Separation anxiety is a syndrome that many dogs suffer from when left on their own in the house, car or other less familiar place. It is instinctive for a puppy to be strongly attached to its mother and litter mates, and when he leaves the family group, this attachment will transfer to the owner. This is normally a healthy relationship based on trust and is a healthy bond between a pet and owner. It only becomes problematic when the dog becomes overly dependent on its owner and behavioral problems ensue.
Separation anxiety is often exhibited by urination and soiling in the house by an otherwise house-trained dog, destruction of household items including beds, floors, furniture and doors, barking, howling and hyperactivity. The dog may also exhibit depression, although it must be born in mind that all of these behaviors can be the symptoms of other causes, both medical and psychological, so a check-up at the vets is always the first course of action. Separation anxiety is probably the cause if the behavior occurs rapidly after the departure of the owner and if there is a hyperactive, prolonged greeting when the owner returns.
Certain breeds are more prone to separation anxiety, but so too are dogs who have had an unsettled past or traumatic events that have encouraged an increased attachment once they finally find a loving owner. Puppies that were taken from their mother too early and puppies that spent time in pet shops or animal shelters are also more susceptible to suffering when left alone by their owner. Changes in routine and lifestyle such as suddenly working full-time, absence of a family member can upset dogs that usually show no signs of separation anxiety.
Each dog suffering from separation anxiety will exhibit different behavioral problems – some will develop one problem while others will exhibit several, even beginning the cycle while the owner is still in the house in anticipation of him leaving. A dog that follows its owner, whines and whimpers, shakes and generally seems distressed just before the owner leaves the house is very often starting its episode of anxiety. This is where an owner can begin to re-train their dog to react differently to their departure.
A method known as “planned departure” has proved to be very effective and is far more productive than simply correcting the behavior as it goes to source of the problem. The idea is to mold the dog’s reaction by making a series of short departures. As the anxious response always occurs very shortly after the owner leaves the premises, the dog is left for only a few minutes (or even seconds to start with) to ensure that he returns before the dog becomes frenzied. The owner should leave the house quietly without speaking to the dog and should not allow the dog to exhibit a prolonged greeting on his return – simply ignoring the behavior and turning away will gradually discourage this. The planned departures should be very slowly increased in length, never staying away long enough for the dog to become agitated or frenzied. This process takes time and patience but it does eventually work. Once the dog is calm during a thirty minute departure, the length of time can be increased by larger increments.
If this method is taking a long time and isn’t proving to be effective, the owner can increase the effectiveness by systematically ignoring the dog for a period of up to three weeks. The dog will not suffer from this, nor will the bond between dog and owner be lessened, but your dog will certainly be confused at first, especially if he’s used to a lot of attention. It can help a dependent, anxious dog find a calmer, more independent existence which will facilitate periods of being alone in the home.