8 Ways to Soothe Separation Anxiety
Christina Shusterich’s article “8 Ways to Soothe Separation Anxiety” provides effective ways to both prevent and treat separation anxiety in dogs, published nationally by Animal Wellness Magazine
Carolyn recently adopted a lovely young shepherd mix from her local shelter. Hailey is a gorgeous dog, loves people, and is anxious to please. But there’s a problem. “The first time I left her alone for a few hours, I came home to find feathers all over the bedroom floor” says Carolyn. “Hailey had pulled one of the pillows off my bed and ripped it to shreds.” Carolyn also found a chewed-up water bottle in the kitchen and a mess of scratches along the bottom of her front door. “I felt awful thinking how distressed she must have been”.
Hailey’s behavior is a sure sign of separation anxiety, a common problem with many dogs. It’s characterized by anxiety or panic behaviors that occur when a dog is left alone or separated from her human companion. These can include:
• House soiling
• Excessive barking, whining or howling
• Excessive salivation
The causes are many and varied and sometimes originate with experiences the dog had before she entered your life:
• Previous abandonment or loss of human companion
• A traumatic event, such as a severe thunderstorm, that occurs during your absence
• Sudden change in lifestyle, environment or schedule
• Loss or addition of a family member
• Early separation from the mother
• Acquiring a new dog or puppy and spending most of the initial adjustment time with her, then abruptly returning to a work schedule
Separation anxiety can range from mild to severe. It usually develops within the first two years of life, but can occur at any age. It often appears in older dogs as their senses diminish and they become increasingly dependent on their human caregivers.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
1. Avoid spending all your time with a new dog or puppy, then suddenly returning to a schedule where you’re away all day. Instead, gradually accustom the dog to your absence by leaving her alone for five minutes, then ten, and so on up to a period of 1½ hours.
2. Create positive associations with your absence. Provide your dog with new toys prior to your departure. You can also give her a Kong or hollow bone filled with frozen peanut butter or healthy kibbles; it’ll not only engage and focus her attention, but will give her positive reinforcement for working the food out rather than engaging in anxiety behaviors. Be sure to also occasionally provide her with new toys when you’re staying home, so they don’t become a cue to your dog that you are going out.
3. If you confine your dog when you’re not at home, create positive associations with the area. Crates can exacerbate separation anxiety, so putting your dog in a safe room is often a better choice. Frequently spend time and play with your dog in this room when you’re at home.
4. Give him a job! “Find it” is a great game your dog can play by himself while you’re gone. It consists of your dog searching for stuffed Kongs or bones that you have hidden. To keep her occupied, use more than one Kong: they don’t all have to be completely filled with treats. Be sure there is a variety of positive simulation for your dog. Try providing her with 20 toys and rotating them weekly in groups of ten. “Find it”, chasing, chewing and playing with toys utilize natural dog behaviors and will give her a task to accomplish in your absence.
5. Try to ignore your dog between ten to fifteen minutes before you leave, and another ten to fifteen minutes after returning home. This minimizes overly emotional departures and greetings, and keeps them matter-of-fact and par for the course.
6. Increase your dog’s exercise before you leave the house. Going on a brisk morning walk, for example, can help her be tired and relaxed while you are gone.
7. Randomize and dissociate your departure cues. Dogs with separation anxiety are highly aware of each action you take before going out, such as showering, putting on makeup, shoes or coats, picking up keys and so on. Regularly go through every step you routinely take prior to leaving – and then don’t leave. Weekends are a good time to do this.
8. Consider leaving on the TV or having some relaxing music play while you’re out – studies have shown that classical music soothes dogs. Choose something you also listen to while at home, so your dog doesn’t associate the music with your absence.
These tips can help any dog, but particularly those at risk for developing separation anxiety or who are beginning to become anxious. If your dog’s problem is severe, however, he may need the help of an experienced behavior specialist.
“For Hailey, I got some professional help and also tried some of the suggestions I learned,” says Carolyn. “It took awhile, but she’s a lot better now. The other day, when I gave her a Kong filled with treats, she took it right to her favorite spot and didn’t even look up when I went out the door!”