Separation anxiety is a common disorder in dogs, with one in six experiencing it at some point in their lives. This intense anxiety develops when pets become distressed because of an owner’s absence, because something scary happened when they were alone, or both. The panic they feel is real and can be severe.
Separation anxiety can take many forms, but the hallmark signs are destruction of property, inappropriate elimination and extreme vocalization when owners are away. Many of these pets have an increased attachment to one or more of their pet parents, and some will experience distress even when anticipating their departure. Whining, drooling, pacing and panting are all par for the course for a stressed pet.
Part of the therapy for separation anxiety can include medications like antidepressants, but these drugs are not a cure-all. Effective treatment relies mostly on behavior modification, with perhaps a little help from the pharmacy to make your pet feel comfortable enough to be receptive to the exercises. Behavior modification includes fostering your pet’s independence, practicing departures and returns and finally, moving to gradual planned departures.
Teach your pet the commands for “Sit” and “Stay,” and use them often. Your pet is happiest when he is performing a job for you and these two commands fit the bill. From now on, make him work for everything he gets. If he wants his dinner, make him sit first. If he wants you to throw the ball, make him sit first.
If he wants to go outside — that’s right, make him sit first! These structured interactions bolster his confidence and teach him good behavior, too.
practice makes perfect
Most pets who suffer from separation anxiety start to show signs as soon as they figure out that you’re leaving. Subtle actions, like putting on your shoes or coat or picking up your keys, tell your pet to start worrying. By uncoupling these departure cues from your actual departure, you start to crack your pet’s fears. Recognize which departure cues are affecting him, and then perform them without leaving the house to get him out of the habit of panicking before you leave.
coming and going
When your pet is ready, work on gradual departures, which are exercises meant to teach your dog that you will always return. This is the hardest part of the therapy, but it may be the most important. Ask your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist for guidance when undertaking this part of the treatment.
The road to helping your pet overcome his anxiety about your absence is a long one. It takes dedication and persistence, but the hard work pays off in spades when you can come home at the end of the day to a calm, happy pet (and a house in one piece).