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Separation Anxiety in Your Dog

Are the neighbors complaining that your dog is barking all day while you’re at work? Do you come home and find items broken, molding around the door chewed, signs of attempted digging or constant pacing, or even urinating or defecating? Your dog may have separation anxiety.

Some dogs become very distressed when they are left alone. This is more common among rescues, dogs that have been adopted from a shelter, or dogs that have experienced the loss of a beloved master.   

If your dog is exhibiting any unwanted behaviors while you’re away, the first thing to do is to check the obvious. Is your dog sick? Are you gone too long and your dog just couldn’t hold his bladder? Are there noises that are likely to scare him, like highway noises near your house? Be sure to check for these issues first. Puppies are also prone to separation anxiety and need frequent potty breaks, so be sure to start training your puppy early and don’t leave him alone too long.

Also, make sure your dog is properly house-trained. If he chews pillows or woodwork or bounds around the room and knocks over furniture when you’re home, doing it when you’re not home is probably not separation anxiety. Whatever behavior he is displaying while you are away, if he does it when you’re home, he needs training, and that may solve the problem. 

Correcting separation anxiety

If your dog has a severe problem, you may need to engage the help of a dog training expert. It’s also critical during the time of training not to leave your dog alone and training can take weeks, so if you work outside the home or run errands, you may need to enlist the help of a friend or loved one to be present with the dog. If that’s not possible, consider a doggy daycare. Most dogs with anxiety simply don’t want to be alone. Even if they prefer your presence, they’ll likely be calmer if someone is there to soothe them.

Keep in mind, too, that the occasional dog may actually show aggression as part of his anxiety. If so, you may need to enlist the help of an expert dog trainer rather than risk leaving your dog alone with Mom. 

Gradual training

The key to separation anxiety desensitization is to go slowly and stay calm. Never scold your dog or punish him, because his “bad behavior” is not disobedience; it’s loneliness and fear. You will increase that fear if you punish him.

Your goal is to teach your pet that you always come back. Depending on your dog, you can start with 1-5 minutes of time alone and work your way up.

Don't make a big deal when you leave or come back in the door. Since your dog might not understand what is going on, it is important that they don't tie excitement to you and long for that excitement. If your dog is jumping and excited when you come in, say a simple hello and ignore him until he calms down so you don’t reward that behavior.

Some dogs show signs of distress when they see cues that their owner is leaving. If your dog starts to pant or whine or drool when you grab your keys, purse, or coat, it’s a sign he thinks you’re leaving. To desensitize this behavior, put on your coat and shoes and then go sit down and watch tv or make a sandwich or something. Grab your keys and go upstairs. Do this multiple times a day for as long as it takes for the dog to stop making the connection. 

Next, go outside for a short time, maybe five minutes. If your dog shows distress at four minutes, back it up to three minutes and come back before he shows distress. Do this several times a day and gradually, over days, extend the time you are able to go outside. 

Once you get to about a half hour, try offering your dog a small treat as you leave, so he associates your leaving with something special. For instance, determine your dog’s favorite Saint Rocco’s Treats flavor and reserve that flavor for your exit ritual. You can try our Chicken Sampler or our Beef Sampler to try lots of flavors.

You may want to limit the dog’s area to a single room or a few rooms, if you can close a door or put up a baby gate. Then you can provide your dog with some fun toys that he only gets when you go out. You can also hide some small treats, like our Saint Rocco’s Sprinkles, for your dog to search for while you’re away. And there is evidence that having an audiobook playing can be soothing because your dog hears a human voice and doesn’t feel alone. 

Another good practice is to walk your dog before you go out, which affords him the opportunity to relieve himself and get some healthy exercise to tire him out. Give him a moderate amount of water and food so he isn’t hungry or thirsty, but not too much so he can wait until you get home for another potty break. 

Give these steps a try. If your dog has had a traumatic life, don’t be surprised if it is a difficult process to build in him a sense of trust and security. A dog expert might help. It’s worth it to you and to your canine friend to take the time to help him learn to have some peace and confidence that you will always come back.

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