Our pets love us so, and for this reason, sometimes they can get very anxious or sad when we leave them all alone in the house. The term for this is known as separation anxiety. Though there is no one clear cut cause for separation anxiety there are a few things pet owners can do to try and make alone time for their dog less stressful.
Wendy C. Brooks, DVM, DipABVP Educational Director, VeterinaryPartner.com and The Pet Health Library has written an excellent article about the signs of this disorder and some tips on how to keep your pet calm when you are away.
She says in the article, “The worst cases of separation anxiety present an unlivable disaster for the pet owner. The animal becomes destructive, soils the house, and vocalizes loudly and unabashedly. Since the behavior occurs almost exclusively when the pet is alone, there is nothing to stop him from creating a spectacular mess and annoying the neighbours every time the owner steps out. In milder cases the dog may show only panting, over-grooming, or pacing, which is not overtly destructive but clearly represents an unpleasant mental state for the patient.”
Separation anxiety is a combination of two factors, separation and anxiety (fear). Dr. Brooks writes, “One never knows what disaster will be waiting on the other side of the front door and the simple luxury of finding one’s things where one left them becomes an impossible dream. It would be wonderful if one could simply give the dog a pill and solve the problem; unfortunately, training is the primary focus of solving separation anxiety and medication is an adjunct. Often the owner needs as much training as the dog.”
Dr. Brooks offers a three step training plan to help you and your pet:
Step 1: Discourage Hyperattachment
“Dogs will often solicit attention from their owners. Resist the temptation of petting the dog with separation anxiety when approached for play or contact. Be aloof when greeted upon arriving home. Instead the human should be the initiator of contact with the dog. Do not allow the dog to settle down in close proximity (within one yard) of where the owner is settling down. Arrange objects on the bed or sofa or on the floor so that the dog must settle at a greater distance. If possible, verbally reward the dog for settling at a distance (though take care as continued attention may be seen by the dog as an invitation to approach which is not what we want.) If the dog normally sleeps on the owner’s bed, provide the dog with his own bed. One may need to start with the dog bed at the foot of the human bed before ultimately the dog bed is moved to the floor or even outside the room. If there are other people in the home besides the primary dog caretaker, try to divide the care giving among the different people so that the dog is not as dependent on one person.
Encourage independent play by using interactive toys that do not require human participation (like a Kong toy containing a food reward).”
Step 2: Relaxation during separation
“It is also important to create a positive environment in the owner’s absence. There are several ways this might be achieved. Provide a special treat (food, toy or both) only available when the pet is left alone. Do not forget to remove the item when you return home.” Another good option to keep animals calm when no one is home is to leave on some music or television for them while you are away.
Step 3: Desensitization to separation
“Dogs readily learn the cues that indicate the owner will be leaving the house soon. It is helpful to uncouple these cues from the actual leaving. At random times, the owner can go through some of the rituals of leaving: put on cologne, shower, wear work clothes, taking the car keys, even going outside and locking the door—but then coming in again. This helps the dog to remain relaxed when he hears or sees these cues at the times when the owner is actually leaving. It is important to repeat these cues so many times daily that they become meaningless to the dog. Do not punish the dog for behaviour demonstrated in fear, this usually only leads to more fear or more anxiety.
Second, unless the animal is actually in the process of performing the behaviour one wishes to discourage, the dog will not understand what behavior is being punished.”