It’s every dog owner’s nightmare.
An explosion of pillow stuffing, overturned tables and chairs, bloody inches-deep gouges on doors and window sills, pee and poop everywhere, a dog covered in blood — it’s almost like a scene out of the movies. . .except this is your house.
You might think you have every right to get angry at your dog — after all, he’s the one who chewed up your favorite pair of Prada shoes — but don’t.
He’s not doing it for fun; he’s actually terrified of being left alone.
If this is a regular occurrence at your house, your dog could have separation anxiety, a disorder that refers to excessive anxiety when a dog is separated from its owner, resulting in destructive and disruptive behavior.
Think of separation anxiety as a form of survival instinct. Wild dogs and wolves would find it extremely difficult to survive without their companions, and domestic dogs are no different. In a world where most people leave their homes for several hours every day, it’s no wonder that the term separation anxiety is becoming more and more common.
But: Dogs are highly adaptable animals, and it’s every dog owner’s responsibility to prevent or treat separation anxiety so that their dogs can be brave about staying home alone.
Related: Why Dogs Hate Smartphones
Causes of Separation Anxiety
No one fully understands what causes separation anxiety in dogs. Some people believe that only “Velcro” dogs — those who are hyper-attached to one human — suffer from the disorder, or that dogs who have separation anxiety will always benefit from having another dog as a companion.
But this isn’t always true. . .
Each dog can display completely different symptoms of the same disorder.
What we do know is that there are factors which can make a dog more likely to develop separation anxiety:
- A history of abuse or multiple homes
- Taken away from their mom and littermates too early (before 8 weeks)
- Taken away from their mom and littermates too late (after 14 weeks)
- Missing out on social interactions during crucial periods of their puppyhood
- Sudden or traumatic changes that disrupt the routines in their lives
Dogs are creatures of routine.
Even an event that seems trivial to us, such as children going back to school after a summer break, can trigger distress in some dogs.
It’s also important to understand that your dog is not punishing you or destroying your stuff out of spite. Separation anxiety is a panic response; scolding or getting angry at your dog will only cause your dog to become confused and could make his anxiety even worse.
What do the experts say: Dog behavior experts have demonstrated that anxiety levels increase in dogs whose owners punished them for their problem behavior, especially just before the owner arrives home. This is because the dog feels anxious about the impending punishment it will receive.
Does Your Dog Really Have Separation Anxiety?
Dogs and teenagers seem to have the same idea — things are a whole LOT more fun when their parents or owners are gone. Because the term separation anxiety is being thrown around more often these days, many owners mistakenly believe that their dog is suffering from anxiety when they come home to a mess after work.
However: Per University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, only about 20-40% of dogs actually suffer from the disorder. Among senior dogs, the number jumps to as high as 50%.
So: If it’s not separation anxiety, what could be the cause of your dog’s destructive behavior?
While there are several reasons for destructiveness in dogs, there is one very common problem that is often overlooked by owners and veterinarians: boredom.
The results of boredom and separation anxiety look very similar, so it’s no surprise that one can be mistaken for the other. But there is an easy way to find out.
According to expert positive-reinforcement trainer Victoria Stilwell, you should set up a video camera placed strategically in the area where the most damage is usually done or near the door you use to come and go. If your dog starts pacing, whining, howling, or being destructive within 30 minutes of your leaving, he likely has separation anxiety. On the other hand, if the dog goes to sleep and wakes up hours later to start causing mayhem, he is likely bored, untrained, and/or unstimulated.
Here are some common symptoms of separation anxiety.
If you notice any of the following signs in your dog when she is left alone, talk to your veterinarian about having your dog assessed for separation anxiety:
- Persistent barking, howling, or whining
- Accidents (urinating or defecating) indoors
- Escape attempts (biting and clawing at windows or doorways) resulting in self-injury
- Incessant pacing
- Destructive behavior
- Excessive drooling and panting
- Restlessness, shaking, or shivering
- Overly excited response when owner returns
In severe cases, a dog may even become aggressive.
If this is the case with your dog, immediately seek help from a professional dog trainer who uses positive reinforcement techniques. Consistent, reward-based training can help significantly reduce your dog’s stress and anxiety levels.
Isolation Distress vs Separation Anxiety
Because dogs are pack animals, it’s very normal for them to experience distress when they are left alone. Even if a dog displays some of the symptoms of stress listed above, it may not necessarily be a full-blown panic attack.
A dog suffering from “isolation distress” is one that just doesn’t like to be alone. It is happy and stress-free as long as it has company, whatever the form.
True separation anxiety manifests itself when the dog realizes the absence of one person to whom it is hyper-attached, though not necessarily attached at the hip.
No other human or animal companion can calm or distract a dog that is stressed out over being “separated.”
Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Many different health conditions can cause anxiety and destructive behaviors in dogs, but if you suspect that your dog has separation anxiety, it is recommended that you get a formal assessment performed by a veterinarian.
