By Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB, San Francisco SPCA
Separation anxiety is a serious and heart-breaking disorder. Dogs who suffer from separation anxiety experience the canine equivalent of panic attacks every time they are left alone. They might urinate, defecate, bark and cry, ignore food left for them, and frantically scratch and chew at door frames in an attempt to get out and find their owners.
It’s important to understand that these dogs are not getting back at their owners for leaving or behaving the way they do out of spite or anger. Rather, they are consumed with terror at being left alone.
What can trigger problems? A life change, such as re-homing, a stay at a boarding kennel, a death of a key family member, or a major change in routine, such as months of the owner being home all day followed by sudden eight-hour absences.
The first step is to get an accurate diagnosis of your dog’s behavior. A dog that barks or destroys things while left alone might do so out of frustration, pent-up energy, or unfulfilled social needs. Medical issues can cause house-soiling. To find out definitively what your dog does and why, set up a video or web camera and record your dog when you leave him alone.
Prevention is the best way to head off separation-related problems, and it’s a must for puppies, young dogs, and newly adopted dogs. Again, dogs have to learn to handle being alone. A few guidelines include:
- Arranging many brief absences. It is much better to leave for brief periods (from a few seconds to a few minutes) extremely often so the dog’s early learning about your departures is that they are no big deal and predict easy, tolerable absences: “Whenever she leaves, she comes back.”
- Breaking up the day. Consider hiring a dog walker or enrolling your dog in a doggie daycare. This breaks up your dog’s day and leaves him nice and tired when he gets back.
- Exercising mind and body. Give your dog both physical exercise and mental work to do. Not only does problem solving increase confidence and independence, it is mentally tiring and so increases the likelihood your dog will rest quietly when left alone. The more activities and toys are incorporated into his life, the less he will depend on human social contact as sole stimulation.
If you suspect your dog suffers from full-blown separation anxiety, you need help from a qualified professional. Contact Dr Berger, SF SPCA’s board-certified veterinary behaviorist. Don’t live in the Bay Area? Search locally for a veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB).