It's no surprise that dogs don't love being left alone. They're social animals, after all. Some dogs might whine and cry when we leave, others nap and await our return, and still others will destroy some pillows in an effort to entertain themselves in our absence. How do you know when it's true separation anxiety and what can we do to help our dogs feel more comfortable while we're out of the house?
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety expert Melana DeMartini, CTC, defines separation anxiety as "the equivalent of a full blown panic attack in a being due to the anxiety and fear of being left alone." These panic attacks often manifest in dogs as:
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- Excessive barking, whining & vocalizing
- Involuntary urination & defecation
- Escape attempts
There are many common misconceptions about the above manifestations. Dog trainers often hear from clients, "my dog poops on my floor when I leave him alone out of spite." This kind of behavior is involuntary. The dog is not choosing to have an accident. It is a result of panic and fear. Recognizing that your dog is under severe stress will help you respond with empathy and compassion.
Separation anxiety's more mild cousin is isolation distress. Isolation distress is the dislike of being alone, while separation anxiety tends to latch itself onto a specific individual whom the dog is very bonded with. If your dog is okay as long as they're with someone, then it's more likely isolation distress that they suffer from. If your dog panics as soon as you leave them, then you're probably dealing with separation anxiety.
For more help with diagnosing your dog, check out DeMartini's book Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs or get in touch with a certified Separation Anxiety Trainer.
Teaching dogs to like being alone
The good news is that true clinical separation anxiety is rather rare. If you have confirmed that your dog does not suffer from true separation anxiety but merely barks or whines when alone, then follow the steps below to teach your dog to enjoy some independence:
Step 1: Management - Prevent Panic
It's always a good idea to start with management. Limit the amount of time your dog has to be alone by recruiting dog walkers, neighbors, family members, and daycares to help care for your dog while you have to work or run to the grocery store. It's critical to limit the amount of stress our dogs experience while they're learning to enjoy their alone time.
Step 2: Create a Safe Space
Create a safe space for your dog. This might be a cozy crate or a room that your dog is most comfortable in. Create a positive association with this space by frequently providing them with food toys, bones, chews, and cuddles while they're in there. Ensure there is minimal trouble to get into in this space - i.e. nothing dangerous to chew on.
Step 3: Countercondition Departure Cues
Your dog might already begin panicking the moment you put your shoes on, grab your car keys, or put your jacket on. Dogs are very good at picking up on patterns. Because your dog already has a negative association with these behaviors of ours, we need to put the effort into counter-conditioning these predictors of our departure.
Several times a day:
- pick up your keys, toss a couple treats, and put your keys back down
- put your shoes on, toss a couple treats, and take your shoes off
- put your jacket on, toss a couple treats, and take your jacket off
Over time, your dog will stop panicking when you perform these behaviors which will allow you to successfully move to Step 4.
Step 4: Practice Short Departures
Most vocalizing happens at the initial departure. Some pups even settle after 5 minutes of crying. So we're going to invest the most amount of training in those first few minutes of our absence. This is how:
- Prepare a delicious Kong or Toppl Toy with your dog's favorite recipe.
- Set stuffed toy in safe space with your dog.
- Say "be right back!"
- Disappear for 3-5 seconds.
- Come back, pick up stuffed toy, and let your dog out of their safe space.
- Repeat steps 2-5, while gradually (and very slowly) increasing the amount of time you disappear for.
During this exercise, we're teaching our dogs:
- That we always come back.
- That our absence is paired with something delicious.
- That our return isn't very exciting (in fact, it leads to the end of their yummy toy).
You might be wondering "what happens when my dog finishes the stuffed toy?" With enough repetition of this exercise at tiny intervals of time, our dog's anxiety decreases, and when they're done with the toy they simply nap until you return. Watching you walk away is the hardest part. If we countercondition the first 5 minutes, then we should see more success for an hour or even 3 hours —as long as our dog understands (through repetition) that we always come back!
How to get help for separation anxiety
If you're still struggling with your dog's anxiety at being left alone, try the following:
- Hire a qualified, certified trainer to help guide you through the process systematically and successfully!