Coming home to the scene of massive doggy destruction isn’t anybody’s idea of a good thing. Nor is coming home to puddles or piles in the house, gouged woodwork around the windows and doors, or neighbor complaints about barking and howling. Often owners cite separation anxiety as being the cause of these problems.
Separation problems are pretty common, but not all separation problems are true separation anxiety. There are many reasons for destructive and undesirable behavior. Separation anxiety is certainly one of them but, before deciding that this is the problem, others must be ruled out. How do you know if you’re dealing with the need for more training or true separation anxiety?
If the problems occur when the owner is present, it most likely is not separation anxiety. Medical problems or incomplete housetraining can be the cause of the urination and defecation problems. Sometimes the dog has been allowed too much freedom for its age and level of training, particularly if the dog is a puppy or adolescent, or new to the home. Sometimes the dog has been left alone for an unreasonable amount of time and stress causes it to misbehave. Chewing may be because a puppy is teething, or it may be because the dog has not been taught what is his to chew. It may be boredom or lack of adequate exercise and mental stimulation. Barking can be caused by outside stimuli — a squirrel in the tree, birds at a feeder, a cat, the mailman, etcetera.
In many cases, the problems stem from the fact that the dog has not learned to be alone for any period of time. A training program that gradually increases the time the dog is left alone, while keeping it occupied with interactive toys or chewies, can solve the problem. Suitable confinement (crate, pen, dog-proofed room with a baby gate) may be needed before the dog can be allowed the unsupervised run of the house. An adequate amount of vigorous exercise before leaving the dog will also help.
Typical symptoms of separation anxiety include destructive chewing, excessive barking or howling, attempts to dig through flooring, attempts to escape, and urinating and defecating in the house. Dogs with severe separation anxiety have seriously injured themselves by crashing through windows, tearing out toenails or breaking teeth while attempting to get out of crates. These dogs will usually start showing signs of stress as soon as the owner gives cues that he or she is getting ready to leave. Getting dressed to go out, putting on a coat, grabbing a purse and car keys — all these things signal the dog that it is about to be left alone. The dog may whine, drool, pace, pant excessively, tremble or appear depressed before the owner leaves because they have learned to associate these cues with being left alone.
Separation anxiety can be the result of several factors. A change in homes is a frequent cause. Dogs who had a home and then wound up in a shelter or rescue may be traumatized enough by the loss of their homes to suffer from separation anxiety after they are adopted. The more homes a dog goes through, the worse the problem. They cling to their new family or person, not wanting to be left alone because of past experience. A drastic change in schedule can cause it. If the owner had been home most of the day and then gets a job requiring her to be gone for long periods of time, the problem may occur. Moving to a new and unfamiliar home can be a trigger. A “Velcro” dog that is rarely away from its owner is a prime candidate for the problem. Absence of a loved family member may bring about separation anxiety.
Lessening or eliminating the problem requires careful training, counter conditioning, and sometimes even prescription medication. It is not something that can be improved overnight and will often require professional assistance by a trainer, behavior specialist or veterinarian with expertise in behavior problems.
As with so many problems, separation anxiety is often much easier to prevent than to cure.
Dorothy Miner is a long-time dog obedience and tracking instructor, judge of canine events and author. She teaches weekly classes for the Allen Oakwood Correctional Institution’s PETS Program and provides training and consultation under the banner of “Sidekicks” and “Training for Dogs and Their People.”