Why Does My Dog Have Separation Anxiety?
It happened again. You came home and found your sweet pup has left claw marks on the door. She's clearly excited that you're finally back after being gone for what she felt was an eternity. Her behavior could be an urgent call from nature, but if it happens every time you leave the house, then a likely culprit is separation anxiety.
Why Does My Dog Have Separation Anxiety?
When you and your dog have a close bond, she may feel extra stressed when you're gone. Some dogs are less comfortable being left alone. Her displeasure might manifest as a variety of abnormal behaviors.
Separation anxiety may be correctable with understanding, training, and patience.
Don't despair! There are proven training methods that can help your four-pawed partner learn to cope. First, let's look at how she is trying to communicate and then unpack why.
What Are the Signs of Separation Anxiety?
When your dog misbehaves in your absence, don't jump to the conclusion she's being rebellious. She might be trying to communicate how much she really misses you. Signs she's feeling separation anxiety might include:
Pacing or whining as you leave and while you're gone.
Chewing on or destroying things she usually doesn't or has been trained not to chew.
Peeing or pooping inside, especially if she's house-trained.
Excessive barking or howling.
Trying to escape by scratching at the doors or windows.
Acting extra clingy when you're leaving or coming home.
Acting lethargic or hiding when she used to be playful.
What Triggers Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
A major change in your schedule.
A smaller shift in her daily routine, like doing a regular activity at a different time.
Moving to a new home.
Adding or losing a member of your household, whether it's a person or another pet.
Past trauma — especially important in shelter or rescue dogs.
A previous unpleasant experience while alone.
To get more clues about her behavior, you can set up a camera and observe her from your smartphone when she's alone. Asking a neighbor about any observable patterns in your dog's behaviors while you're away can also give you great insight. You may also want to check with your vet about potential medical reasons for these behaviors.
No matter the cause, scolding and punishing won't help. Instead, try positive methods to find what does work.
4 Key Tactics to Help Your Pup Cope
Humans and dogs alike have innate ways of responding to situations. For example, you might hear your alarm, get up, and prepare to leave your house. When your canine companion hears your alarm, she may see you getting ready and understand you're about to leave her alone. If she's uncomfortable being left alone, she may become anxious knowing that you'll soon be gone. You're both conditioned: A series of events has prepped both of you to expect a certain outcome.
Counterconditioning aims to associate a series of events with a different outcome than the one your dog is anticipating. In this case, to connect being alone with good things rather than with fear.
You could start by changing your routine. If your pup starts to act upset when you pick up your car keys to leave, try putting them in your pocket ahead of time. Allow time for extra attention or use exaggerated praise so she sees leaving as a time for reward, not desertion. Periodically adjusting a pattern in your routine and how you engage her before you leave can spark a new set of expectations as she tries to make sense of new cues.
A similar approach is distracting her with fun activities when you're leaving. Try an automated treat dispenser, a new toy, or setting up hide-and-seek by leaving some treats around the house to keep your pup occupied. Instead of associating fear with your departure, she'll look forward to doing her own thing.
Whether you begin crate training with your dog as a puppy or introduce it when a need arises, this method can create a welcoming, safe space for your dog. She may consider her crate a personal, protective shelter, which dogs often crave. Crating is not a fix-all, and some dogs may hate confinement, especially if they regard it as punishment. If your dog tolerates or even enjoys her crate, lead her to it when you leave. This may help her to feel more secure than she would roaming the house.
If you're not sure whether your pup enjoys her crate, start out by observing her in the crate while you're home. If she's not distressed — howling, panting, desperately trying to escape — try gradually extending the amount of time she spends in it. With repetition and positive reinforcement, she will learn her crate is a safe and peaceful space.
Desensitization is similar to counterconditioning. The focus is on exposing your dog to a situation gradually and providing encouragement when she manifests an acceptable behavior.
Does your furry friend cry when you go out the door, howling incessantly until you return? To desensitize her, you might start with simply leaving her alone in a room and shutting the door for a few seconds or minutes. If you open it and she hasn't whined, give her praise or a training treat. Then repeat this several times, extending the duration of your absence. Once your dog has the hang of it, try doing the same thing with a door leading out of your house.
You can adapt this process for other unwanted behaviors like scratching doors or chewing items in the house. Eventually, your dog will learn that you're coming back and there's no need to freak out.
This technique is a slow and steady one, so move at your dog's pace, not your own. Watch for signs of stress, like excessive yawning, drooling, trembling, or being too excited when you come back, and avoid extending your time away until the behavior improves.
4. Extra Exercise
Some dogs simply need to burn off extra energy to keep stress at bay. Try taking your pup for a 30-minute walk before you leave. Add in other activities when you can, like obedience classes, active playtime, and games. Tiring her out may work if she has milder separation issues.
If you find yourself with a dog exhibiting signs of separation anxiety, you can use these techniques to help your pup build confidence. Some dogs have special needs that require professional help, and that's okay. Hiring a dog trainer or behaviorist can be helpful if nothing else seems to work.