What can be more heart breaking than a dog running from room to room, frantically looking for his people, and not finding them. There are varying degrees of this behavior, ranging from mild discomfort to ripping the house apart.
If your dog has separation anxiety you can help by providing plenty of physical exercise, mental stimulation, mixing up the routine you follow before leaving the house and never making a big deal about going and returning.
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Do dogs grow out of separation anxiety?
It is not something a dog can outgrow, but it is possible in many cases to reduce the severity. In fact, separation anxiety can develop, and in dogs that already have it, can worsen as they get older.
Which dog breeds have separation anxiety?
I’ve seen lists from different articles claiming that Labs, Retrievers, Chihuahas, Shepherds, Collies and Spaniels are more likely to develop it, but separation anxiety is certainly not limited to a specific breed. In fact, I’ve met a few Dachshund parents who are dealing with severe separation anxiety in their dogs, and I’ve heard it’s common.
Why do dogs get separation anxiety?
Conclusive evidence as to why some dogs develop it really doesn’t exist. Known causes are things like:
- Moving house
- Being bounced around from shelter to shelter or home to home
- Loss of important people in his life
- An emotionally traumatic experience
- Lost in unfamiliar surroundings
- Change in schedule
- Canine Cognitive Dysfunction or doggie dementia
Signs a dog has separation anxiety
You may realize something is going on, but aren’t sure what exactly. You may have come home to find your dog had peed on the floor, shredded a pillow or pulled down the drapes. Perhaps your neighbors have knocked on your door telling you they hear a lot of barking, crying or whining throughout the day.
The only way to see what’s been going on is to set up a nanny cam.
Depending on the severity of a dog’s anxiety, you may see/hear signs such as:
- Incessant barking
- Running from room to room searching for their people
- Being destructive
- Chewing through barriers confining them
- Having accidents
When the person returns the greeting is frantic, as though they’ve been apart for a very long time. It goes without saying this is very stressful for the dog, the pet parents (when they learn about it), and the neighbors forced to listen to this all day long.
Are you sure your dog has separation anxiety?
◊ Sometimes separation anxiety can be confused with boredom, since they both often result in destructive behavior and excessive barking. Is it possible your dog is not getting much exercise, or opportunities for mental stimulation?
◊ Have you recently adopted a dog, then gone straight back to work without an adjustment period? Getting used to a new environment for a dog of any age can cause anxiety.
◊ Perhaps your dog isn’t as well house trained as he should be? That could explain the accidents in the house.
◊ Do you have an old dog that has started barking for seemingly no reason? Having accidents in the house? Crying if they aren’t with you all the time? It could be the beginning of dementia. Vision or hearing impairment can also contribute to the development of a generalised anxiety, particularly if left alone.
◊ Previously house broken dogs may “forget” their training due to dementia, or from being in a shelter environment for a long period of time.
◊ A medical issue can cause frequent urination as can certain medications, which can lead to accidents in the house.
◊ Some pet parents resort to using a crate to confine their dog when they’re out, not realizing crate training is a process, not something you just throw your dog into. The “being locked up” part can cause serious anxiety, not the separation from you.
◊ If you are noticing changes in his toileting habits or general behavior, please see your vet, as there are several medical conditions that can explain these changes. Once they are diagnosed and treatment started, you should notice an improvement.
Curing dog separation anxiety quickly
In many cases it’s possible to significantly reduce the level of anxiety, but I wouldn’t use the word “cure” in relation to this issue. As far as seeing results quickly, there is no quick fix. How long it takes to see improvement will depend on the reason and severity.
Since I assume your dog is dealing with this to some extent, I urge you to adopt a patient attitude and accept the fact it may take quite a long time to see a difference. That won’t necessary be the case, but the steps needed to help your dog are best done very slowly to increase the likelihood of success.
How to deal with separation anxiety
Every dog needs more than a backyard, they need at least 2 walks a day, 30 minutes each. Having said that, the length, intensity, and frequency will depend on your dog’s age and physical condition. Tiring him out before you leave the house may make him more relaxed about spending time alone.
Enrol in a class
Training and fun classes are a great way for you and your dog to learn new skills you can practice together at home. It also helps with providing your dog with different types of physical activity and mental stimulation, both of which can help with stress relief.
Put what you’ve learned into practice before you leave the house.
Training, games, tracking, and agility are just some of the ways to challenge your dog mentally, in addition to physically. Again, the activity you choose will depend on your dog’s physical capabilities, but perhaps some of the more challenging ones could be scaled back to accommodate.
Mix up your routine to throw him off track
Most of us have a routine we follow each time we’re ready to leave the house. It doesn’t take long for your dog to learn it and realize that once you’re finished, he’s going to be left alone. That can send him into full panic mode.
His anxiety may even start building as you begin getting ready, because he knows what’s coming. Changing your routine may help.
For example, he knows that when you put your coat on, you leave the house. Why not put your coat on randomly during the day, then open the mail? Grab your keys, and put them in a different place.
After a few weeks with no discernible pattern, he may be less anxious when you walk out the door.
