Dogs are social creatures, always being loyal at your side. The temporary absence of a pack member does not happen in the wild. Understandably, your dog will try to display physical signs of wanting to get to you, resulting in separation anxiety. Your dog may then display signs of distress by destroying objects, barking, howling, whining, urinating, defecating, drooling, digging, pacing, circling, jumping on the door, biting the door frame, lip licking or coprophagia (ingesting stools). This can be dangerous as self-injury can be accidentally inflicted.
Some dogs may display behavioural issues (not to be confused with signs of separation anxiety) that are observed both when you are present or absent, simply due to not being well-behaved. Signs of destroying toys, urination and howling must only be shown in your absence to be considered as separation anxiety.
Reasons for separation anxiety
Accurately identifying the cause of separation anxiety may be helpful for some who are trying to figure the sudden change in behaviour.
1. Indirectly encouraging separation anxiety
Letting your dog follow you to the door allows the mindset to believe that you can, and should be followed. A door is a mere object in his way and if the mindset is set up for anxiety, the body will show the physical anxious signs, which gives rise to separation anxiety. Rewarding the overly enthusiastic behaviour can be translated to “OH MY GOSH, YOU ARE FINALLY BACK!” Hugging and providing attention, both also known as forms of affection, encourages the mindset of needing to be excessively close to each other.
2. Change of house
Being in a new environment alone sets a dog up for anxiety, which is the causative factor for separation anxiety. In the wild, entering a new territory is a daring attempt. Doing so alone amplifies that anxiety and develops a stronger drive to find you.
3. Change of family/ pack members
The absence of a human or dog that your dog is familiar with can trigger the onset of separation anxiety. This may be especially so for dogs that have been left alone when accustomed to constant human or dog contact.
4. Change in Schedule
Drastically increasing your duration of absence daily due to work or other commitments can increase your dog’s anxiety.
5. Medical issues
Incontinence may indicate a possible urinary tract infection (UTI) or a kidney disease. However, these signs should be displayed even in your presence. Anxiety can also be a side effect for several prescribed medications. Nevertheless, it is best to seek a veterinarian’s advice and perform regular body and blood check to ensure hormonal levels are in normal ranges.
6. Boredom and lack of exercise
Dogs that are bored and lack mental stimulation tend to divert their attention to source ways in finding you. If coupled with high amounts of energy, your dog will have more energy to display more anxious signs such as pacing and barking. An adequately exercised dog should not be capable of doing those signs for an extended duration.
Ways to solve the issue
After eliminating the possibility of a medical cause, decide if your dog’s separation anxiety level in the mild to moderate range or the moderate to severe range. The greater the severity, the more actions needed to solve separation anxiety. If the separation anxiety is mild to moderate, you will only need to follow the instructions 1 to 6. If the separation anxiety is moderate to severe, you will need to follow the instructions 1 to 8.
Mild separation anxiety – Preventing mild elevations of anxiety by conditioning on top of desensitization
1. Desensitizing pre-departure cues
Dogs are naturally observant animals, associating some actions like changing of shirts, wearing socks or filling up your bottle with your anticipated departure. They may start showing mild signs of anxiety when you are getting ready, which may not be easily interpreted by many. The prolonged stare, perking up of the ears, changing of body position and heightened positioning of the tail all point towards a change in relaxation levels. The anxiousness derived from this action can be reduced by replicating those actions but not leave the house. This disrupts the associations of those actions with you leaving the house. Avoid giving treats as you may unknowingly reinforce a mild anxious mindset, making future rehabilitation more challenging.
You can provide your dog with a puzzle with treats, or a KONG® toy filled with smears of peanut butter, cheese or other sticky food that will not fall out easily. This gives your dog an alternative focus which will work for dogs with mild separation anxiety. When your dog redirects the attention from anxiety to something to work on, your absence should not trigger any unwanted response. Your dog should then lose interest in the distraction after about 15 minutes and keeps a mentally calm state even in your absence.
With a calm and assertive tone, command your dog to stay, and walk towards the door without hesitation. It doesn’t matter where your dog is positioned at, sitting or laying down. He just has to be a distance from the door that you are leaving from. Make sure your dog does not follow you to the door by looking back briefly when opening the door. If he does, immediately walk back towards your dog confidently, using body language to indicate that he has to stay a distance from the door. Having a device to remotely monitor your dog's behaviour will be helpful. It is important to understand that using body language should be prioritised over talking, negotiating or commanding your dog. After all, dogs do not speak to each other in human languages but communicate via body language.
