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One of the greatest joys of dog ownership is the bond we develop with our dogs.  However, if your dog becomes too reliant or dependent on you, separation anxiety can occur when you and your dog are apart.  While the behaviors caused by separation anxiety are problematic, they are also treatable.Separation anxiety is a condition caused by a dog’s fear of being alone.

All dogs are social animals – they need plenty of company and social interaction to keep them happy. No dog likes to be

“Hey, don’t forget to bring us!”

left alone for long stretches of time, but some dogs suffer from this more than others.  Shelties are particularly prone to developing this problem because of their sensitivity and ability to bond closely with their person.

Note: puppy mill dogs tend to suffer more greatly from this disorder because of unscrupulous breeding practices.  These breeders do NOT select for temperament nor properly socialize their puppies.  It is always best to do your research and select a reputable breeder!

Is it separation anxiety?

If most, or all, of the following statements are true about your dog, they may have a separation anxiety problem:

  • The behavior occurs primarily when they are left alone and typically begin soon after you leave.
  • They follow you from room to room whenever you’re home.
  • The dog displays effusive, frantic greeting behaviors.
  • The behavior occurs whether they are left alone for short or long periods.
  • The dog reacts with excitement, depression, or anxiety to your preparations to leave the house.

The most common separation anxiety behaviors include:

  • Digging and scratching at doors or windows in an attempt to reunite with their owners.
  • Howling, barking, and whining
  • Destructive chewing
  • Urination and defecation (even with an otherwise housetrained dog)

What Causes Separation Anxiety?

It’s not fully understood why some dogs suffer from separation anxiety and others don’t. But it’s important to realize that the destruction is part of a panic response. Your dog isn’t trying to punish you for leaving them alone.

Dogs with separation anxiety often express their frustration or anxiety at the barrier between you and them. This is usually the front door, the front windows, the carpeting and the floor in the front of the house. In their distress, they want to get through these barriers and find you.

There are a number of contributing causes to this condition:

Sheltier Dogs

A large proportion of dogs from rescue shelters develop separation anxiety. Most of them have undergone significant trauma in their lives. Shelter dogs are never alone. They can usually smell, see, and hear other dogs present. They are rarely, if ever left completely alone with no people or other animals near by. The longer a dog has been in a shelter, the more likely that problems will develop. Unfortunately, some dogs are returned to the shelter and this can be a traumatic experience. Dogs bond with their pack strongly. When a dog has been returned to a shelter multiple times, it can be nervous that it will be left again.

Early Weaning

The first 8 weeks of a puppies life are crucial for social development. If your dog was taken from it’s mother too early, it may not have developed the social bonds that a puppy normally would. Puppies that are removed from their mother and siblings too early are more likely to develop separation anxiety and barking problems.

Puppies from pet stores are a prime example. These dogs are usually taken from their mothers well before the earliest possible age (6-7 weeks) and confined to a small box in the pet store for anywhere between a few weeks to a few months. This early weaning, coupled with the lack of exercise and affection while in the pet store, is psychologically traumatic for a dog

Change in Routine

Your dog may have developed separation anxiety because their daily routine has suddenly changed. For example, a dog may develop separation anxiety when children go back to school after being at home all summer. Another example is where a dog spends a huge amount of time with the pack, such as during a family vacation, then needs to go back to its old routine of time alone during the day.

How to Treat Minor Separation Anxiety

Fortunately, there are things you can do to minimize your dog’s separation anxiety.

  • Exercise. A good, vigorous walk before you walk out that door. More is obviously better.
  • Don’t make a big deal out of arrivals and departures. For example, when you arrive home, ignore your dog for the first few minutes then calmly pet them.
  • Have dirty laundry & familar bedding to lend a calming olfactory cue.
  • Provide a radio with soothing music.  (A classical station would be the best choice here, but any station featuring lots of talk also works.) Keep the volume very low.  It may calm them down a bit and give a sense that they have company.
  • Desensitize to your leaving. Taking things nice and slowly, practice getting ready to go: jingle your keys about, put on your coat, and open the door. Then – without leaving – sit back down and don’t go anywhere. Do this until she’s not reacting any more. When there’s no reaction, give her a treat and lavish praise for being so brave. Next, practice actually walking out the door (and returning immediately), again doing this until there’s no reaction. Gradually work up until you’re able to leave the house with no signs of stress from her at all.  This is the perfect time to establish a safety cue—a word or action that you use every time you leave that tells your dog you’ll be back.

How to Handle a More Severe Problem

Use the techniques outlined above along with these tips.

Create a “safe place” to limit your dog’s ability to be destructive.  A safe place should:

  • Confine the dog loosely rather than strictly. (For example: A room with a window and distractions rather than total isolation.) The view is important.  If they can see the world going by, it helps occupy the brain.
  • Contain “busy” toys for distraction. They are an attractive alternative to pining, pacing and whining.  All dogs love to chew – so get a couple of kong toys or marrowbones and give one about 15 minutes before you leave.  It might keep them happy and occupied-  and distract from your departure.

What to do in the Meantime…

It can take time for your dog to unlearn their panic response to your departures. To help you and your dog cope in the short term, you could consider the following interim solutions:

  • Ask your veterinarian about drug therapy. A good anti-anxiety drug shouldn’t sedate your dog but simply reduce their overall anxiety.
  • Take your dog to a doggie day care facility where they will have company and mental stimulation.
  • Leave your dog with a friend, family member, or neighbor.

What won’t help…

  • Punishment – Punishment isn’t effective for treating separation anxiety and can make the situation worse. The destruction and house soiling that often occur with separation anxiety aren’t your dog’s revenge for being left alone: they’re part of a panic response.
  • Another dog – Getting your dog a companion usually doesn’t help an anxious dog because his anxiety is the result of his separation from you, not just the result of being alone.
  • Crating – Your dog will still engage in anxiety responses inside a crate, and they may urinate, defecate, howl, or even injure himself in an attempt to escape. Instead, create other kinds of “safe places” as described above.
  • Obedience training – While formal training is always a good idea, separation anxiety isn’t the result of disobedience or lack of training; therefore, it won’t help this particular issue.

Remember, if you’re absent much more than you’re present in your dog’s life, then separation anxiety is a strong possibility. Dogs are pack animals and you and your family are their pack. A dog thinks that it is completely normal to spend ALL of it’s time next to you!  If you are not willing to spend a lot of your time interacting with your dog, then a dog might not be the right choice for your lifestyle.

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