If your dog hates being left alone, they might have something that's commonly known as separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is a result of a dog being very attached to one member of the family - most often their primary caregiver, i.e. one who feeds, walks, plays, and sleeps with them. When that primary caregiver leaves, even for a short amount of time, the dog starts to experience extreme levels of sadness, frustration, and anxiety.
Separation anxiety is a serious condition in dogs and one that is extremely stressful to both dog and parent. But, the good news is that it is treatable - in many cases, you'd be able to do it on your own, whilst serious cases might need the intervention of a trained canine behaviorist.
What causes separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety can arise from a single cause or a culmination of causes, but before you decide to treat separation anxiety, it is imperative that you are clear on what is causing it in the first place.
Some of the causes of separation anxiety are -
As is evident, a dog with separation anxiety is stressed, hyperactive, nervous, agitated, frustrated, angry, sad, helpless, and often depressed. Since their body is raging with these emotions, they channel all of it onto destruction, pacing, chewing, howling, scratching, and aggression. This behaviour is almost always the exact opposite of when the primary caregiver is around.
People often describe separation anxiety as unintentional hyperactivity, where the dog doesn't want to feel that way but is forced to because his/her person is away. Unfortunately, dogs with this condition display all of these signs even if they know your schedule well. For them, it's all about hyper-dependence on you, even if it might cost them their life.
Why do dogs get separation anxiety?
Dogs are creatures of habit - if they're used to something, they want to stick to that - whether that be a routine, a favourite toy, or even a person. Their very existence depends on their primary caregiver because he/she is the one who feeds, cleans, walks, plays, and sleeps with them. Naturally, the dog begins to solely rely on this person for everything, whilst other members of the family take the backseat.
How to treat separation anxiety?
Finally, the solution! Once you've understood why your dog behaves the way he/she does, finding the solution is a no-brainer! Before you begin to treat separation anxiety, it is best to rule out any underlying medical condition that may be causing it - hormonal imbalance, infections, pain, discomfort, etc.
Once that's ruled out, you can try the following -
1. Involve more people in your dog's life
If you live with a partner or family, distributing responsibility for the dog helps in making the dog understand that the other person/people are equally dependable when it comes to love and care. Instead of having one person walking, feeding, and playing, you can divide responsibility. For example, if person A walks the dog, person B feeds the dog, and person C grooms and plays with the dog. The next day, person A feeds the dog, person B grooms the dog, and person C walks the dog. This rotational responsibility is crucial in preventing a dog from getting attached to just one person. If you live alone, get household staff, friends, and family to come over now and then and help out with doggie duties.
2. Leave in intervals
If you leave your dog for long hours all of a sudden, they're bound to feel stressed/anxious. This is particularly seen in pandemic puppies, where after the lockdown was lifted, people started staying at home lesser than during the lockdown. The best way to get your dog used to your absence is to leave in intervals. Start with 5 minutes - you can step out of the house for 5 minutes and then come back in. Then, move on to 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 25 minutes, 40 minutes, and 60 minutes. This drill gives your dog time to understand that even if you go, you are. going to come back. It is never recommended to leave dogs for more than 3 hours at a stretch with no supervision. Remember, to keep point 3 in mind when leaving and entering the house.
3. No hellos or goodbyes
This one may come to you as a shock, but it is one of the most common causes of amplifying separation anxiety. According to PetMD, research proves that dogs know well in advance when you're going to leave. A few of the many tell-tale signs are your bags (suitcase/handbag/gym bag), removing new clothes from your cupboard, putting on your shoes, storing away unused items in the kitchen, picking up the keys, making the bed earlier than usual, a slight change in your routine for that day, leaving out their toys, arrival of a pet sitter and so on. This means that their brain is preparing for your departure much before the actual goodbye. Pet parents often display elaborate levels of affection - hugging, kissing, crying, etc when they come back home and when they're about to leave. For dogs that suffer from separation anxiety, making departure and return so dramatic amplifies anxiety by 10 times, especially once the parent has left. This why greetings and goodbyes need to be kept to a minimum - a pat on the head should do just fine. Once you've come into the house and settled down, you can shower them with all the love!
4. Leave your clothes out
If your dog finds comfort in your smell, you can choose to leave a few of your clothes around the house - on their bed, on your bed, on the couch, by the window etc.
5. Enrichment toys
Enrichment toys or mentally stimulating puzzle toys are an excellent way to keep your dog from thinking of you while you're away. Puzzle toys focus a dog's energy on solving puzzles to get a reward - which means, their brain is focused on the toy and not on the fact that you're not home. Find several puzzle toys with different challenge levels for your dog to work on right here at Petsy! We recommend starting with a KONG and then working up to other puzzle toys, such as snuffle mats, strategy games, and treat-dispensers.
6. Chew bars/bones
Like treat dispensing toys, long-lasting chew bars are another way of getting your dog to stay focused on a fun task rather than wait longingly at the door for you.
7. Sitters & Walkers
If you're going to be away for a long time, you might want to consider a pet sitter or a dog walker to keep your dog company while you're away. Remember, however, you need to find the right pet sitter for your dog, especially if they suffer from separation anxiety.
8. Consider the environment
If there is someone or something in your house that stresses your dog out, especially when you're not around, you might want to consider checking in and eliminating that source of stress/anxiety. Many a time, dogs are afraid of household staff or family when their primary caregiver isn't around, and this adds to more stress, leading to devastating levels of anxiety.
9. Give them some 'me' time
Even when you're in the house, your dog needs to learn to be on their own - they need some time to themselves. In order to do this, you can leave them in a quiet well-ventilated room with enrichment toys and chew bars for short periods of time (at first) and then gradually increase the time they spend alone. If they do not prefer the room, you can try leaving them alone in the house at intervals.
10. Consider getting a friend
Sometimes, we just need a friend, and dogs being social animals, do sometimes prefer another dog around. However, this isn't always the case, especially with aloof breeds like Rottweilers, Dobermans, and Akitas. If you think your dog would love a friend, you may want to consider getting a second dog.
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