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Separation Anxiety in dogs: Living with this condition and the road to recovery

Separation Anxiety

Why dogs my dog bark or destroy my home when I go out?



What is Separation Anxiety in dogs?

Many dog owners have experienced the stress and heartbreak of separation anxiety in their canine family members. Separation anxiety is simply a fear of being left alone and is no different to any other phobia.

A dog with separation anxiety may exhibit distress behaviours such as barking, howling, destruction, self-harming behaviours and urination. These behaviours can be really distressing for both the dogs and also their human family members.


Why do dogs get separation anxiety?

Dogs are pack animals that bond closely with their family and caretakers. Their social nature and dependence on the owner for security can make separation a real challenge for them. While any dog can develop separation anxiety, certain backgrounds and temperaments can make some dogs more at risk. This is why, even people who have had many dogs with no separation anxiety previously, can find that their new arrival is scared of being left home alone.


You are not to blame !!!

Having a dog with separation anxiety can lead owners to feel judged, blamed, and ashamed. The distressing behaviours like barking, destruction, and elimination in the home can feel embarrassing when family, friends, or neighbours witness it. Owners often feel others assume they are doing something wrong or have caused their dog’s separation anxiety.

Comments like ‘its because you let your dog sleep with you that they can’t be left alone’ or ‘you cuddle your dog too much’ can make it feel like it is their fault. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Separation anxiety doesn’t develop from ‘over love’ but it is simply that some dogs become frightened of being left alone, just like any other phobia.

While separation anxiety is a challenging condition, owners should remind themselves they are not to blame. With patience, proper training and support from a qualified separation anxiety specialist, dogs’ anxious behaviours while home alone can be overcome. Over time, owners can feel pride in helping their dogs become more secure, independent, and calm when separated.


How can we help our dogs overcome separation anxiety?

There are many ideas of how to address separation anxiety but the method that works is a process called systematic desensitization. This sounds complicated but it is simply a process of gradually exposing the dog to being alone, starting with very short durations. The person then begins by practicing separations of just a few seconds initially and then gradually building up the time their dog can be calm and anxiety free.

As the dog is able to tolerate short periods without anxiety, the person leaving slowly increases the duration they are out of the house. First it will be just a few minutes and then up to an hour or more. It’s critical to gradually build up the alone time very incrementally, without moving too fast or leaving the dog alone for longer than they can handle. Going too fast can exacerbate the anxiety.


Should we leave food toys and activities for our dog?

This technique appears on the internet often and lots of people try this but find it doesn’t help or only lasts until the treat or chew is gone. Often dogs who are anxious won’t even eat the food. In training we advise not to use food. At best it masks the issue until the food has run out. At worst the food actually begins to trigger the anxiety as it tells the dog that the human family member is leaving, which is the thing they are fearful of. 


What about triggers?

Triggers are the things that we do before we leave that tell our dog that we are about to leave. The anxiety then begins for our dogs even before we go out the door.

We often read about addressing the triggers, such as picking up keys, putting on the coat and shoes and picking up a bag before starting departure training. This is no necessary and can actually sensitise our dog to the triggers making them even more sensitive.

Once the dog learns that you leaving is safe and nothing to fear, the triggers often lose their impact because the dog no longer associates these with begin anxious. Departure training can therefore begin straight away and you can move towards going out anxiety free.


I have read about a quick fix so what is all the fuss about?

Sadly the reason that separation anxiety is so challenging is there is no magic wand we can use. Our dogs have a genuine fear and like us fears are hard to overcome. Humans often see therapists to help with severe phobias. 

If a trainer says they can sort your dog’s separation anxiety in a week they do not understand the condition. They may advise ‘letting your dog bark it out’ or using an ‘anti-bark’ collar. This advice shows a lack of understanding – separation anxiety a FEAR of being left alone and this advice will only exacerbate the fear rather than resolve it. 

A qualified separation anxiety trainer will have undertaken many hours of training and considerable practical experience before they are assessed to see if they meet the required standard to be certified. 



A case study: Bonnie the working cocker

One family found that their puppy started to develop separation anxiety behaviours as they grew up when they went out of the house without her. At first Bonnie was very clingy and would whine and scratch at the door whenever they left the house and begin to bark and howl as time went on.


How they felt

“It broke my heart to leave her each day for work. She would be so stressed out by the time I got home”. They tried leaving special treats and toys to occupy her, having the tv on for company and even trying to sneak out the house when she wasn’t looking but nothing helped reduce the anxious behaviours and they just seemed to get worse.

Bonnie’s family felt really embarrassed and found it hard to ask for help as they believed it was their fault that this situation happened. ‘We were told that we had caused this situation by too much cuddle time and allowing our puppy to follow us round the house’. It was so hard to admit our situation, but we had to get help because the stress to our family and the complaints from the neighbours were getting too much’.


Steps to recovery

The family contacted Els K9 Solutions and were so relieved to find that they understood and did not judge them at all. ‘We were so worried, but our first chat was so reassuring and we instantly felt supported without judgement’.

They took the leap of faith and started training. They did the simple plans a few days a week to gradually teach their dog that being home alone was safe and nothing to be anxious about. ‘We learned how to do the training, particularly how to read the more subtle signs of anxiety in Bonnie, such as lip licking and yawning to avoid her going over threshold and becoming more anxious’.

With patience and perseverance, the time they could leave Bonnie began to increase until they could leave her initially for a coffee with friends and eventually long enough to go to work and for her to be OK. ‘We honestly didn’t think we would ever be able to leave Bonnie but with the support and training we received we can now go out and she will be relaxing on the sofa with none of the behaviours we used to see’.

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