Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is a dog’s inability to cope when left alone. He feels abandoned and has no way of understanding that you will be coming back. Typical symptoms include howling and barking, scratching and chewing at furniture and fittings, and even excreting around the house in your absence. The good news is that separation anxiety can be cured with a little time, effort and patience. The following guide should help your dog become more confident and secure in himself and less dependent on you. You need to teach new habits by changing the way you treat him in the house.

Breaking the bad habits
If your dog is allowed to follow you around the house, for example when you get up to make a cup of tea or run a bath, you must stop him from now on. Ensure he has a bed of his own where he is happy to stay when he is on his own. Your dog must learn to cope when you are out of sight in the house in order to become confident about being left when you go out.

If you know that your dog will get up and follow you as soon as you leave the room, hide around the corner and be ready to guide him back to his bed again. Repeat this until you can leave the room without him following you. When you return, remember to praise him for being “good” but don’t go over the top: praise him in a calm, confident manner. Continue to do this every time you leave the room until your dog works out what you are doing - and ignores you! At first this exercise may seem tough and demanding on both of you, but he will learn to feel secure, relaxed and confident in his bed during your absence.

Desensitising him
Your dog is very good at following household patterns and he is already an expert at spotting your “going out” routine such as putting on your coat, picking up your keys etc. He associates this routine as the start of his period alone and will begin to fret as soon as he spots what’s going on. You need to desensitise him of all stimuli he associates with your “going out” routine, so go repeatedly through these actions quietly and without a fuss at various random times of the day, and then sit back down. Repeat these actions until your dog looks positively bored!

Building his confidence
Now you need to test him further. Start by occasionally shutting him in a room while you move about the house for very short periods of time. Do this as part of your daily routine. Then start to leave him alone for short periods. When you do leave the room or go out do not make a big deal of it. It is a normal everyday occurrence and as little fuss as possible should be made of your dog. If you hugged him or look lingeringly at him and he will think the pair of you cannot possibly exist without each other. Instead, try to ignore him leading up to the time when you go, tell him firmly to sit in his bed upon leaving, quietly shut the door. The only way your dog can learn to cope on his own if you can wean him off his dependence of you.

Quality time
When you do want to give your dog attention – feel free. But do not let your dog dictate what he gets and when. Call him over for a cuddle by all means, but do not allow him to slouch at your feet or paw at your lap all evening. He needs to learn to feel confident and learn to happily sleep in his bed when you are out, so he must learn to use it when you are in.

It is very important for your dog to master general obedience so that he will want to please you. This helps him to understand his place in the family hierarchy. All dogs, regardless of their age and type will benefit from attending training classes. So will their owners! You can find details training courses from your vet, local pet shops, feed merchants and from other dog owners and walkers in your area. Communal classes will improve your dog’s self-confidence, and this in turn helps to reduce his problems.

Occupy his mind
If you’re strict on yourself and follow our advice, your dog’s confidence will increase and his anxiety will decrease. Do remember however that his howling and chewing will not stop overnight. There are some measures you can take to help in the meantime:

  • Do not leave valuable items with your dog.
  • Get things to keep him occupied – his favourite toy, a longer lasting chewy bone etc.
  • Buy a couple of “Kongs” (available from pet shops) and wedge something tasty inside that your dog will like. Dogs treat them like bones and will spend hours trying to get the last bit out. Most dogs will eat plain bread stuffed in. If your dog is fussy then you will have to shop around for a good treat (however do watch the calories). Hidden video cameras show us that dogs suffer most just after the owner has left and again just before they come back. The two Kongs will give the dog an opportunity to tuck into one as you leave, snooze while you are out and munch on the other just before you return.
If the habits are too strong
Rarely, but occasionally, the problem has become so imprinted that even when his confidence does improve he still chews or even excretes out of habit. For these dogs an indoor crate may be required. These have proven to be very useful, but ensure you obtain proper guidance on how to use them. Similarly, if the advice above has failed to stop the dog barking when left, a citronella collar may help. Sometimes the trick is to look farther afield. Perhaps you could find a local dog walker/sitter – put an advert in your local paper, newsagent or pet shop – often two dogs left alone together are more content about the situation.

Past experience has proven that our advice does work but you will need to be committed and it will take time and energy in the early stages. Your efforts will be rewarded with many years of happy companionship in the future.