If you’re a pet owner, seeing your beloved animal in distress when you leave the house can be alarming. And, if your dog exhibits destructive behaviors while you are out, it can be more than a nuisance for you and your neighbors. If your pet is experiencing separation anxiety, it’s best to consult with your veterinarian on a specific course of action, but there are some general tips and strategies that can help both you and your pet cope.
Separation anxiety is a stress response that affects roughly 15% of our canine companions and causes behaviors such as barking, pacing, and improper elimination. Even if your pet has not shown signs of separation anxiety previously, changes in routine can cause these behaviors to develop. Be on the lookout for the signs of separation anxiety that include agitation, panting, chewing, or restlessness. Once you’ve spoken to your veterinarian to rule out any other underlying causes or necessary medical intervention, you can take steps to minimize your pet’s anxiety.
While smothering your pets with love and affection helps to strengthen your relationship, it can also cause your dog to become dependent on these types of interactions and have trouble feeling secure when you are gone for extended periods of time. Be sure to create space for you and your pet to be independent while still together. This can mean relaxing in different rooms of the house, eating separately from one another, or having your dog spend time in his crate with a favorite toy while you participate in an activity of your own.
Your dog is able to recognize the signs of your departure - putting on shoes, gathering your keys, finding a jacket in the closet. Start practicing these behaviors in front of your pet without leaving the house. It may seem silly at first, but over time your dog will start to realize that putting on shoes does not mean the end of the world. Similarly, when you come home after a long day away, try not to make a big deal out of your return which can create an emotionally charged moment for your pet. Instead, act like it is simply a routine part of your day (which it is) and find other times to shower your pet with affection perhaps while playing in the park or when your pet has exhibited a positive trait or behavior.
Counterconditioning is the process of changing an animal’s fearful response into a positive one using a stimulus that they enjoy, typically food or toys. By associating something bad (you leaving) with something good (their favorite treat) you can teach your pet that the thing they fear most will actually be followed by something they look forward to. Developing this association takes some planning, but can provide a positive outcome for both you and your pet. When you leave the house, give your dog a treat that takes some time to enjoy, like a puzzle toy or a frozen KONG stuffed with peanut butter or a favorite toy that can’t be destroyed easily. This ensures that your pet is satisfied in the immediate aftermath of your departure. When you return, be sure to remove the treat or toy from the environment so that your pet associates this positive reward with being left alone.
Just like in humans, exercise has many positive benefits for your pet including decreasing stress and providing an outlet for energy. Take your dog for walks, runs, or daily outings as much as possible to provide stimulating activities for them to enjoy. Schedule doggy play dates, visit a new dog park, or play tug of war to tire your pet out. You’ll both benefit from the endorphins and positive bonding time.
Crate training is not a one-size-fits-all solution to managing behavior. For some dogs, crates provide a safe, comforting environment where they feel secure and relaxed while you are away. For others, being crated can cause added stress and anxiety. If your pet falls into the latter category, but you still need them to be contained while you’re gone, setting up a baby gate can provide a happy medium. Consult with your vet on whether or not your pet is a good candidate, and monitor their behavior while created for signs of stress like panting, howling, or salivating.
As frustrating as it can be, avoid scolding or punishing your pet for their anxious behavior, as this can only exacerbate the situation and provided additional stress for you and your dog. Take steps to implement positive change and reinforcement and understand that it may take some time to improve your pet’s behavior.