Our friends at Underdog training have helped us out by providing an information sheet on dog’s that get anxious when left alone. If you have any concerns about your dog’s behaviour please contact us for more information.
The Underdog Training “So Your Dog” Series Two, Topic Three
So Your Dog- Is Anxious when left Alone
Do you come home to a shredded couch? Has your dog injured themselves in your absence? Have you had complaints that your dog barks excessively when you’re not home? There are many possible causes for these behaviours and we recommend you consult a behavioural trainer or veterinary behaviourist to ascertain whether your dog has separation anxiety. Once you believe your dog is suffering from anxiety, the following strategies may assist you in improving the situation.
Separation anxiety is triggered by the expected or actual absence of people or dogs, that the dog is strongly attached to. A dog may show signs of separation anxiety prior to the owner leaving the home, if they begin to recognise particular cues that reliably predict the owner leaving the home.
Anxious behaviour often increases in intensity over time, particularly when owners are unsure of how to handle the dog and their behaviour. For example, allowing unrestricted access to you whenever you are home can increase the dog’s feelings of anxiety when you are not present- even though you may be trying to reduce the dog’s anxiety or comfort them. Separation anxiety rarely improves on its own and so it is recommended that action be taken as soon as you are aware of the dog’s distress.
Dogs can develop Separation Anxiety for a number of reasons including but not limited to-
- Genetics- some breeds or lines within breeds are more prone to anxiety- Some breeds that have been bred to work very closely with people can be more prone to separation anxiety
- Bad Experience- When a dog suffers a bad experience in the owner’s absence, this can act as a trigger for separation anxiety.
- Learned Behaviour- Inappropriate rewards being given to a dog or puppy when displaying anxious behaviour is a factor in the development and maintenance of separation anxiety. Something as simple as the dog crying at a closed door and that door being opened is absolutely enough to reward anxious behaviour.
- Lack of training and/ or stimulation
- Change of circumstance such as a return to work after extended period of time home with the dog
Dogs suffering from separation anxiety may display the following-
- Destructive behaviour- chewing, digging, scratching at door.
- Vocalisation- crying, whining, barking
- Pacing, circling, attempting to be with or near owner at all times
- Jumping fences
- Extreme greetings on owners’ arrival home
- Failure to eat- If leaving a dog with a treat ball or meal- ensure that this is checked when you arrive home. Failure to eat in a dog who is otherwise food driven, is a sign of stress and can also be used as an excellent measure of the dogs stress levels as changes are implemented to improve the dog’s anxiety. As changes are implemented if the dog is then relaxed enough to eat what has been left, it would be fair to suggest that the stress levels are decreasing.
Dealing with Pre-existing Separation Anxiety and Preventing Separation Anxiety These are some general guidelines and exercises that can be used to prevent the development of separation anxiety. In addition, if you believe you have a dog suffering from separation anxiety, these strategies can be implemented to start to improve the situation. In extreme cases, where the dog is at risk of damaging themself or others, professional help should be immediately sought. We recommend doing ALL of the below simultaneously as many work together to reduce anxiety.
Prevention of Separation Anxiety- the following should be standard for any puppy or dog.
Independence Training– teaching the dog how to be alone is a vital part of learning for any dog and can take the following forms-
- Low Key departures and arrivals– Ensure that your arrivals and departures are calm with without fuss. Try to ensure that there is a period of 10 minutes when you arrive home where no attention is paid to the dog and 20 minutes before going for a walk or feeding the dog.
- Spending time away from family when at home- Ensure your dog is physically separated from you at random times for short intervals- whether it be outside, in a crate or another room. It’s important for the dog to not develop the expectation that they have access to you at all times- as this will not be their reality.
- Environmental enrichment- The provision and rotation of interactive toys as well as extras such as designated digging pits can help to keep the dog occupied while you are absent and build positive association with the area in which you leave the dog. It’s important to leave the dog in this area at times when you are not leaving the house so that the area itself does not begin to have a negative association for the dog.
- Obedience Training- A must for every dog, obedience training develops the right bond between dog and owner. Training can help to teach self-control and relaxation. Tricks, Free shaping exercises and puzzle games such as Nina Ottusson puzzle toys are also beneficial.
- Provision of exercise and appropriate stimulation– While some dogs are happy with a short walk around the block, others may need 30-60 minutes of exercise and some will need this twice a day! Make sure that when the weather is bad or you are busy, you have alternatives to keep the dog stimulated- tug games at home, a dog walker and problem solving games will all help to mentally tire the dog.
Additional exercises to deal with Pre Existing Separation Anxiety
- Desensitisation to being left alone- By leaving the dog alone for short periods and returning with no fuss, the dog can begin to learn that your absence is nothing to be concerned about.
- Identify triggers for the dogs anxiety and desensitise- Many dogs identify triggers that reliably predict you are about to leave. A pair of work shoes, car keys, a particular bag or uniform can all trigger the dog’s anxiety- before you even leave the house! Write a list of all the triggers you believe your anxious dog picks up on. Then, at times where you don’t intend to leave, produce these triggers in a similar way to how you would do so if you did intend to leave. The more repetitions the better!
- Routine- While it has long been believed that dogs thrive on routine, dogs with anxiety generally do not benefit from routine due to small changes likely to occur within it. Vary walking, feeding, sleep, crate and outside times as much as possible to aid in reducing anxiety.
- Natural Supplements- There are a range of natural supplements that can help to take the edge of dogs suffering from separation anxiety. Consult your veterinarian to see whether these might be a useful option for your dog.
- Provide company– human, doggy day care etc. The provision of company is a temporary measure while other strategies are put into place.
- Medication in extreme cases- anti anxiety medication may be of benefit where the dog is highly stressed on a regular basis. If you believe medication to be needed, contact either your dog’s veterinarian or a veterinary behaviourist.
The information provided in the So Your Dog Series is general in nature. We recommend seeing a qualified dog trainer and having a veterinary examination completed for the best results in resolving your dog’s problems. For further information or training options, go to www.underdogtraining.com.au