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01 May The complete guide to separation anxiety in dogs

What is separation anxiety?

What are the symptoms of separation anxiety?

How to tell if your dog has separation anxiety

Causes of separation anxiety in dogs

Treating separation anxiety

Why punishment and negative reinforcement won’t work

Preventing your puppy from getting separation anxiety

Dogs are social animals by their nature, but when it comes to being a part of your life, there are always going to be times when they need to be by themselves. Dogs that haven’t learnt that being alone is part of their routine and not something to worry about can end up suffering from separation related behaviour (SRB), otherwise known as separation anxiety.

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety in dogs occurs when a dog becomes anxious when they are left by themselves or without their owner. Their anxiety can manifest itself in a number of different ways, including barking, howling, destructive behaviours, and urination or defecation in otherwise house-trained dogs.

With research suggesting that as many as 85% of dogs experience some form of separation anxiety, it’s critical that you are able to recognise the signs and help your dog to relax when you aren’t around.

Springer Spaniel in a dog bed

What are the symptoms of separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety in dogs can manifest itself in a variety of different ways, with varying severity.

  • High activity levels when you are gone – running between windows and doors
  • Very low activity levels when you are gone – laying in their bed but not asleep or relaxed
  • Barking or howling
  • Destructive behaviours, including scrabbling at the doors or at their crates, chewing or destroying items or furniture, tipping over bins and more.
  • Excessive drooling
  • Urination or defecation, especially if they are already house trained
  • Not eating food or treats left for them whilst you are out
  • Nervousness as you prepare to leave the house

How to tell if your dog has separation anxiety

It can be hard to tell if your dog is suffering from separation anxiety. After all, you aren’t there to see it. However, there are a few tactics you can use to find out.

  • Look for the evidence of destructive behaviour, drooling and urination or defecation
  • Ask your neighbours if they have heard your dog barking or howling whilst you are out of the house
  • Set up a camera to observe your dog whilst they are on their own. This can be as simple as a webcam or a video recorded on your phone
  • Check their activity levels on your PitPat for unusual behaviour, such as particularly high activity levels when they are home alone. The best way to do this is to check their activity graph – you’ll be able to see any spikes in activity which could indicate that they are pacing whilst at home.

Causes of separation anxiety in dogs

There are many reasons why your dog may have developed separation anxiety, but it’s important to remember that usually comes back to the fact that your dog has never learnt that it is OK to be alone sometimes.  

Common causes of separation anxiety include:

  • Dogs who are used to having constant company and attention suddenly find themselves alone without any time to adapt to the change in their routine. 
  • Dogs who are left alone have experiences that worry or scare them, such as an unexpected visitor (like the postman) or a thunderstorm. They then go on to associate being alone with being scared and worried.
  • Dogs who have had significant upheaval, such as a change of owner or time spent in rescues or over stressful situations and haven’t had the change in routine carefully managed.
  • Dogs who are separated from an animal companion that they have a close bond with may experience confusion and concern.
  • Dogs who spend a lot of time alone and get bored, resulting in destructive behaviour
Border Collie sleeping on sofa

Treating separation anxiety

When it comes to treating separation anxiety, you will need to try a range of techniques to find the ones that work for your dog. The techniques that will work will depend wholly on your dog; their motivations, the severity of their separation anxiety and how they manifest it.

We’ve listed some of the most effective techniques for helping your dog adapt to time spent alone below.

Exercise

Here at PitPat, we’re the biggest cheerleaders for the benefits of high-quality exercise for your dog. Studies have shown that the amount of daily exercise your dog gets is the biggest environmental factor impacting whether a dog will suffer from separation anxiety. 

With this in mind, try taking your pooch out for a walk before you plan to go out and feed them a small meal from their daily allowance when you get back. After their walk and a meal, they’ll generally be more settled and inclined to relax. You can use a PitPat to measure their daily activity levels and make sure they are hitting their exercise goals every day.

Puzzle toys

As you leave the house, give your dog a puzzle toy that they love. Fill it with treats or smear with something yummy that they will love, like peanut butter. They’ll be occupied trying to get the tasty treats from the toy rather than focusing on you being away. Make sure that the toy is only used whilst you are out and account for the treats or peanut butter in their daily allowance.

Familiar smells

Your dog’s sense of smell is 40 times greater than yours, so it’s no surprise that comforting smells can make the world of difference. It’s the same reason breeders send a puppy to their new home with a blanket that has the smell of their mother and litter mates. If your dog is missing you, try leaving out some of your dirty laundry – they will find the smell comforting and it will help them relax. 

Create a safe space

It’s important that your dog has a safe space that they can go to, away from distractions. Make sure they have a comfy bed or covered den that is theirs, and ensure that they are never disturbed whilst they are in there. Encourage them to use it by placing puzzle toys or chews in there, particularly whilst you are busy around the house. This will teach them that it is a safe and rewarding place to be why you are busy or when they are alone. 