Never make a big deal out of coming or going
You know the tilt of the head a dog gives you when you go out? That look that says “I’m way too cute to leave me?” How many times do you go back in when you see the head tilt?
We smother them with affection and attention before we leave, and again when we return. Whether it’s guilt, or because we genuinely hate to be apart from them, it’s bad all around. All this drama simply adds to his anxiety.
The better way is to not pay attention to your dog a few minutes before you leave, and for a few minutes after you get back.
The new message, and the right message you’re now sending him, is that your absence is temporary, and nothing to be concerned about.
Leave him something to enjoy
A Kong stuffed with a favorite treat can keep him busy, and if frozen can keep him busy longer. A puzzle toy can also provide a welcome distraction for when you’re out. Keep these to use only when you’re out so they stay special.
NOTE: A dog with a severe case of separation anxiety typically won’t eat when left alone.
Practice longer and longer absences
This exercise involves a gradual build-up of time spent out of the house. For this to work you need time, patience, and commitment.
Throughout this training, you must never allow your dog to reach that highly anxious state. Plan to spend about 20 minutes a session, which is comprised of the seconds here and there that you are actually out of the house, and a bit of time in between.
To begin step out the front door for just a couple of minutes, then come right back in. Remember, don’t make a big deal out of it.
If your dog suffers from severe anxiety, you may only be able to step outside for one second, literally, before having to coming back in. If that’s the case, then a second it will have to be.
Once you’re back in the house go about your business, giving your dog a few minutes to relax, then do it again, slightly increasing the time outside.
That might mean only 2 seconds, then 3 the next. That’s fine, just keep adding each time. You can also vary the length of time you stay out. For instance – say you’ve worked up to 7 minutes, the next time leave for 4 minutes, then 8, then 5.
Within a few weeks, your dog’s anxiety should be significantly reduced.
A very important note: if at any time your dog barks or seems agitated when you’re out, you have moved too quickly. Go back to the time he was still comfortable, and start from that point.
How to help a dog with separation anxiety at night
It seems odd to think of a dog having separation anxiety at night. After all, separation anxiety happens when a dog is left alone, and night time is when everyone is home isn’t it? That is typically the case, but there are people who work nights and if they’re the only ones in the house then the dog will have anxiety then.
There are other scenarios that could explain this as well.
◊ People with new puppies tend to spend all their time together, particularly these days, and new puppies often cry when left alone. If puppy parents don’t get them used to alone time, then at night when they aren’t together that’s when they’ll experience that anxiety.
◊ Your new puppy may have been sleeping in your room while getting used to his crate, and so you can quickly take him out for a pee in the middle of the night. Since you’ve moved him to his own space to sleep, he’s become anxious.
◊ An old dog with sundowner’s for example (dementia), may sleep a lot during the day then pace all night, growing increasingly anxious if separated from their human.
◊ An old dog with vision/hearing issues who has become clingier, may panic when they’re not physically with their people.
What will a dog with night time separation anxiety typically do?
- Paw and scratch at your bedroom door
- Pace throughout the house
- Pee/poop in the house
How to treat night time separation anxiety
That will depend on the age of the dog.
◊ If your new puppy is in his crate in another part of the house, you may need to bring it into your bedroom for a while. Over the course of days or weeks, that will depend on your situation, you can gradually move him further away from your bedside. Every night, move the crate a little closer to the door. Your goal is to eventually move it to where you would like your dog to permanently sleep. Depending on his anxiety level and how he reacts, you may be able to move it several inches at a time, or just one. When it comes to training, it’s always best to break things down into tiny steps and progress slowly. You end up with greater success that way.
◊ If you don’t plan on having him always sleep in his crate, it’s up to you decide if you’re happy for him to have his own bed on the floor next to you or not.
◊ If your puppy is whining but he’s in your bedroom, have you satisfied his needs before bed – exercise – had a drink – peed and perhaps pooped? If not, that could be the reason.
◊ If your dog is older, especially if this is a recent behavior, a trip to the vet should be a priority. A thorough exam along with urine and blood tests will help your vet with a diagnosis. If everything comes back normal, it’s likely he has dementia but don’t panic because there are many treatment options that can help.
◊ Just like we talked about never making a big deal about coming and going, the same thing can be said about your night time routine. Don’t make a whole fuss when it’s time for bed, just go.
◊ When it’s not anywhere near bed time, leave your dog in another room and you go to your bedroom. Stay there for just a moment then go back and carry on with what you were doing. Each time increase the length of time you’re gone.
◊ Don’t let your puppy sleep most of his day away. Engage with him, set up training sessions, play time and exercise. When it’s bed time you want him to be too tired to be anxious.
Further down in this post you’ll find medication and supplement options to consider.
Separation anxiety in older dogs
Separation anxiety can be experienced by dogs of all ages, yet it is one of the most common behaviors in senior dogs. Not only can it be harder for older dogs to handle changes in routine, but losing hearing or sight will likely make them more anxious in general. Add dementia and an absent owner to the mix and it’s a tough situation for everyone involved.
