Have you ever come home from work to find that your dog has chewed a hole in the door, pooped in the house or, according to the neighbors, barked incessantly?
You may have chalked it up to boredom or to spite because you felt your dog must be mad at you for being gone all day.
That’s a common belief, but it’s downright wrong. What seems to be “bad” behavior is often a dog’s response to fear. And fear, anxiety or stress are often at the root of canine separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is one of the most common behavior issues in dogs. An estimated 15 percent of the nation’s dogs are thought to suffer from separation anxiety, according to my colleague Nicholas Dodman, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and professor emeritus in animal behavior at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Massachusetts.
Dogs with separation anxiety fall apart when they’re left alone or when the person to whom they’re most attached leaves the house. They begin to get anxious when they see signs of departure such as putting on work clothes, packing a suitcase or picking up keys or a purse.
From pacing, panting or drooling, their behavior may escalate to destructive chewing, especially at doors and windows; nuisance barking; or peeing or pooping in the house. A dog who is super-attached to one specific person may turn his nose up at meals or act depressed if that person isn’t home.
Managing Separation Anxiety
Any time your dog’s behavior changes, no matter what you think the cause is, I always recommend getting a veterinary checkup to rule out any underlying health problems. You just never know what could be going on beneath the skin. Your dog could have a urinary tract infection or other illness that’s causing him to be unable to hold his bladder or bowels.
If your veterinarian gives him the all-clear, ruled out other possible behavior issues such as noise phobias, and you pinky-swear that your dog is fully housetrained and has no reason to be bored, it’s time to practice some behavior modification techniques to help a fearful dog be able to stay home alone comfortably.
Start by conditioning your dog to departure cues so they don’t have as much significance. Get dressed as you would for work, then sit down on the couch and read the paper. Throw a few things in a suitcase and take it down to the car, but don’t go anywhere. Pick up your keys and carry them to another room, or go outdoors with them and then return. The idea is to reduce your dog’s association of those actions with your departure. Practice often so that he becomes more relaxed when you perform the actions.
Make departure time special. Not by giving your dog a heartfelt farewell but by giving him a treat or favorite toy that is available only when you leave. A hard rubber Kong toy stuffed with goodies such as peanut butter, slices of carrot and other favorite treats serves a triple purpose: it’s a treat, it’s a toy and it’s a distraction from your departure, keeping your dog occupied for a while after you’re gone. (Of course, only leave him with toys you’re sure he can’t destroy or won’t pose a potential choking hazard.)
Give the treat or toy in a matter-of-fact manner — no getting your dog all revved up just before you leave. Same for when you come home. Always leave and greet him calmly without a lot of fanfare. He should come to view your comings and goings as just a normal part of the day.
Other routines that you can build into a departure ritual include turning on the television to a nature channel or kid’s show, tuning the radio to a classical or jazz station or playing other music that your dog likes. You can even purchase music created especially to appeal to dogs. Your veterinarian can provide you with even more strategies.
Combining all of these things into a normal routine teaches your dog that good things happen when you leave. That can help him to chill during your absence. Be sure he has everything he needs: fresh water, a food puzzle for him to work at to get his daily meal, access to a potty area, and a comfortable place to rest and play.
The ability to be confident and comfortable while you’re away is an essential skill for your dog to learn. If he suffers from severe separation anxiety and has hurt himself or caused major damage, consult a veterinary behaviorist for advice on ways to help him.