by Janet Figarra, DVM
Most dog owners recognize separation anxiety if they come home to shredded furniture and multiple piles of waste, but it doesn’t have to get that bad before you address this all too common behavioral disorder. If your dog follows you room to room, tries to get in the shower with you or whines every time you step outside, it’s time to modify your behavior—and his—before it’s too late.
Anxious dogs often use human contact to manage their anxiety and when you are not home, this contact is not available. Your dog needs to learn how to comfort himself when you are not there. To start, don’t give your dog attention when he demands it; give it when he’s worked for it. So, if he bumps your hand or paws your leg or jumps up on you when you don’t expect it, ask him for a ‘sit’ or a ‘down’ or any other command before rewarding with pets, a treat, or a comforting word.
Second, reward relaxed behavior when you leave a room. Teach him to stay on his bed while you step out of the room to grab something. When you return, only praise if he is relaxed. Never celebrate your return. This would reinforce the goal for him to be with you every minute; and remember that the goal is for him to learn that he can be OK on his own. Also, practice leaving without leaving; in other words, get your coat, keys, etc. as if you were going but then sit and work on your computer for a while.
Coming and going should be ‘non-events’. Sometimes you are home and sometimes you are not. Do not fawn over Fido before you go and do not have a party when you get home. To sum up, here are the basics to help your dog develop the independence he needs to cope with you being gone.
- Ignore attempts to get your attention. All contact should be owner initiated.
- Teach independence by having him stay on his bed when you step out of the room.
- Practice disconnecting departure cues from actually leaving.
- No interaction between you and your pet for 30 minutes before you leave. The exception is to give your dog a long-lasting treat (rawhide or similar) or treat-filled toy (e.g. Kong stuffed with food) just before leaving.
- When you come home, ignore your dog until he is relaxed.
Once you have these basics in hand, practice short trips to the mailbox or just walk to the corner. Gradually increase the amount of time you are gone. A video of your dog while you are gone is very helpful to monitor progress. If training alone is not successful, medications can be prescribed to reduce anxiety. Herbal remedies, appeasing pheromones and wraps (e.g. Thundershirt) can also help. Speak with your veterinarian about these options along with crate training and regular exercise to determine the best options for your furry friend.
Separation anxiety can be overcome. Good luck!