They should be excited about you leaving the house because when you leave, all the fun stuff happens. Give your dog some mentally stimulating toys such as stuffed ‘kongs’, treat balls or cubes, snuffle mats, puzzles etc. Be sure to let them know that they only get special toys while you’re away. Remember to pick them up and put them away when you’re home.
Leave some noise
Spotify has just released a new Podcast that can help your dog to relax too. The “My Dog’s Favourite Podcast” has been created with the RSPCA to help dog’s with separation anxiety. The podcast runs in two five-hour stretches and features reassuring human voices, relaxing music and ambient sounds, including rain.
Take them to more Dog Friendly places
It’s not recommended that you leave your dog at home for prolonged periods of time, whether they’re comfortable or not. We understand that there are often times when it can’t be helped (such as work), however, outside of work dog friendly places are becoming more popular.
Not only will it help your dog live a more fulfilling and socialised life, but it also helps with your own separation anxiety of leaving them at home.
We recommend giving your dog basic training and finding more ways to include them in your plans. There’s a whole range of places on Dog Furiendly and you can start your search via the homepage.
Avoid punishing your dog
On the occasion that your dog has been destructive while you’ve been away, it’s important that you don’t react. Your dog will start to be more anxious about what you will do the next time you leave and come home which makes the anxiety and behaviour worse.
If you’ve told them off, they’ll lower their head, ears back, tail between their legs and may lay submissively. Just because your dog looks guilty doesn’t mean they understand – after all dog’s don’t feel guilt! Even if you take your dog to the ‘scene of the crime’ they won’t understand the anger, they’ll just become more anxious the next time you go out.
It’s difficult to do, especially if the damage has been to something important, but avoid letting them know that you are annoyed – let them outside before cleaning up.
Time to Talk
Humans are not the only ones facing anxieties, and we should be more open as a community to talking about the mental health our dogs are facing.
Not every dog owner knows about separation anxiety and the majority of us will have no idea unless we pro-actively check. If you feel your dog is suffering, then we hope that we have provided some ideas to help you and your pooch on the path to recovery.
Does your dog have separation anxiety? Or have you helped your dog overcome the problem? Share your experiences in the comments below.