I am not in favor of using a crate for an old dog with these kinds of issues because if they have to wander and are trapped, they can really freak out. Imagine them trying to get out of that crate and hurting themselves in the process.
The best way to deal with this is, as mentioned in the above paragraph about night time anxiety, is to have your dog checked by the vet. Getting a medical condition under control is the first step, and you may need to find someone to dog sit while you’re out, especially if you’ll be gone several hours.
You will find dementia products recommended by senior dog parents in the next paragraph.
Medication for dogs with separation anxiety
While the tips I mentioned above may reduce your dog’s anxiety, it can take a long time to see a difference and your dog will still be agitated. Combining the training with one or more of the options below can help your dog feel better faster, and make the training easier for him to cope with.
A chat with your vet
Speak to your vet about prescribing a low dose anti-anxiety tablet for short term use. I’m not a fan of excess medication, but in this case instant relief may be the kindest thing you can do. Less stress might also mean greater ability to focus on the training.
There are many pheromone products available on the market that mimic natural dog pheromones, and may relieve stress. They come in various formats such as plug in diffusers like Adaptil, collars and sprays.
A combination of 5 Bach flower remedies, Rescue Remedy was created to help pets deal with stressful situations. According to the company website, “Add 1 drop of the individual remedies (max. 7) in your animal’s drinking water and you’ll see how quickly they return to normal. You can also add a drop to a treat, on food or rub it on the paws or ears.”
The Thundershirt is a garment that applies gentle but constant pressure around the torso, to help calm nerves. I know many dog parents who have found it a huge help in calming their dogs.
Valerian or Scullcap and Valerian
Valerian is a natural sedative made from the Valerian root. If you’d like more information to help you decide if this is something you’d like to try, this article is an interesting read – “ Valerian Root for Dogs: Does It Work?”
I know many dog parents who swear by CBD oil, especially when it comes to anxiety. For anyone who isn’t familiar with this product, or is concerned they will get their dog high, this is how Dogs Naturally Magazine explains it – “CBD (cannabidiol) is a compound found in cannabis and hemp. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) can also be found in cannabis. It’s this compound that gives marijuana its psychoactive properties. Most CBD oils are just that … the beneficial CBD without the THC. And they typically come from hemp, not marijuana. In short, your dog won’t get “high” from CBD oil … he’ll get the relaxation without the intoxication.”
Please be aware not all CBD oil is created equal, and you’ll find massive differences in quality. One brand that has been highly recommended is NuLeaf, so it’s worth looking into.
Zylkene “is a calming supplement that contains a natural ingredient derived from a protein in milk called casein that has clinically proven calming properties to help relax cats and dogs.” I used it for several months for my dog’s anxiety and it helped her a lot.
Specifically for dogs with dementia
Get your dog some company
Rather than leaving your dog alone for enough hours to cause him stress, why not hire a dog walker or ask a neighbour, family member or friend to help? Having someone to keep your dog company can be a big help.
Doggie Day care
A doggie day care facility is such a great option. Your dog will have others to run around and play with, which will provide him with much needed exercise and a chance to socialize.
Reminders of you
Some dogs are comforted by having a t-shirt or sweater with their owner’s scent on it in their bed. Give him one you’ve worn recently.
Leave a radio on low playing soothing music, or invest in a selection of music specifically created to calm pets. The CD Through a Dog’s Ear worked extremely well for my dog.
Teach your dog independence
Help your dog learn independence by paying him attention when you want, not when he wants. He will soon learn he gets more attention by not constantly seeking it out.
Many humans find massage relaxing, and stress reducing, why not dogs?
NOTE: While these tips I mentioned are great at reducing stress, they are not guaranteed to work with every dog. You may have to try a few to find the one your dog responds to, or it may be a combination that works best.
Is it possible to prevent a dog from developing separation anxiety?
While there is no guarantee, following the steps in the section “how to deal with separation anxiety” can help.
While the steps specifically mention leaving the house, you can do the same while in the house. For example – leave the room your dog is in and come right back. If he was fine, leave the room for 2 seconds then come right back etc…
If at any time during this training he starts to whine, cry or bark you’ve probably moved too quickly to a longer absence, so dial it back to the point where he was still okay.
NOTE: Don’t go back into the room when he’s crying, since that will teach him when he cries he gets your attention. Wait until it’s quiet, even if just a split second, then return and play with him or give him a treat. That will teach him silence is rewarded.
When you know you’ll be out of the room for 5 or 10 minutes, leave your dog a Kong stuffed with something delicious that will distract him.
Don’t forget to practice leaving the house as well.
NOTE: If your dog is dealing with dementia, vision or hearing issues, these steps may not make much of a difference. Medication, supplements and having company in the house may be the way to go.
I’m a dog trainer specializing in helping shy, fearful and aggressive dogs.
Does your dog go after other dogs and people while on a walk? Is he or she petrified of fireworks and thunderstorms? Does he growl or even nip when someone goes near his food bowl or treats? Is he scared of the vet? Men? Children? Visitors to your home?
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