Dogs can experience separation anxiety for a number of reasons, but it is most common in young puppies or rescue dogs. It is defined as: symptoms of anxiety or excessive distress when they are left alone. This can lead to destructive behavior, excessive barking, house soiling, etc. Dogs may show these behaviors when their owners leave the house or even, in extreme cases, when the owner goes into another room and locks them out.
In part, this is a natural instinct. The pack has gone somewhere, and the young dog is making sure they can find him again. Wild dogs are vulnerable if left alone. More intense separation anxiety can be caused by a fear-causing event while left alone (for example, a thunderstorm) and is sometimes seen in rescue dogs, especially dogs who were abandoned by a previous owner.
So, what can you do if your dog is experiencing separation anxiety? Not leaving the dog alone is seldom an option, but here are a few things to do:
1. Make sure it is separation anxiety.
House soiling, for example, can be caused by the animal not having been properly trained or, especially with young puppies, they may simply not be able to hold it. Destructive behavior can also be caused by excess energy, boredom or teething. Separation-related destruction is often specifically escape attempts. For example, the dog who worries when their owner goes to the bathroom may try to dig through the door. Also, some dogs will fake separation anxiety in order to get you to come back. They just want attention – and even a reprimand will do.
2. Give new puppies plenty of attention.
Giving your puppy attention helps so that they properly bond with their new pack instead of experiencing anxiety at the absence of their old one. Like humans, dog crave love and attention and they will thrive upon receiving it.
3. Put your dog’s crate somewhere that is not isolated.
The bedroom might work well, but some people like to put the crate in the family room where the dog can observe your activities. For smaller dogs, it might be feasible to have more than one crate. Make the dog’s crate or pen a positive place to be. Provide toys, or consider putting the water bowl in the crate. Some people feed their dog in the crate. The crate is your dog’s bedroom, and should be a place they are happy to be.
Another alternative with highly active puppies is to have a crate in the bedroom, but use a dog playpen in the living room, allowing the dog to be with you but without access to anything it might chew up. Some dogs with separation anxiety do not do well with being crated at all, and may constantly try to escape. In this case a pet gate to confine the pup to one room might be a better idea.
4. Training isn’t just for the daytime.
For puppies that get upset at night, consider a hot water bottle (wrapped in a blanket so it can’t be punctured by puppy claws) or a ticking clock. This will help the pup to feel like they are still sleeping with their litter and will help them to feel more safe in their new space.
5. Give them toys that help.
For milder cases, give the dog a complicated puzzle toy with cream cheese, peanut butter, cottage cheese or treats every time you leave the house, and only when you leave the house. This will not work for dogs that don’t eat if you are gone, but can help stave off anxiety by taking the dog’s mind off of being alone and giving them something to do.
6. Attend a local training program.
If you have a dog (such as a rescue) with severe separation anxiety, you might have to do a desensitization program. In this case, you should contact an experienced professional trainer who can help you through the issues with your dog. The dog cannot be left completely alone during desensitization. A dog sitter is a good idea at this point. Another good solution is doggy daycare.
To prevent undesirable behaviors when you return home, such as jumping all over you or not letting you in the house, say hello and then hold off on further attention until the dog is relaxed. Commanding to sit or down can help redirect and make it clear to the dog that what you want is for them to calm down. Do not punish a dog for separation anxiety-related behaviors, but rather extinguish them by ignoring them and rewarding good behavior.
If your dog has separation anxiety it can cause all kinds of problems, including destructive behavior and annoying the neighbors with barking. Fortunately, it is possible to train your dog out of it, although it is worth remembering that your dog is genuinely anxious, not being “bad” or “naughty.”