SEPARATION ANXIETY IN DOGS

SEPARATION ANXIETY IN DOGS

September 12, 2023

 

Often overlooked, companionship is frequently lacking in our dogs’ lives, yet it is one of their most basic needs.  Bearing this in mind, we should remember that separation from us is not voluntary for our dogs. Therefore, it should not be surprising that these social creatures find it hard to cope with being left alone for long periods daily. Dogs rely on their humans for everything: shelter, food, exercise, and wonderful things. Their very survival depends on us. Therefore, dogs can become anxious in our absence. 

Additionally, dogs have been so heavily selected and explicitly bred to form strong attachments to humans that, technically, they all have a predisposition to developing separation problems. 

Unfortunately, recent canine studies confirm that 45% of owners leave their dogs home alone each day, and more than 28% leave them for longer than four hours, and as many as 85% of dogs in the UK are anxious when left alone. 

If your dog is anxious when you leave home, here are a few tips and exercises that may help. All steps should be taken slowly, and build up time gradually, over several days or weeks if necessary,  

1. Start by gradually moving away from the dog, one step at a time, until you can leave the room without the dog moving or showing any signs of anxiety. After that, the next stage is to leave the house for short periods, starting with a few minutes and gradually increasing to a few hours. In time, the dog learns that its owner always returns. 

2. Desensitising and counterconditioning programmes can also be implemented, considering the dog’s stressors. For example, if the dog becomes agitated in anticipation of your leaving when you pick up the car keys, handbag, umbrella, briefcase, put on shoes, etc., you should introduce these items one by one during the day when we are at home. Pick up the car keys five times in a row, and if the dog is sitting calmly, give it a treat. Walk away. Owners can randomly repeat these exercises at different times during the day, putting on shoes, taking them off, walking to the door and back, and even walking out the door and back within a few seconds, and reward the dog for calm behaviour each time. 

3. These practices allow the dog to make different connections with objects previously associated with our departure. 

4. Before leaving for work, give your dog a good exercise workout, bearing in mind the dog’s energy requirements. Physical activity can burn off surplus energy, so the dog is more likely to be relaxed and quiet during your absence. 

5. When you leave home, give the dog something special to keep it occupied and entertained, possibly a stuffed Kong or an IQ toy. This toy should be reserved for when you go out and not used when you are at home with the dog. In this way, the dog associates something good happening when you leave.  

6. Leave the dog activities and appropriate things to chew, including chew toys and puzzle toys. Hiding treats around the house will also keep the dog busy. Points 4, 5 and 6 should be implemented daily, and will keep anxious dogs calmer, bored dogs mentally stimulated and will give high-energy dogs physical exercise to work off excess energy. Understimulated dogs often find ways to amuse themselves and work off extra energy, resulting in destructive chewing, digging, scratching and barking. 

7. A further option, if you are away for long periods, is to hire a dog walker or enrol the dog in doggy daycare. 

8. TV, radio, or classical music sounds can also calm an anxious dog. Recent studies have found that playing audiobooks to dogs decreases vocalisation and increases resting time more than classical music.

9. In extreme cases, behaviourists also recommend using medication and anxiety-reducing drugs, such as fluoxetine and clomipramine, on dogs with severe separation anxiety. Medication can successfully decrease stress behaviours in dogs over a two-month treatment period. 

Dogs diagnosed with separation anxiety are increasing daily. With the human market close to saturation, it is perhaps not surprising that pharmaceutical companies are now exploring the highly lucrative pet market and pushing SSRIs for dogs. However, short-term use of medication in tandem with a counterconditioning programme can be highly beneficial. 

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