Treating mild cases of separation anxiety in dogs
Does your dog have mild separation anxiety? Does he or she look nervous when you leave the home? Have you found evidence of mischief, or has your neighbour complained about barking or whining?
Your dog may have separation anxiety – or they may not.
Try to figure out what type of separation anxiety your dog has by taking the quiz.
Then, make sure that your case is indeed mild by reading about the three levels of separation anxiety.
Confirmed that you are indeed dealing with a mild case of separation anxiety? Then let's dive right into treating this condition in dogs – methods, training, and tips.
Treating mild cases of separation anxiety in dogs is possible with the introduction of small changes to your routine, and with changes to the behaviour of the dog.
If you have examined your pre-departure routine by video-recording your dog while you are preparing to go out, you might have noticed a few things that you could change in your routine.
One of the most obvious things that many people notice is the ‘trigger’ – something that happens, or that you do, that triggers your dog's anxiety response.
It could be the sound of you opening the drawer of your dresser, it could be a hat that you put on before you go out, it could be the garage door opening, you picking up your door keys, or even you simply saying "bye-bye".
How do you identify the trigger on your video? It will be the event that causes your dog to start getting anxious. When they hear, see, or smell something that in their mind is associated with you leaving, then the symptoms of stress will immediately follow.
If you have identified a specific trigger, try to change your dog's reaction to it. This process is called “desensitization”.
If your dog gets anxious when you open your garage door, open your garage frequently when you are not leaving. The first few times your dog may well get anxious, but after a few days or weeks, they will learn that the sound of the garage door does not necessarily mean that you will leave.
Desensitization is a long and tedious process. If it is possible to remove the trigger altogether, rather than eliminating the association, this may be the easier and faster option.
For example, if you have realized that your dog associates the phrase "I'm off – be a good boy" with the stressful event of your absence, when you stop saying this phrase, it may be that your dog does not care anymore, and stays calm when you leave.
Have you noticed, in your video, that you talk to your dog a lot? Letting them know that you are going to come back, that you love them, that you wish you didn't have to go, repeating "good boy" or "good girl" a few dozen times? Did you notice that you frequently pat or touch your dog? Or that you look at your dog a lot?
Talking, patting, and eye contact may actually be the triggers for your dog's separation anxiety response.
Next time you leave, try reducing all of this communication.
Do you have a young, active dog? Many high energy dogs need a lot of exercise daily. If your video shows your dog staying active throughout the day while you are not at home, this is usually an indicator that they don't get enough exercise.
Start the habit of exercising your dog before you leave. Experiment with different kinds of exercise, to find the one activity that makes your dog most physically relaxed.
Most dogs will relax after fifteen to thirty minutes of intense aerobic exercise, such as running, swimming, and jumping. Tired dogs behave relaxed and sleepy, and look for a place to lay down and take a nap.
Not every dog is an athlete. If you find that your dog is not willing to engage in any kind of physical activity before you leave, it doesn't mean they are lazy: it is possible that physical exercise isn't something they need.
Try taking your dog out to socialize with other dogs before you leave for work.
Interacting with other dogs is demanding for your dog's brain; it requires attention, focus and quick reactions. It might be just as intense as physical exercise.
If your dog is playful with other dogs, that's great, but if they just approach and interact with them calmly, that’s good too. Your dog doesn't have to be a social butterfly – they may simply enjoy meeting other dogs.
Dogs are a social species, and some find being in a social environment very relaxing.
Are you the lucky owner of a genius? Did your dog go through puppy training with ease? Does he or she know a lot of tricks? Is your dog a 'people dog'?
If you have found that your dog enjoys interaction, and if he or she picks up on your cues easily, they may actually prefer learning new tricks to sports and socialization.
Learning new tricks and games engages memory, challenges logic and communication skills, and requires attention and focus from your dog.
Try picking up some new tricks. Spend half an hour before you start preparing to leave the house teaching them new tricks and games, making sure to finish on a positive note – and that your dog has had enough of you for the day.
Leave some time between playing games and leaving the house. Don't play games while you are preparing to leave, and make sure that your dog has had time to relax after the activity.
Counterconditioning with food
If removing anxiety triggers and providing enough physical activity, socialization and mental stimulation hasn't eliminated the separation anxiety, try teaching your dog that your leaving the house is a positive event. This technique is called counter conditioning.
Counter conditioning means that you change your dog's association of you leaving the house with negative feelings such as loneliness, vulnerability and inability to control their environment, to a positive association with pleasant emotions.
The easiest way to do this is with food. Licking and chewing helps dogs to relax. Prepare a snack in a treat-dispensing toy such as a Kong toy, and give it to your dog before you leave. It should take around fifteen to twenty minutes for your dog to get all the food out of the toy by licking or chewing – during which time they will have produced enough relaxation hormones to trigger sleep when the treat is over!
Does your dog have separation anxiety? Share this article if it has helped you.