Black Labrador puppy asleep on bed

Remove distractions

If certain distractions are triggering your dog’s anxiety – such as unexpected visitors or background noise – do what you can to remove these distractions. Close the curtains and turn the radio on for a bit of background noise – there are even TV channels and podcasts designed especially for dogs who are home alone!

Socialisation

Part of the wider socialisation process for dogs involves exposing them to triggers in a safe way. For example, imagine a dog who always reacts to the postman putting letters through the door. To help teach them that this is alright, have a family member or friend play the part of a postman – as they put a letter through the door, distract your dog by feeding them treats and using positive reinforcement, or by encouraging them into a different room. With some persistence your dog will begin to associate the postman with a positive experience and the effect of the trigger will be reduced.

Independence training

Independence training is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal when it comes to treating separation anxiety. It teaches your dog to be independent and to relax even when you’re not around.

Step 1: If your dog follows you from room to room, start independence training in your own home. Use the stay command to have to sit in a room and move to the door. If they stay put, go back to them and reward them. If not, take them back to the sitting position and start again. As they get the hang of the stay command, graduate to leaving the room, and eventually, leaving the house.

Step 2: Once you’ve mastered the stay command, it’s time to reward good behaviour when they are alone. Set up a camera that you can view live (like a mobile phone on a video call). Take them to their safe space with a puzzle toy and leave them in the room. Watch the camera to see how they behave. 

If they immediately leave the toy and start scrabbling at the door, or exhibiting any other unwanted behaviours, go back into the room, take them back to their safe space and leave the room again. Don’t make eye contact with them, stroke them or make any other interaction with them – otherwise they may think that their behaviour had the desired effect of bringing you back!

If they stay put and chew their toy, leave them for a short period of time – maybe 5 minutes at first – and go back and reward them for their good behaviour with lots of affection, attention and even treats. Gradually extend the amount of time you leave before re-entering until they are comfortable and relaxed for even longer periods.

Step 3: If your dog picks up on signals that you are leaving, such as when you pick up your keys or put on a coat, you can use repetitive training techniques to help them have positive associations when you do those actions. Get started by jangling your keys and giving your dog a treat. Continue to do this until they start to look to you for a treat every time. Make the situation more realistic by picking up your keys and heading to the door, but instead of leaving, return and give them a treat. This will teach your dog that the behaviours don’t always mean you are leaving and that they are rewarding when you pick up your keys or put on a coat. Repeat this regularly to keep reinforcing the training.

Border Collie stood outside entrance to a house

Dog sitting

If you will need to leave your dog for more than four hours at a time, it’s usually best to have someone check in on them. That could be a friend or family member, neighbour, dog walker or dog sitter. This gives them the opportunity to stretch their legs outside, go to the toilet, get some fresh water and importantly, some much needed company. 

If your pup is happy around other dogs, doggy day care is a popular option, meaning they are with other dogs and around people all day. This is particularly useful for dogs with more severe separation anxiety.

Why punishment and negative reinforcement won’t work

Whilst it can be frustrating to come home to destroyed possessions or poo in the middle of the carpet, it’s important to never resort to punishment. On the whole, it can be hard for the dog to associate the punishment with the action, especially when they may have been doing the unwanted behaviour hours ago. Additionally, punishment serves only to increase your dog’s anxiety and reinforce anxious behaviour. It’s much more productive and humane to use positive reinforcement of the behaviours that you want to see.

How to prevent your puppy suffering from separation anxiety

Brown puppy looking up wearing a PitPat

If you’ve recently bought a puppy into your home, it’s crucial that you help them understand that being alone is alright. This early age training will set them up well for the future. Alongside the other techniques we’ve outlined, the training below will help them to be anxiety free whilst you are away. 

Step 1:  Make sure they are comfortable in their bed or crate, and busy with a chew or a food puzzle toy. 

Step 2: Slowly build up the distance you are from their bed – eventually leaving the room and then the house for short periods of time. Always reward them when they behave appropriately.

Step 3: Once your puppy is comfortable being in a room by themselves, build up the amount of time you spend away from them – in a different room or out of the house.

Step 4: Eventually, your puppy will be comfortable being left for more prolonged periods of time. Always make sure you never leave them for too long – they need to be let out to go to the toilet and stretch their legs.

This training is always best done when your puppy is a little sleepy – such as after a walk or vigorous play session – so they are calm and relaxed. 

How to stop your puppy crying at night

If your puppy has trouble sleeping by themselves, especially in their first few days home, you can bring their bed close to your room, where they feel comfortable, gradually moving it further out with each passing night. 

Make sure you’re consistent with moving the bed further out each night, especially if you intend to keep your room off limits in the future!

So there you have it! Remember, exercise is a huge part of your dog’s well being, and has a significant influence over their behaviour. Make sure your dog is getting the right amount with a PitPat dog activity monitor, costing just £39!

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