Author: Tracy Reis, DVM
Separation anxiety is a syndrome that involves panic symptoms in response to being left alone. The behavior can be destructive, with pets destroying furniture, the owner’s possessions and even walls and doors. Sometimes this behavior is due to lack of exercise or boredom, but true separation anxiety is due to deep-seated anxieties that the pet feels when left alone. Some dogs will display anxious symptoms as the owner is getting ready to leave or become extremely excited when the owner returns. They may also be clingy when the owner is at home.
Many dogs may exhibit some of these symptoms, but true separation anxiety syndrome is not very common. However, if your pet is displaying any of these behaviors, it can be stressful and costly both financially and emotionally. The last thing any owner wants to deal with after a long day at work is to come home and find their new sofa destroyed, a hole in the wall or a pair of brand new shoes chewed to bits.
Our pets evolved as companions, and are pack animals. They view us as part of their pack. Owners need to help their pets develop a healthy balance between companionship and the ability to cope with being left alone for periods of time.
Owners must condition their pets to stay calm when they are leaving. The best way to do this is to practice leaving and returning. This needs to start as soon as you bring a new pet into the house. This way, they become used to you leaving. If you teach your dog from the beginning that your leaving the house is a regular event, it will make life easier for both of you.
Next, set up a safe, well-lit place in a family area with family smells, such as a laundry room, kitchen or a crate in a living room. Place water and a few safe toys in the area, and guide your dog into the area. If they are staying calm, you can give them a treat and praise them. If they continue to stay calm, leave the room for five seconds. Gradually increase the time, and when taken out, have a short play session or a walk. As your pet becomes more comfortable in “their” place, start adding verbal commands when you are getting ready to leave and give them a treat if they willingly go into their place. This should be a safe place in their mind, equivalent to a den, not a jail they go to when you leave them or punish them.
This training will take some time, but will condition your pet to the fact that you will come back, and that you are the pack leader.
In addition to this acclimation training, you can also practice getting ready to leave without actually leaving the house. Dogs quickly pick up on cues that you are getting ready, such as putting on your shoes, getting your keys, etc. Make this as low-key as possible. Put them in their “safe place” and act as if you are leaving. See how the pet reacts. Gradually increase the time that you “fake” leave up to an hour to be sure they are still calm.
Finally, when returning home, greet your pet, but not too enthusiastically. Set up a routine. Your pet should also be let outside or leashed up to walk to relieve himself as soon as possible, so this becomes part of the routine as well.
Some dogs may still have separation anxiety in spite of training and there are some safe, natural products that can help calm your pet. There are several homeopathic remedies that can help, including Scutellaria, Chamomile, Belladonna, Arsenica alba and Hep sulphur.