Houdini, (my shihtzu mix) is the most loyal, loving dog I have had the pleasure of owning. He would walk through fire for me. That kind of loyalty is not often seen in a dog, and I thank him for it every day.
Houdini has one issue, that puts a rather large, dark cloud over our heads, and for years was a constant strain on our relationship. His separation anxiety. His anxiety levels have at times been so bad that we were nearly evicted from our NYC apartment, he nearly bankrupted me in dog daycare fees, and I was unable to enjoy “down time” with friends for fear that he was barking or destroying the apartment while I was away!!
Separation anxiety is not fun for either you or your dog, and in my case made for awkward interactions with neighbors who hated my dog (and who thought I was a bad owner).
I am not going to beat about the bush here, dealing with separation anxiety is not fun (especially when you live in a small apartment) and takes time, commitment and understanding from an owner to work with the dog to overcome its anxiety. But it can be dealt with.
Sadly, separation anxiety is still the number one reason that dogs are re-homed and I can understand why! I am a dog behaviorist with over 14 years experience and I found it difficult. I would cry myself to sleep after reading yet another nasty note from the neighbor across the hall, or next door complaining about howling and constant barking. I would get so angry at Houdini that I wanted to scream when I had to change my sheets and covers every day as there were soaked in urine and poop.
Understanding what causes separation anxiety and how to help your dog deal with it is the first step to healing and learning how to support your dog when he needs you.
What causes Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is caused when your dog becomes distressed when left alone. This may sometimes be left totally alone, or left with others but without you. Every dog is slightly different with this.
Like humans, dogs are social animals and develop strong social attachments. A dog with separation anxiety doesn’t just like you leaving, but is both mentally and physically distressed by your absence.
It’s hard to tell by looking if a dog suffers from anxiety, however there is some research suggesting that early abandonment issues and genetics may also factor into it. Some breeds are also more anxious than others.
Classic Signs of Separation Anxiety
Visible distress- Panting, Drooling, Heavy Breathing
Scratching at doors
Urinating and Pooping (especially on items that smell of the owner- shoes, beds. etc)
Vocalization- Barking and Howling
How to Treat Separation Anxiety?
Sometimes exercising your dog more can relieve anxiety.
Give your dog something to chew on. Chewing releases happy endorphin’s which can help calm an anxious dog. Houdini gets all his meals in Kongs now.
Don’t make a fuss of your dog when you leave him alone, or return. This prevents giving him a reason to become more anxious.
Break up your routine. We all have specific routines that we do before we leave (shoes on, coat on, find keys), these are often triggers for your dog to start to get anxious. By breaking up your routine, you prevent the triggers for anxiety.
Make being alone fun. With Houdini, he only gets fed from his Kong when I leave the house. This allows him to associate an unpleasant activity (me leaving) with something fun (his yummy meal).
Become a little more boring so your dog does not rely on your for all mental stimulation.
Seek help. There is no shame in asking a vet or behaviorist for help. They are trained to help you and your dog in these situations and in just a few sessions, your dog’s anxiety levels may reduce significantly
It took me 6 months of training to get to the point where Houdini could be left alone for extended periods of time without stress. If your dog suffers from anxiety, I understand, and am here for you. Please feel free to ask any questions and I will do my best to answer them for you.
Do you have any other tips that would be useful for dogs with separation anxiety?