How To Handle Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety
Whether your dog is young, old, a rescue, new puppy, injured, perfectly healthy, or anything in between, separation anxiety can develop at any time. This can be not only frustrating but heartbreaking as well. Of course we want our dogs to feel safe, even when we aren’t with them! In light of COVID-19, many owners found themselves working from home for extended periods of time, and our dogs become used to our constant presence.
Before reading any further, the number one reducer in separation anxiety you can work on right away is working on how you greet and leave your dog. If you make a huge commotion and get either excitable or anxious towards them when you are entering/leaving your house, they will associate this as reinforcement. The best thing to do is to completely ignore your dog when coming and going from your house. You can do a small “Hey there” or calm greeting, but until your dog has either calmed down, gone outside to potty, or has truly relaxed, don’t make a huge fuss over them. My routine when I leave is a simple “Bye pups, be good!” and then a “Hey, let’s go outside” when I get home.
Signs of Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety can manifest in many different ways, all depending on how your dog handles stress. The most common indicators of separation anxiety are:
- Excessive drooling or panting
- Whining or pacing as you are preparing to leave
- Attention barking
- Trembling or shaking
- Accidents in the house (if potty trained)
- Destruction of objects
- Chewing or digging around entryway points
Make sure never to scold or punish your dog if they had an accident or destroyed something while you were gone. Dogs do not have the ability to understand that you are upset about a behavior that occurred several hours ago, and punishing them will only increase their anxiety.
Knowing what to look for is half the battle when working with a dog with separation anxiety. To help you identify your dog’s triggers, see what happens when you prepare to leave your house or even the room. Do they start whining when you grab your car keys? Do they follow you around the house? Establishing behaviors that accompany separation anxiety will help you as we tackle a couple of angles to reduce your dog’s anxiety.
How To Handle Separation Anxiety With Your Dog
The number one rule of thumb when working through separation anxiety is to focus on crate training. Successful crate training looks like a dog that is excited or at least willing to go into its crate for an extended period of time, without whining or signs of stress.
To properly introduce your dog to their crate, you need to get them excited about their new “house.” Using a crate as punishment will make your dog resent the time spent in the crate and won’t view it as a safe place. If your dog is unfamiliar with their crate or doesn’t have a good association with it, take some time to go over the basics with them again, such as feeding them in their crate.
Once your dog is familiar with their crate, begin by putting them up for about 30 seconds, and then reward them by letting them out. Gradually increase the time intervals and add segments where you leave the room and then come quickly back. The goal is for your dog to learn that you will come back and that they don’t need to be stressed because they can’t be with you.
Another crate desensitizer is to give your dog something that they absolutely love, such as a stuffed Kong, only while they are in the crate. Give them the chew, close the crate door, and walk away for a couple of minutes. Come back and let them out of the crate, taking the valuable chew away. This teaches them that the crate is truly an awesome place to be.
If your dog absolutely hates the crate, has a history of abuse, or otherwise is too stressed to be confined, you can find some alternative options such as a small room or area of the house. Exercise pens are also a great option for confinement. Follow the same procedures as crate training but instead, close the door to the room. No matter which method you use, getting your dog comfortable with your absence over a slow period of time will condition them that you leaving isn’t the end of the world.
The Leaving Routine
Similar to crate training, you want your dog to associate your common “leaving” behaviors as a positive experience. If you grab your purse and keys before leaving, this may create a routine of stress for your dog. Try picking up your keys, walking outside for a moment, and coming right back in. Pick up your purse, give your dog a treat for being calm, and set your purse back down. You want to create a positive association between your leaving routine and your dog.
For my pups, the hardest was always the closing of the garage door. To them, this symbolized a long time that they would be without me. So, I would go outside, shut the garage door, then open it again a few minutes later. Using my Furbo camera, I was able to see when they calmed down so I wouldn’t reward any whining or barking by coming back inside while that behavior was going on.
As an overarching theme, you never want to reward stress behaviors such as barking or whining. When your dog barks to get out of the crate and you let them out, this reinforces that this behavior will get them what they want. Wait for even the briefest moment of quiet before letting them out. You can also work on teaching settle, even while they are in their crate.
Exercise and Mental Stimulation to Combat Separation Anxiety
Even heard the phrase, a tired dog is a happy dog? This is certainly true and can be a huge obstacle to overcome when working on separation anxiety. If your dog spends a lot of time in their crate or not receiving adequate exercise, this can increase their overall anxiety as well as separation anxiety. Make sure to give your dog the opportunity to run, play fetch, socialize with other dogs, and overall, just be a dog. A great time to work on desensitization and crate training is after a big play session or when your dog is coming up on a big nap.
Mental stimulation is often overlooked and is another great way to lower your dog’s anxiety levels. I use a variety of enrichment toys such as snuffle mats, snuffle balls, training exercises, flirt poles, and similar activities that wear my girls out. Snuffle mats are a great way to give your dog something to do on the opposite side of the room to work on increasing distance and feeling confident without being attached right to you.
Medications For Separation Anxiety
If you have tried all of the above recommendations and are still experience severe separation anxiety with your dog, it may be worth looking into medication or supplements to ease their anxieties. As always, consult with your veterinarian for the best route to take with your dog as they have a variety of treatments and know your dogs’ medical history best.
As someone who has two velcro Aussies, I promise that with steady training and patience, the separation anxiety will get better. Slow desensitization along with confidence building will go a long way to helping your dog feel at ease when you are not around.