Pets with Problems

Life Changes: Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Just like humans, dogs are sensitive to changes in their lives. For dogs with separation anxiety even the smallest change can knock them sideways. Changes can be anything from a family member moving out, moving to a new house, travel, illness (both human and canine) a new baby in the home, or even a simple change in the daily routine can upset a dog and can trigger troubling behaviour changes when left alone at home. Read on to learn more about how dog separation anxiety can be handled when life is changing for you and your family.

What Are the Signs of Dog Separation Anxiety

A dog who historically was fine with human absences in the family’s old schedule may start to display disruptive behaviour when the schedule changes, while you are away from home. This may manifest as whining, howling or barking, toileting, refusing to eat the treats left for him, pacing, panting, scratching at the door, destroying furniture and anything else he can get hold of and going nuts when you come back. This is not bad behaviour, this is panic and it is so intense that your dog may even get to the point of self-injury. Separation anxiety in dogs is the equivalent of a panic attack in humans. .I cannot stress enough how important it is to remember your dog is not just upset, they are terrified. Their behaviour while you are gone is not done out of spite or anger, but rather because of the intense panic they are feeling in the moment.

Example of How to Plan for Life Changes with Your Dog

The best approach to mitigate the impact of a major life change on your dog is to prepare them far in advance of the change occurring. For example, with many people returning to the workplace after working from home for months, easing your dog into the change over a period of time may help. Unfortunately, for many, this is an afterthought and usually it is too late.

In a case like this, if you know you need to return to the office in a month or even a few weeks, you can begin to prepare your dog for the change. First, be clear about when your dog is likely to be left alone, and begin adjusting your current schedule very, very gradually to build up their tolerance. This is much better than simply starting work one day, and shocking your dog into panic because all of a sudden you are gone for hours at a time.

If you cannot do this then prepare to have someone look after your dog whilst you are out. For example, if your partner works from home make an effort to ensure they stay with the dog, enroll your dog in doggy day care or find a friend or neighbor who is willing to help. If your dog has developed separation anxiety gear yourself up to spend a lot of time helping him overcome his fears – resolving separation anxiety can take many months.

What to Consider to Prepare Your Dog for a Life Change

As I mentioned before, preparing weeks or even months in advance for a change in routine is the best-case scenario. The goal is to make the adjustment gradually. Here are some additional tips to consider:

  • If the dog is losing the person they are bonded with the most, either due to increased or long-term absence, start strengthening the dog’s relationships with other family members as soon as possible.
  • Gradually prepare your dog for more time alone at home. Increase his alone time in other rooms in the house. Build this up gradually. If he is OK with being left in another room start to work on leaving the house in tiny tiny increments – start with opening and closing the front door, stepping out, closing the door behind you and coming straight back in and ONLY when he is calm with all of this, start increasing absences a few seconds at a time. NEVER let him reach the point of panic.
  • Exercise is a great way to diffuse the anxious energy that can accompany changes in routine. Dogs, like humans, are best equipped to relieve stress through physical outlets. Increasing exercise, even just in the early stages of the adjustment process, can help.
  • Dogs are genetically programmed to hunt for their food. Many behaviour problems are caused by a lack of mental enrichment. A healthy, balanced day should include mental stimulation as well as physical exercise.

Have a dog walker hired well in advance of the schedule change. Make sure that your dog is comfortable with them long beforehand.

All Dogs Are Different

Just like humans, all dogs are different. This means some dogs are more sensitive to certain changes than others. Unfortunately, the exact cause of separation anxiety is not known. It is believed to be a possible combination of genetic predispositions and the influence of how a dog lives their day-to-day lives – basically a combo of nature and nurture. However, some dogs are just not built to be alone and they struggle for no apparent reason. If a life change is inevitable, make sure to give both you and your dog plenty of time to adjust to the new routines.

The points above are very simplistic. There are many variables that one has to consider when trying to work with a dog with separation anxiety. One size does NOT fit all. If your dog is struggling to be alone have a read of this book – Separation Anxiety by Malena DeMartini – it is full of excellent and useful information. Remember that the dog will ‘not just get over it’ and if you need help, find a professional who can help you.

Contact Me For Help

If you are struggling, I cannot urge you enough to contact me for help. The expertise I can offer is priceless when helping your dog overcome his anxiety and knowing there is a light at the end of the tunnel – your dog CAN be happy at home alone.

As a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer, one of my greatest joys is to see the small marks of improvement in a dog that will eventually lead to them being able to stay home alone calmly. Another joy for me is working with these amazing owners – being able to work side by side with them to help their dog – it’s a privilege to be part of their lives as we work together to help their dog and help them understand they are not alone.

Please, contact me with any questions you have.  

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