Separation anxiety can manifest itself in so many ways and I think most dogs have a mild case of separation anxiety. These are the dogs who get super excited when you come home. But there are those that have a more severe case of separation anxiety. Dogs who have severe separation anxiety can turn destructive and/or injure themselves.
My first experience with a dog who had a pretty good case of separation anxiety was with my beloved Aussie mix, Teddy. It was shortly after I brought him home that I realized that something wasn’t right. Teddy was born deaf and so it was no surprise when I discovered that he had a moderate case of separation anxiety. I would come home and find remote controls chewed up or stuffed toys destroyed. Teddy was unique in that he would pick one thing that would bring him comfort every time I left and destroy it, so the mess I had to clean up was pretty minor. Unfortunately the items he chose to destroy were at times expensive to replace.
Luckily, I recognized right away what was going on so I was able to rectify the situation rather quickly. I immediately went out and bought a Kong toy. If you are unfamiliar with Kong, these are hard rubber toys that have an decent sized opening on one end so you can fill it with treats. I would put a couple of dog biscuits inside and then cap it off with peanut butter. I would give Teddy the Kong when I left the house and by the time he got through the peanut butter to the treats he forgotten that I had left and the path of destruction quickly came to an end. He eventually became confident in his home and over time I didn’t have to use the Kong anymore.
Other cases are more severe and can involve property damage. A couple of years ago my father was admitted into a skilled nursing facility for rehab. At the time he had an Akita Shepard mix named Bruce and with Dad in the nursing home Bruce was alone. He was used to my Dad being around almost 24/7 so this was quite the adjustment for him. My Dad’s neighbor would come in a few times a day to make sure that Bruce had food and water and let him outside. One morning I received a call from my Dad’s neighbor letting me know that the interior pane of glass in the living room window had been broken. Since the break was on the inside of the house there could only be one culprit, Bruce. My immediate concern was for the dog and the neighbor assured me that Bruce was not hurt. This is a case where a very secure dog was put in an unfair situation and developed separation anxiety. When it became clear that my father would not be able to return to his home, I found a new home for Bruce. He has a wonderful new “mom” now and his separation anxiety can now be considered mild.
Our terrier mix, Bailey also deals with a bit of separation anxiety that can range from very mild to serious depending on the situation. When we first got her our veterinarian (who is also a behavior expert) asked us to video tape her when we were gone to see how severe the problem really was at the time. The things we were looking for ranged from complete calm to destruction. Luckily the tape indicated that she was most likely in the mild to moderate category of separation anxiety. She would run between the front window and the door that we most frequently use for the first few minutes after we left but then we wouldn’t see her in the camera shot again until we returned. When we came home we saw much the same behavior with one difference; she would scratch at the door when she knew we were on the other side. She would also go absolutely ballistic when we entered the house. We were instructed to ignore this behavior as it just encourages the separation anxiety. I will admit that we have failed miserably when it comes to ignoring her when she is excited. It is really hard not to get some sort of gratification when your dog is excited to see you after you have been away. Bailey has gotten better with time and is a bit more patient when we get home. She doesn’t scratch at the door unless we take an unusual amount of time getting in the house.
So, what do you do if you suspect your pup may have separation anxiety?
- First and foremost be patient! Getting upset and angry at your dog will only make the situation worse and possibly delay their recovery.
- Offer a distraction. Puzzle toys such as a treat filled Kong can create a great distraction for dogs dealing with separation anxiety. Prior to leaving your dog alone with a puzzle toy let them play with one under supervision. Some dogs tend to get destructive with puzzle toys, especially if they are highly food motivated. The Kong is virtually indestructible but power chewers have been known to be able to chew them apart which can create a choking hazard. You can also give them a treat before you leave. This serves a dual purpose; first, they are distracted and second, they will associate your leaving with getting a reward.
- Video your pet. If you are able to do so set up a video camera to film your dog while you are away. The footage can give you a lot of clues as to what your pet is dealing with when you are away. You can then consult with a behaviorist or your veterinarian as to a plan of action.
- Doggie Day Care/Dog Walker. If your dogs anxiety is severe you may consider taking them to a doggie day care during the day when you are at work or hiring a dog walker to come by your house a few times a day. When Teddy was alive I would take him to a Doggie Day Care once or twice a week and it made a world of difference. Over time he became more confident and secure.
There are so many options for helping your dog deal with separation anxiety and every dog is different. Some dogs get better over time like Teddy and Bailey and others continue to struggle. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be patient and consult with your veterinarian if you are concerned about separation anxiety in your dog.