How to Stop Separation Anxiety

If your dog scratches at doors or barks at the window when you leave the house, he may be suffering from separation anxiety. This condition is common in dogs that are not used to being left alone and it may also be brought on by the loss of an important person or group of people in the dog's life. Separation anxiety can cause your dog to engage in distressing and destructive behaviors that could put him at risk for escape or health complications. If you fear that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety there are a few things you can do to help.

Causes and Symptoms

Some of the most common behaviors exhibited by dogs suffering from separation anxiety include barking, howling and scratching or whining at doors and windows when the owner leaves. Some dogs also urinate or defecate in the house when left alone, even if they have been housetrained. Other symptoms of separation anxiety can be quite destructive and may involve chewing on household objects and digging under doors.

If not curtailed, these behaviors could result in injury to the dog in the form of broken teeth and damaged nails. In extreme cases, some dogs with separation anxiety have been known to escape from the house.

Though there is no conclusive evidence to explain why some dogs develop separation anxiety and others do not, certain changes in a dog's life have been known to trigger this condition. Being abandoned or given to a shelter can be extremely stressful for a dog and being removed from the only family he has known can cause a dog to develop separation anxiety.

A drastic change in schedule or a change in residence may also trigger this condition in dogs. If your dog is used to you being home throughout the day and you suddenly take a full-time job, he may have difficulty adjusting to the new schedule. Similarly, being removed from a familiar location and moved into a different home can cause a dog to become stressed and anxious.

Treatment Options

Mild cases of separation anxiety can often be treated through counterconditioning. Counterconditioning is a process through which a fearful or negative reaction is changed into a relaxed and positive one. To use this method you will need to train your dog to associate your leaving with something positive. Try giving your dog a toy or a treat that will keep him occupied for at least 20 minutes. Give the item to your dog when you leave the house and take it away as soon as you come home so he only has access to the special toy or treat when he is by himself.

If your dog has a moderate or severe case of separation anxiety, the treatment protocol may be a little more complex. You will need to gradually get your dog used to being alone by starting out with short separations and slowly increasing the duration until your dog no longer experiences anxiety at your absence. If your dog begins getting anxious while you are getting ready to leave, try teaching him that just because you are putting on your coat or picking up your keys it does not always mean you are leaving. Pick up your keys or put on your coat then sit down for a while instead of leaving - repeat this procedure many times until your dog no longer gets anxious during your pre-departure preparations.

The next step in treating moderate and severe cases of separation anxiety is to start with short departures that do not give your dog enough time to become anxious. Start inside the home, having your dog sit on one side of a door while you move out of sight to the other side. Gradually increase the distance and duration of these exercises, moving to a door further down the hall and then to an exit door. Once your dog is used to 5 or 10 second absences, start giving him a toy or treat to occupy him when you leave.

Engage your dog in sessions of repeated absences but be sure to leave a few minutes in between each absence so he has time to calm down.

It is important that you always remain calm when leaving and returning so you do not incite your dog to become excited or anxious. Over a period of weeks, build up to 40-minute absences - this is the period of time during which your dog is most likely to become anxious. Once he is capable of tolerating absences of this length you can begin increasing the duration by larger intervals, adding 5 minutes at first then 15 minutes.

After your dog is able to handle a 90-minute separation, he should be able to handle four to eight hours alone. It is wise, however, to start with four hours and to work your way up to eight hours over a period of several days.

Prevention Tips

Providing your dog with a treat or toy to occupy him during the first 15 minutes or so of your absence is often effective in preventing anxiety. Some dogs also respond well to being kept in a crate while home alone if they learn to view the crate as their own safe, personal space. If you do not have a crate, you can also try confining your dog to a single room in the house using a dog gate to block the door.

While training your dog to get over his separation anxiety it is important that you give him plenty of exercise. Try exercising your dog right before you leave - this may help him to be more relaxed while you are gone. If none of these methods work you may need to consult your vet for medications designed to treat separation anxiety in dogs. If you are patient, however, and work with your dog on a daily basis it is possible to overcome even severe cases of separation anxiety.