Note: Your veterinarian should conduct a physical exam to rule out any underlying medical issues and review your dog’s history and behavior to determine if they fit a pattern.
If your dog has been diagnosed with separation anxiety, don’t give up; there are many different types of therapy available for anxious dogs. However, a successful treatment does not consist of just one component, it requires a multi-pronged approach.
Here are a few tips on treating a dog with separation anxiety:
#1 – Medications
Some of these medications may take a few days or weeks to be effective, so your veterinarian may recommend a short-acting drug in the beginning. Be sure to follow instructions exactly as directed and report any side effects to your veterinarian.
#2 – Thundershirt or Anxiety Wraps
Anxiety wraps are tightly-fitting fabric that maintains continuous pressure on the dog’s body to calm nerves. They can also be used if your dog has other types of anxiety, such as those caused by loud noises or strangers. You may be able to create your own anxiety wrap with an ace bandage or snug t-shirt, or you can purchase a Thundershirt or a Mellow Shirt.
#3 – Rescue Remedy
If you’re more of an herb guy or gal, then consider Rescue Remedy for your dog. This is a blend of Bach Flower Remedies that work to balance your dog’s emotions when she’s facing stressful or traumatic situations. It is a popular all-natural remedy that has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety levels of human patients in clinical studies.
#4 – Cannabidiol (CBD) Oil
No, we’re not suggesting that your dog should get high. Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the several hundred naturally-occurring constituents of marijuana. And unlike tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), CBD is non-psychoactive, so your dog will not get high from taking it.
CBD has been gaining attention in the last few years as a treatment for various neuropsychiatric disorders in humans, including anxiety. Dogs may also benefit from this broad-spectrum drug. It will take some trial and error to find the right dosage for your dog.
#5 – Exercise
You’ve heard the saying, “A tired dog is a happy dog,” right? A tired dog is less likely to become destructive, so lace up those sneakers and grab the dog’s leash because it’s time to go walking. If you can jog or run, that’s even better. An active dog will need both physical and mental stimulation, so give your dog some time to sniff things on your walk. The best time to exercise your dog is 20-30 minutes before you leave, giving your dog enough time to settle down for a nap.
#6 – Desensitization
You probably have your morning routine down pat: wake up, eat breakfast, take a shower, get dressed, grab your keys and your bag or wallet, kiss your dog, put on your shoes, and walk out the door. Dogs can pick up these departure cues amazingly fast.
Although it’ll take a lot of work on your part, one way to desensitize your dog to your departure routine is to perform parts of it even when you’re not leaving. Pick up your keys and sit down for a cup of coffee. Get dressed in your work clothes or suit, then watch a show on Netflix.
You can also mix up pieces of your routine so that your departure is less predictable. For example, you can put your bag or briefcase in your car, then come back and enjoy your breakfast.
#7 – Calm Departures and Returns
Kissing and hugging our dogs before we leave for work is very tempting, but try to make your exit as uneventful and calm as possible. It is best to ignore your dog for at least 15 minutes before you leave with a “safe cue,” such as “I’ll be back.” If your dog gets excited when you return, turn your back towards him and wait to greet him until he calms down.
#8 – Safe Environment
Dogs with severe separation anxiety can cause significant harm to themselves and their environment. Do your best to create a safe, relaxing environment for your dog. If your dog does well in confinement, provide a room or a crate for her to stay in while you’re away.
However, for many dogs with separation anxiety, confinement is not an option. It is also not a good idea to leave toys with squeakers or small parts because they can be a choking hazard for aggressive chewers. You can also consider playing some calming music on your speakers.
#9 – Teach and Reward Relaxation
Reward your dog with treats, praise, and/or attention when he is resting or being calm. This means no attention-seeking behavior such as jumping, whining, barking, or panting. Start the training process with your dog close by, and have a cue word like “easy” or “calm” for when he is relaxed. Slowly increase the distance between you and your dog when your dog over several weeks, continuing to reward good behavior. While this will be time-consuming, it can have a massive ROI.
#10 – Do Not Punish
We’ve repeated this point throughout the article, but it bears repeating: Do not punish your dog for separation anxiety. Not everything will work for every dog, nor should you expect your dog to be cured in a matter of days. It will take effort and time — lots of them. Your dog may have good days and bad days, but the key is to stay calm and to be willing to change things up if something doesn’t work well.
A panic attack, whether in a human or a dog, is a terrifying experience.
If none of these tips work for your dog, talk to your veterinarian or a canine behavior specialist as soon as possible about developing a special behavior modification program for your dog.
Dogs are incredibly loving companions who never ask for anything in return. We owe it to them to take care of them, externally and internally, for as long as they are with us. Yes, it can be stressful and challenging to help a dog with separation anxiety, but it can and has been cured over time.
With love, patience, and consistency, you will reap the benefits of having a stronger bond with your best friend.
Another great read: 20 Must-Have Apps for Dog Owners