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Behaviourist's corner

Guide to separation anxiety in dogs

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Spending time away from our pets is always hard and owners are increasingly wondering whether their dog may be suffering from separation anxiety. APBC clinical animal behaviourist Inga MacKellar has advice on the issue.

Separation anxiety is the stress felt when an animal is away from its owner – it’s a complex and potentially serious problem for a lot of dogs in the UK.

Cases of separation anxiety in dogs appear to be on the rise, although it could be that owners are now more aware of the problem. The Petplan Pet Census 2018 found that 40% of owners believed their pets suffered from separation anxiety, an increase of 7% points from the 2011 Pet Census.

If you’re curious about whether your dog is displaying signs of anxiety while you’re away, you could try installing a monitoring kit, which will record video footage of your dog’s behaviour. Be sure to speak to your vet about any concerns you may have about the behaviour you see.

What causes separation anxiety?

Dogs are fundamentally a very social species. They naturally live in packs and need the company of other dogs and humans. They’re not designed to be alone. Separation anxiety occurs when an animal becomes too attached and dependent on its owner so that it becomes anxious when they are apart.

This over-attachment could be the result of a puppy or rescue dog not being taught that it’s OK to be alone sometimes. Quite often, when someone gets a puppy or adopts a dog, they’ll take time off work to help their new pet settle into their home. As a result of this undivided attention, an animal can bond so strongly with its new owner that when the owner returns to work, the dog doesn’t know how to cope with their absence.

Signs of anxiety in dogs

If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, he might start howling or barking when left, but this is where it’s wise not to jump to conclusions because a dog could be displaying this behaviour for a different reason.

He might be able to hear other dogs, or something might have frightened him to result in this response. This is where installing a monitoring kit could come in handy. Some dogs with separation anxiety might urinate or defecate in the home, but again, there could be another explanation for this, such as having an upset stomach or not being given ample opportunity to go to the toilet before the owner leaves.

A dog might be destructive in the home, but this could just be a sign of boredom – however, if a dog chews or scratches the door through which you’ve left, it could be a sign that your absence has triggered the behaviour. A dog that tends to be clingy and who needs constant reassurance from his owner, combined with any of the above signs, is a likely candidate for separation anxiety and it is important to seek professional help.

Does my dog have separation anxiety?

Before you can start thinking about addressing separation anxiety, you need to be sure that’s the problem, so your first stop should be your vet. Some of the signs of separation anxiety, such as house-training accidents, could have a physical cause so it’s important that your pet has a full health MOT to rule out any issues first.

If no physical problems can be found, then your vet will refer you to a qualified pet behaviourist who will be able to build up a full picture of what’s going on and work out a plan of action. One size definitely doesn’t fit all when it comes to treating separation anxiety, and what may work for one animal may actually make another much worse.

Treating separation anxiety

Overcoming separation anxiety can be a lengthy process, which has to be tailored to an individual animal so professional help is key in identifying what needs to be done. Although every animal’s journey will be different, the end goal is the same – to change the relationship with the owner so that the animal is not so dependent on them. Here are some of the ways a behaviourist might tackle the issue:

  • Stairgates can be a very useful way of creating a barrier in your home. When you’re at home during the day, the dog should be behind the gate some of the time. Initially, you should still be in view and separated only for a short time. Little by little, this can be increased for longer periods, with the owner gradually going out of sight.
  • Giving the dog something to do, such as a chew or a food-stuffed toy, will help distract them from your absence unless they are severely anxious.
  • Calming products such as herbal sprays – or medication in severely anxious dogs – can help relax a dog enough to enable him to learn a different behaviour.
  • Some owners have had success by leaving a radio or the TV on for their pet when they go out or even a voice recording of themselves. This doesn’t work for all and could actually make some pets more anxious if they can hear their owner but not get to them.
  • Get other family members involved in caring for your pet. If it’s always you that walks and feeds them, they’ll be more closely bonded to you. Teach your dog that he can have these things from a variety of people to ease his reliance on you.
  • Dirty T-shirts or towels with an owner’s scent on can reassure a dog when his owner isn’t there. These could be put in the animal’s bed.
  • Try not to assume that getting a second dog will solve the problem. If a dog has separation anxiety due to being dependent on you, canine company won’t make up for your absence.

The most important thing to remember is that, when dealing with anxiety, you need to have patience and understand that your pet is in distress. There is no quick fix – and whatever you do, try not to punish your pet for stress-related behaviour, such as chewing a door frame – it will only make the problem much worse and he’s only doing it because he cares!

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