Research suggests that canine separation anxiety is one of the most common behaviour problems that many dog owners experience. A recent study, which was conducted in the United Kingdom, indicated that as much as 50 percent of dogs have shown some symptoms of separation anxiety when they are left by themselves. Other studies (see Further Reading at the end of this article), have suggested a lower figure, around 15 percent; this is still a significant percentage of dogs that are suffering and afflicted with this condition. Also, unfortunately for our canine friends, it appears to be on the increase.
What causes dogs to have separation anxiety?
Certain medical conditions and diseases could result in dog anxiety (thyrotoxicosis, encephalitis, hyperthyroidism and pre-diabetes). Also, there are some breed types that have been found to have a predisposition to anxiety, including Shelties, German shepherds and Border Collies. Please understand, this is not an indication that every dog that belongs to these breed types will be prone to experiencing anxiety. In addition, the problem of anxiety can be discovered in any breed of dog.
The most common reason for the condition of dog separation anxiety has been proven to be separation from the owner. It is believed that experiences from the early puppy stages can lead to separation anxiety. Some pups may develop an abnormally high dependency on their owners or mothers, experiencing an early upbringing in which the mothers coddled and overprotected them, thus encouraging such behaviour.
Traumatic occurrences in early puppy development may trigger responses of separation anxiety. If a puppy was separated from its mother at an early age, it may show insecurities while maturing. Puppies bought from irresponsible breeders and/or pet shops may have also had traumatic experiences as a result of being separated from their mother at too earlier stage or from limited socialisation with other dogs or contact with humans.
Any major change that takes place in the life of a dog could trigger anxiety (for example: moving home or getting a new pet). In addition, bad experiences such as time spent at a rescue centre could trigger fretfulness and lead to problems associated with separation anxiety. The experience of unfamiliar sounds like fireworks and thunderstorms can also be a trigger for anxiety in dogs.
The view that is most commonly held in relation to what causes separation anxiety is dogs becoming too attached to their owners; becoming too dependent or reliant resulting in getting distressed when they do not have access to their owners.
There is another theory as to what causes separation anxiety. It is derived from research conducted on the structure of the wolf pack and takes on the view that separation anxiety is caused when a dog takes for granted that he is the leader of the pack and is therefore in charge of the safety of the rest of the pack.
How do I know if my dog is suffering from separation anxiety?
A needy or clingy dog, perhaps due to being left home alone, is the most common symptom of canine separation anxiety. Such a dog will constantly seek your attention and reassurance. They seek the safety of your lap and may try to pacify themselves by licking your hands and face. This dog may also follow you around the house while whimpering and shaking its tail.
Behaviours of a dog experiencing separation anxiety can include: uncontrollable trembling, excessive licking, whining constantly or ‘crying’ as you prepare to leave or when left alone. These are the passive signs of separation problems, other signs can become more overt and/or aggressive. Biting, clawing or other physical behaviours in order to gain your attention and prevent you from leaving the house. Left untreated, for even a short period of time, these behaviours can escalate and develop into more uncontrollable issues. If these signs are being exhibited, it is important that you seek advice and start working with the dog as soon as possible so it does not cause further psychological damage.
After you leave the home, the anxiety can escalate leading to the dog scratching at doors and windows in an attempt to follow you and get out. The dog may begin barking continuously. In an attempt to get attention, the dog may take to chewing your items, urinating and defecating in the house despite having plenty of outside time. In advanced cases of dog separation anxiety the canine may resort to self-mutilation. You must stop this anxiety, make the dog feel secure - in the correct way as to not ‘feed’ and worsen the anxiety - before any of the highly adverse behaviour becomes engrained, particularly where the dog is causing harm to itself.
What should I do?
If you have any concerns, seek professional support and advice from a dog whisperer or behaviourist, as soon as possible. This is available through Canine Coaching.
Other things to try:
Exercising your dog helps to get rid of nervous energy. Through walking, you are spending quality bonding time with your dog as well gaining the positive effects of exercise for both you and your dog. Some experts believe, it is best to give your dog exercise prior to you leaving. Ensuring your dog has sufficient exercise, on a daily basis, is the role of a responsible owner (walking both on and off lead, two 30 - 45 minute sessions per day). If this proves to be difficult, finding someone who can come and walk your dog during the day is an alternative. Dog walkers not only give the dog attention but also allow the animal to socialise with other dogs. As this routine develops the dog will become less and less anxious. The canine understands routine and will no longer be concerned about whether you will come home or not. Another long play session or outing when you get home also helps reduce the anxiety level of the dog and adds a positive trend to the overall routine. This can really help to overcome dog separation anxiety.
Creating a supportive environment for your dog by leaving the radio or television on when you are away can help offer the dog some comfort (In San Diego, cable channel is offering "Dog TV," a channel designed especially for dogs! For more information, see Further Reading). This causes the house to feel less empty and gives the dog a sense of company. Providing access so the dog can go in and out of the home through a doggy door is often helpful too. This allows the dog to “self-medicate” when it gets nervous – it can run around and play in the yard when the energy becomes too much. Toys also help give the dog a good outlet for his energy. By leaving bones and chew toys, the dog can choose to release energy by playing by itself.
An activity for you to try:
You may consider desensitising methods if you want to modify the behaviour of your dog. Such methods include reducing the dog’s anxiety level by using new behaviours to replace old ones through repeated conditioning and training.
1. Get ready to leave home: re-enact your usual routine (get your keys or your coat etc.
2. Go towards the door while noticing but not acknowledging your dog’s behavior. Do not go through the door. Go back in the house and sit down. Remove your coat, and then wait some minutes before carrying out the third step.
3. Get ready to leave once again. Go towards the door, open it for a couple seconds then close it and go back into your house.
4. Allow some minutes to pass then repeat the process. This time however, go outside and close the door then wait for about 30 seconds before going back inside.
Repeat these steps each day but extend the time period between each step until you can go outside for some minutes without your dog displaying any destructive behavior.