4. Avoid reinforcing the anxiety
Avoid excessively and dramatically greeting your dog should he be overly excited to see you when you enter the house. Instead, say a quick hello and avoid direct eye contact. Reward your dog only when a calm state is being displayed, which can take anywhere between 2 seconds to 5 minutes dependent on factors like your dog’s character and level of excitement. In doing so, this will reinforce the expectation of calmness from him. You can reassure him by having calm movements and forcing a yawn (without sound), which are how dogs display relaxation. This signifies that there is nothing of great concern. This way, any calmness is maintained, preventing fluctuations of non-ideal behavioural states such as excitement.
5. Avoid behaviours leading to anxiety
When you are present in the house, avoid giving your dog attention when he barks or whine, implying that the undesirable behaviour isn't working to get your attention. Instead, being calm does. Being calm should mean that your dog is relaxed, lying down a distance away from you. Thus, you are maintaining a strong bond but at the same time, letting your dog know that he does not have to be your shadow. Never acknowledge your dog when he approaches you on his own, but only do so when you call him to. This way, we are enforcing the understanding that he should stay calm, which eliminates any barking or whining, especially when you leave the house.
You should condition your dog to be alone. This can be done by saying a firm “stay” once (and only once!) with a confident body language, and walk towards the door calmly and open the door slightly. Close it and return immediately without praising any confusion, excitement or anxiety that is the basis of separation anxiety. Repeat it and progressively step outside for a brief moment before returning. Gradually increase the duration of absence by one second after each session.
You should judge your dog’s threshold as the appropriate pace of learning varies amongst different individuals. Anytime that you notice your dog is stressed, go back to the duration of separation that your dog had success with. Once you have made it to 3 minutes of absence, you can increase the next duration of absence by 2 minutes and then by 5 minutes. Doing this exercise frequently and whenever convenient is key, thus avoiding any frustration or urgencies you might have. Ideally, wait a few minutes between each session to ensure a fully relaxed state.
Rushing the conditioning process by leaving an unrelaxed dog will only make him remain unrelaxed, potentially raising the intensity of separation anxiety. It is hence crucial to perform these exercises sometime before the date that you are required to be out for a long duration of time.
Severe separation anxiety – Preventing high elevations of anxiety by addressing all root causes
7. Adequate exercise
Frequently, high energy dogs are most likely to have separation anxiety. Signs of an energetic dog that does not understand limits include pulling on the leash, lunging at dogs and jumping. Increasing the frequency, duration and intensity of exercise sessions before leaving the house can be a step forward to eliminate the possibility that pent-up energy is a cause. A tired dog is always a happy dog.
8. Inadequate mental stimulation
Dogs commonly relieve boredom in the form of biting, whining or barking, and especially so for owners leading a busy lifestyle, leading to reduced socialisation opportunities, exercise and mental stimulation. A dog should not just follow a routine of eating, sleeping, walking and playing. A dog should be up for challenges, which is both a mentally enriching and fun bonding activity. Possible challenges include playing hide and seek with you, finding their favourite toy hidden around the house, sniffing the hidden treat under several cups, going through agility obstacle should space permit or getting your dog to solve a puzzle toy. Be creative in honing your dog’s special skills. Basic commands, KONG®, tug and fetch are all good, but your dog’s mind can be stimulated on a greater level, especially if you are facing boredom-based separation anxiety with signs such as chewing, destruction and digging.
What you should not do
Scolding or punishing your dog
This can make matters worse when you are punishing a dog for wanting to fulfil his loyal duties, potentially straining the dog-owner relationship. Solving the issues by understanding the root cause is the most effective way to maintain a strong relationship and in achieving a well-behaved dog.
Out of sight “stay” command
When you enforce a “leave it” command on a treat on the ground, the dog will find all ways to get it when you are unaware because it only works in your presence to physically command him. The same applies to the stay out-of-sight command and no one can be around to supervise him. Your calm and assertive body language in making your dog understand not to approach the door is more crucial than telling him to stay because temptation will overrule any commands when no one is present. A well-trained dog does not guarantee a well-behaved dog.
Crating or fencing your dog
Dogs display separation anxiety interpret being trapped mentally by the door. Similarly, the fence is a mere object in his way and the body shows the physical anxious signs in reflection of an anxious mind. This may result in additional stress and anxiety. However, if your dog is trained or has shown to be relaxed in a crate, a fenced area is a great idea.
With consistent and patient training, you should be able to achieve a separation anxiety-free dog by the end of two weeks, which may be shorter depending on your ability to enforce the exercises as mentioned above. We wish you success in training your furkid!