Separation anxiety is one of the most common, yet most undiagnosed behavioural problems in dogs. The symptoms of excessive barking, whining, self-mutilation, urination and defecation can take a big toll on both dogs and owners. It can also result in many dogs being labelled as “naughty”, with the real cause of the condition going undetected. Luckily separation anxiety is now widely understood by veterinarians and there are many management options that can decrease and even eradicate the condition completely.
Separation anxiety is your dog’s reaction to being away from you and/or your family. As dogs are pack animals, it’s normal for a puppy to become attached to their litter and then subsequently to their new human family. It’s also normal for a dog to get bored when their owner leaves the house or to occasionally whine, bark and act destructively. What distinguishes separation anxiety from day-to-day mischievousness is that in separation anxiety the behaviours occur only in the owner’s absence.
Some owners notice the signs of separation anxiety by what goes on when they are away – a dug-up garden, a torn-up house or neighbours reporting incessant barking. Other people notice it as they prepare to leave the house - the dog notices cues that their owner is leaving (like picking up keys, putting on shoes or applying make-up) and begins to bark, scratch or become hyperactive. Signs of separation anxiety can also include the following:
As the causal nature of the condition is over-dependence or strong attachment, the key to effective treatment is teaching your dog to feel safe in your absence. There are a number of different techniques that can assist with this and a few you should avoid.
Confinement can often increase anxiety. While it may be necessary to prevent self-injury or damage to the house, try to reduce confinement as much as possible. If necessary stacked baby gates in a room are preferable to a crate. Systematic desensitisation to departures can also be effective but can be a time-consuming process and require significant commitment from the owner.
Separation anxiety often manifests or worsens in winter. With the reduced daylight hours and cold weather, dogs may be walked less often. Where possible, owners need to keep up the same routines and exercise regimes in winter as they do in summer.