Dogs are pack animals and are not suited to solitary lives and when we take a puppy into our home, we become the family pack. Though dogs are pack animals they can adapt to spending time in their own company without severe psychological problems. Leaving dogs alone for long periods regularly of course is not satisfactory and is not commensurate with dog care and ownership. For most well-adjusted dogs, anxieties rarely develop to the point of problem behaviour. However, for some dog owners, leaving your dog at home, for even a short time can result in the most severe anxiety.
They make us smile, laugh and give us a great deal of affection. Dogs are tactile and so are people which is why we tend to enjoy being with each other. For many of you reading this, your dog or dogs will be inextricably linked into many areas of your life – maybe even more than you realise.
In my view, dogs are of course much happier when you are around. Even though I have multiple dogs in my home, they still prefer to be in my presence than out of it. Many dogs suffer from anxiety when they are left without the owner, but most remains at a level that does not cause distress.
The outward signs of Separation related anxiety can be barking, howling, urinating and/or defecating, destruction via chewing, scratching or trying to escape, excessively boisterous behaviour on the owners return and in extreme cases even self-mutilation and biting the owners prior to their leaving the house. A dog may display one or more of these symptoms.
What you must remember is that these are the symptoms, not the problem. I am amazed at the number of owners who call me because they have had a neighbour complain about the noise or the fact the dog has damaged their soft furnishings – not many call because their dog is clearly distressed and they want to make the dog better! The barking, destruction or whatever is a sign of distress and you will need to work to address the cause – not mask the symptom.
There are many factors as to why dogs may suffer with anxiety and panic when left. Most commonly, it results from when a puppy is not conditioned to an appropriate routine. The young dog may have been allowed to be in constant company with the owner and have been given constant attention, or it may have looked cute and cuddly and have attracted a lot of attention from visitors and family alike. The unwitting result can be a dog which thinks it is normal to seek attention whenever it wishes and be with you at all times.
Dogs which literally go everywhere with their owner, day and night, can also turn out to be owner dependent, so separation anxiety is understandably more common in single-person households – I also see much more of the problem in the elderly living alone with the companion a dog – if there is only you and the dog then it is difficult not to be together most of the time.
Other possible contributing factors, though often overlooked, are the breed of dog and the base character it has inherited. Some breeds need to expend massive amounts of energy, some are more sensitive / needy as a result of breed type or individual personality. Dogs which are nervous or great natural attention seekers may receive or solicit extra care and attention from sensitive owners in their early years causing an excessively close bond.
Dogs which may have required a great deal of medical attention and convalescence after an operation also can develop a need for that attention to be maintained. The dog had become used to the extra attention and then became distressed when it suddenly stopped. To be fair, dogs are personality led and can be unpredictable and if another dog had received the same lavish attention under similar circumstances there could have been little or no change in the dog’s behaviour. Equally our life styles can change rapidly and some dogs find it difficult to adjust to having less of our time and attention. Some people suddenly begin working again and the dog finds it most difficult to be alone without the normal company of a family member.
Rescued dogs with an uncertain lifestyle can also be quick to form new bonds and with owners who give lots of love and attention to make up for past sadness can quickly fuel an anxiety.
If your personal circumstances change suddenly – for example a new partner or a different job – and your dog is no longer living the lifestyle to which he is accustomed then he may react badly with separation anxiety.
The ideal solution as with all problems is prevention of course. If you have a puppy or a new dog; then teach your canine chum that it is normal to be left alone for periods of half an hour to an hour a few times per day. This should be done gradually starting with five minutes or so per session. It is of course much easier with a puppy than an adult dog who has not been so trained previously. Teach your puppy that he has its own space (a crate or room) where you will visit – I feed the dogs in that area via a Kong to create a really positive association with being left.
As with all behavioural retraining, not only will you need to start gradually, but also a multi-faceted approach is best.
Begin by reducing the amount of attention your dog receives during a 24-hour period to about half of what is presently considered normal. Ignore the dog’s attempts to solicit attention whether by nudging you, bringing toys or whatever. You’ll find this hard at first but you and all of your family will need to be consistent – what you have to remember is that you are doing it for the benefit of your dog and his psychological and physical well-being.
Next, start leaving your dog on his own in a room of the house for periods of five minutes while you are still in the house. If the dog begins to cry or bark or sound excited don’t go into the room. When a gap in the barking comes wait 30 seconds then nonchalantly go in and say nothing and keep the contact low-key. On no account should bursts of excitement from the dog be reciprocated. Then potter about for a few minutes and let the dog free in the house.
As I have already said, food can be incredibly powerful. I use a natural raw food in a dental Kong and feed the dog two, three or four times per day. Always through the Kong and always when alone. I build the time gradually. For example, I will put the kong in the room, leave the dog to eat for ten minutes and then open the door and allow the dog to continue eating and slowly build until the dog spends ten minutes alone, then I take the Kong in and then release him ten minutes after he has finished etc.
In addition to the above, my mantra of tired dogs are good dogs can assist with separation anxiety. Try lengthening your dog’s exercise periods prior to leaving him alone, and make more effort to tire him out. Throw a ball and run round or let your dog play with other friendly dogs.
Separation anxiety can be tiring and stressful for the owner, but can be very damaging to the dog. Most dogs can overcome their anxiety with the correct training and without the use of mind altering drugs. Do not be tempted to dope your dog in order that he can be left alone – put in the work required so your dog can be content, happy, balanced and learn to enjoy some ‘me time’.