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My dog has separation anxiety – what can I do?

Just like humans, dogs can experience intense emotions and struggles in their daily lives. If your dog becomes quite anxious and distressed when you leave them alone, they might be suffering from separation anxiety.

What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a behavioural disorder that occurs when a dog becomes extremely anxious and distressed after being separated from their main caregivers or when left alone. While the exact reasons why some dogs develop separation anxiety and others don’t are not fully understood, it is believed to be a multifactorial condition caused by several factors, such as:

  • Being left alone when accustomed to constant human companionship
  • Sudden changes in their normal routine
  • Traumatic experiences triggering a response
  • Change of ownership
  • Genetics – dogs born to anxious parents are more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders

Separation anxiety can manifest in various ways, including:

  • Excessive barking or howling
  • Destructive behaviour: chewing furniture, clothes, household items, scratching doors, or windows.
  • Loss of appetite
  • House soiling
  • Pacing and restlessness: Some dogs may pace back and forth, tremble, pant, drool excessively, or show signs of restlessness when the owner is gone or as they prepare to leave the house.
  • Escape attempts, which can lead to injuries.
    It is important to note that some of the mentioned symptoms can be linked to other behavioural or medical conditions. Therefore, it is crucial to consult your vet first to rule out any possible medical reasons for the symptoms.

How Can I Help My Dog?
Dealing with separation anxiety can be challenging due to its multifactorial nature. Thus, using different approaches simultaneously can help your pet become more comfortable when left alone:

– Training

  • Habituation → Repeated exposure to a stimulus will lead to a decrease in response. For example, practice departure cues by mimicking your departure without actually leaving the house (e.g., picking up keys, putting on shoes).
  • Counterconditioning → Re-train your pet to associate something they previously feared/disliked with a positive experience. For example, give your dog a highly valuable treat or toy just before you leave.
  • Desensitization → Gradually expose your dog to being alone, starting with short periods and gradually increasing the duration. The goal is to eliminate or reduce the exaggerated emotional reaction to a specific situation.

– Environmental Management

  • Mental enrichment → Provide engaging toys, puzzles, snuffle mats, treat dispensing toys, slow feeders, or activities that can keep your dog occupied and distracted while you are not around.
  • Crate training → When used appropriately, a crate can provide your pet with a safe, quiet place to relax. Positive associations with toys or food are key to successful crate training. This technique can help some dogs feel safer and more comfortable in their crate when left alone.
  • Daily exercise and playtime → Ensure your pet gets at least thirty minutes of playtime or exercise. A tired dog is less likely to exhibit excess energy and destructive behaviours.
  • Medication
  • In severe cases, consulting with a veterinarian or dog behaviourist becomes essential for a good management of the situation. They can offer tailored advice and, if necessary, recommend prescription medications to ease anxiety.
  • While medication alone is unlikely to eliminate separation anxiety, it can help modify the emotional state of your dog, making them more receptive to behaviour modifications.

– Alternative treatments

  • Compression shirts (Thundershirt®) → The pressure of the shirt has a calming effect on the dog’s nervous system, imitating a gentle hug.
  • Dog-appeasing pheromones (Adaptil®) → Replicating the pheromones that mother dogs use to communicate with their puppies, Adaptil helps relax dogs in new or challenging environments.
  • Zylkene® → This calming supplement contains alpha-casozepine, a natural ingredient derived from milk protein with clinically proven calming effects.
  • Calming Food (Royal Canin® Calm) → This diet has been specially formulated to support emotional regulation in pets, containing ingredients like alpha-casozepine and L-tryptophan, both of which have shown to help pets facing stressful situations.

What You Should Never Do

  • NEVER punish your dog for their anxious behaviour, as this can worsen their anxiety. Avoid punishing your pet for undesirable actions while you’re not at home. Even if you take them to the ‘crime scene,’ they likely won’t associate your anger with their past behaviour, due to their limited short-term memory. Instead, this could lead to increased fear and confusion, exacerbating their anxiety.
  • Some training guides may suggest letting a dog ‘cry it out.’ However, this technique can have neurological consequences. Every time your dog becomes highly distressed, stress hormones are released, and it can take several days for these hormones to return to normal levels. This can negatively impact your dog’s quality of life, as well as their physical and mental well being.

Patience and consistency are crucial when addressing separation anxiety. Remember that each dog is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. However, with the right strategies, we can help your pet feel more comfortable on their own. If you suspect your dog might be suffering from separation anxiety, don’t hesitate to contact us!