Dogs are pack animals, and as such, are prone to suffering from anxiety when separated from their owners. Signs of this distress usually come out in behavioural problems, such as excessive barking, urinating in inappropriate places, digging and escaping.
So, if your pet is suffering from separation anxiety, how can you help him stay calm and relaxed when you are away from home? Here are a few tips:
- Exercise your dog every morning. The more tired he is, the more relaxed he will feel when you leave the house. If you can’t walk the dog yourself, organise for a dog walker to pop over in the late morning or lunchtime. That way the dog has something to look forward to after you leave the house.
- On the weekend, take your dog to obedience training or a new park, to create new experiences. Spend time teaching him new tricks. This will stimulate his mind as well as providing physical activity, making him less anxious. Remember, a busy, stimulated dog is a happy dog.
- When you are home, spend time playing tug of war and other games with him or give him fun chew toys.
- Dogs who spend time with other pets are less likely to become anxious for their owners. If you don’t want to adopt another dog, do you have a friend with a dog? Perhaps they can spend some time together while you are at work? Or perhaps you have a family member or a neighbour who would be happy to visit your dog every now and then when you are out.
- You probably have a routine when you leave the house – for example, you might check the locks on the doors, pick up your car keys from the same spot and grab your bag from the same place. When you perform these tasks, your dog starts to get anxious. By changing your routine, you can interrupt these anxiety cues.
- It also helps if you perform these tasks but don’t actually leave the house. For example, when you check your doors and windows your dog senses you are about to leave, and he starts to get anxious. If you do these tasks but then stay at home, your dog stops associating the activity with your departure.
- Before leaving the house, ignore your dog for a good 20 minutes. This might sound harsh, but heaping attention on your dog before you leave the house actually increases his anxiety when you go. When you return home, don’t make a fuss. Just calmly greet your dog with some gentle pats. Lavishing attention, praise and food on him when you get home means he is anxious for your return every time you leave. The key here is to create a routine that means he doesn’t pine for you when he is alone.
- If your dog exhibits attention-seeking behaviour when you return home, ignore it.
- You need to start creating new associations for your dog. Creating an association between being home alone and getting something pleasant will reduce your dog’s anxiety. If your dog has breakfast, wait until you are just about to leave before putting out his breakfast as well as some special toys, such as a Kong toy, that will keep your dog busy for a while after you leave the house. That way, your departure is associated with receiving a tasty treat.
- No matter what you try, some dogs will still suffer from separation anxiety, which can cause the dog not just emotional harm but also physical – anxious dogs can harm themselves when distressed. Speak to your vet if you have tried behavioural changes without success – your vet might recommend behavioural training or even medication to help your pet.