What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is the most common behavioural issue in dogs, and occurs when a pet becomes very distressed if the owners leave the house. The dog feels alone, nervous and uncomfortable, and starts acting out with excessive barking, whining, scratching at the door, going to the toilet inside or even damaging household furniture. Separation anxiety is essentially a by-product of being bred over the years to be “man’s best friend”. Dogs are very social pack animals and loyal companions, and the other side of this means that they feel very uncomfortable when they are alone.
What can owners do to help?
There are a number of good strategies that can help calm a dog with separation anxiety.
Firstly, for any behavioural issue, it is important to make sure the dog is being exercised regularly, having regular meals and having a decent amount of owner-dog play and interaction daily. Setting the foundations for a normal, healthy relationship will go a long way in preventing these issues from occurring, and a tired and satisfied dog is much less likely to cause trouble than a bored, energetic and ignored dog.
A dog with separation anxiety should be occupied and distracted while the owner is out. When leaving in the morning, make sure your dog has a chewing bone or toy to play with, or an even better option are the dog toys that can be stuffed with kibble or treats, requiring the dog to work at getting the food. Only give the toy just before leaving, so the dog will now associate the separation with something positive – a new treat or toy. This training method is called counter-conditioning and can really help.
A product called Adaptil can also really help dogs with separation anxiety. Adaptil contains a pheromone, a special scent that is only detectable to dogs, and has no odour or effect on humans. It is bioidentical to the dog’s normal territory marking scent, and makes the dog feel comfortable, relaxed and safe. It is available as a plug-in pheromone diffuser, spray, or pheromone-impregnated collar. Adaptil is completely safe, does not contain any drugs and has no side effect, but can be a great aid in helping calm anxious dogs.
Another tip for separation anxiety is to reduce the excitement and hence anxiety levels. Owners coming and going can be an emotional rollercoaster for a dog – they become quite distressed when the owner leaves in the morning, and then wildly happy when the owner returns in the evening. Try to reduce these peaks and troughs – say goodbye in the morning in a casual and relaxed way, and when you come home in the evening you should greet your dog and say hello, but keep it calm. Of course don’t ignore the dog or make them feel unwanted, but try to save the mad play sessions for another time.
Lastly, it is possible to build a dogs confidence by starting out with small breaks – just leave for 5 minutes at a time initially, then slowly increase the time spent away so the dog becomes accustomed to spending time alone.