It is common for dogs adopted from a shelter to show signs of separation anxiety in their new homes. These signs include urinating, defecating, barking, howling, chewing, digging, or trying to escape when left alone. Often, a dog will become anxious or depressed as his pet parent gets ready to leave. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety do not typically show distress behaviors when their pet parents are present; instead they perform them only when they are left alone.
It is not known for certain why dogs develop separation anxiety. There is evidence, however, that dogs adopted from shelters are much more likely to have separation anxiety than dogs who have lived with one family for their entire lives. There are several changes in the dog’s environment that can trigger the disorder. These include a change of pet parent or family, a change in schedule, a change in residence, or a change in household residents.
Dealing with Mild Separation Anxiety
Countercondition your dog to associate being alone with good things, like a special food-stuffed toy. When you leave your dog alone, give him a puzzle toy stuffed with food that will take him a long time to finish. You can stuff a Kong toy with peanut butter, cream cheese, frozen bananas, yogurt, or canned dog food, then freeze it. The goal is to replace the dog’s anxiety over you leaving the house with a pleasant, relaxed feeling. Try placing a D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pheromone, brand name Adaptil or Comfort Zone) diffuser in the room where your dog spends time while you are gone. The scent of the pheromone is similar to that given off in female dogs’ breast milk and is comforting to dogs. (Humans cannot detect the scent of the pheromone.)
Dealing with Moderate and Severe Separation Anxiety
The main treatment for more severe separation anxiety is to gradually get the dog used to longer and longer separations over the course of many weeks. You must start with leaving the dog alone for only a short period that does not cause the dog anxiety.
The first step is to desensitize your dog to your predeparture cues. Your dog may become anxious when you pick up your keys or put on your coat. You must change the significance of these actions by teaching your dog that they don’t always mean that you’re leaving. Pick up your keys, then watch TV instead of leaving. Put on your coat and shoes, then sit down at the kitchen table and read the newspaper. Practice exposing your dog to these cues in different orders several times each day for several weeks.
Once your dog does not become anxious before you leave, you can start working on very short departures. It is important that you only leave your dog for periods of time that are short enough for him to handle without becoming anxious. Start with absences that last only one or two seconds. Slowly increase the time that you are out of your dog’s sight. When you’re able to leave for ten seconds, incorporate giving your dog a stuffed Kong right before you leave. While you’re training, wait a few minutes between departures. Make sure your dog is completely relaxed before you leave again. Remain calm and low key when you are coming and going.
Gradually increase the length of the separations. Be careful not to progress more quickly than your dog can tolerate. Look for signs of stress in your dog such as panting, yawning, salivating, trembling, and pacing. If your dog shows any of these signs, you must shorten the length of your departures to a point where your dog remains relaxed. Start at that level, then progress more slowly.
Most anxious responses occur within the first 40 minutes that your dog is alone. As you train, only increase the duration of your separations by a few seconds each session. Once your dog does okay for 40 minutes, you can work on leaving for longer periods, progressing by 5 to 15 minute increments. When your dog can be left for 90 minutes without becoming anxious, he is probably ready to be alone for 4 to 8 hours. Start with 4 hours and work up to 8 hours over a number of days.
Although time consuming, this treatment program can be completed in a few weeks with several daily sessions on the weekends and twice daily sessions on weekdays.
While you are desensitizing your dog to being separated from you, it is important that he only be left alone during training sessions. During desensitization, the dog must experience only a low-intensity version of the thing that makes him anxious. If he is overwhelmed by anxiety and fear because he is alone for too long, he will not learn to be calm and relaxed in your absence. You can make arrangements to have a family member, friend, or dog sitter stay with your dog while you are gone, or you can take your dog to daycare or a dog sitter’s house.
Some dogs see their crates as safe places to go when they are alone. However, for other dogs the crate causes additional stress. If your dog pants or salivates excessively, or barks or howls persistently, then avoid using the crate. Instead, confine your dog to a small, puppy-safe room using a baby gate.
Physical and Mental Stimulation
Physical exercise and mental stimulation are important parts of any behavior modification program. They decrease the dog’s stress and use up his excess energy. A tired dog is a happy dog. Walk your dog for at least 30 minutes daily. Feed him meals using a food puzzle toy. Enroll in a positive, reward-based training class to make your dog think.
If your dog suffers from severe separation anxiety, consult a veterinary behaviorist. She can prescribe medication and create a personalized behavior modification plan for you and your dog. Some behaviors cannot be changed without the help of medication. These medications can also help treatment to progress more quickly.