Dog Separation Anxiety

Dog Separation Anxiety

Dog separation anxiety is an issue where a dog becomes anxious when it’s human owners are away. This anxiety can manifest itself in a number of ways including incessant barking, howling, chewing, weeing, defacating and obsessive licking (usually their paws or legs).

In my experience, separation anxiety falls into two loose categories based on where pack leadership resides. These are:

  • worried separation anxiety
  • angry separation anxiety

Worried Separation Anxiety

This is where the dog struggles to cope with the humans being away. This is most common when the owner is the pack leader. If you thing about wolves or wild dogs, what would happen if the pack leader disappears off? That waould be unusual as normally, the dogs will always follw the leader. So, it the pack leader disappears, it is likely, from a dog’s perspective, to be a problem insofar as the pack is now leaderless. In these circumstances, the dogs will look to call the pack leader back. Dogs and wolves do this by howling. In the worst case, the pack may even look to select a new pack leader. This can cause a right old set to including fights.

So, for me, this kind of separation anxiety is completely normal behaviour for a dog. However, that does not mean it is OK to do nothing. There are, in fact, a number of things the humans can do to help the dog cope with separation anxiety including:

  • a safe space for the dog – this might be a dog crate or a dog bed, but it somewhere that the dog feels safe because nothing bad ever happens there
  • no goodbye ceremony – humans love to say goodbye. However, if you watch dogs when you take them away from other dogs, they just leave. In fact, if the human goes through a goodbye ceremnoy for their dog, what they are actually doing is telling the dog they are about to leave and this can make the dog anxious. It’s best just to go as if you’ll be back in five minutes
  • no greeting ceremony – humans love to say “hellow” and have all sorts of ceremonies. It is not uncommon to greet a dog, on your return, as though it’s a long lost friend you haven’t seen for years. This is not good for the dog. Again, observe dogs meeting and greeting each other. It’s usually a quick look, a sniff at noses and behinds and that’s it. Ideally, when you return, you can should igore your dog until it is calm. Over time, it will just stay calm while you are away and while you come back.

If your dog has separation anxiety, there are a number of approaches to work towards the above. The first is to stop it following you around everywhere. I find the best way to do this is to walk backwards and forwards, or up and down stairs, until the dog stops following. Once it has stopped, you can reward it with a pat (or similar). Then you can leave the room (no ceremony) for a few seconds before returning (no ceremony). You can build uo the time you are away.

Again, it’s a good idea to seek advice from experts such as vets or dog behaviour therapists. It’s very easy for us humans to get it wrong with dogs and so we can end up confusing them if we’re not careful.

Angry Separation Anxiety

This tends to happen when the dog, not the owner, is the pack leader. In this situation, when the human goes out, the dog is annoyed that it’s human has left without its permission. In this case, the dog will attempt to summon the human back by barking, howling, or both.

You can determine if this is the issue with your dog by recording it while you are out. A”summons” bark or howl sounds quite different from a miserable bark or howl. Again, if you’re not sure, check with your vet or a dog behaviourist.

Separation Anxiety – What to do

Dealing with separation anxiety requires dedicated training, behaviour modification and desensitisation exercises (as touched upon above). In my experience, the biggest barrier to success is that the human owners often do not like what they are asked to do. They prize the full on manic welcome with tail wags and jumping up. It makes them feel loved. But that is a human need being projected onto the dog. If you are serious about addressing dog separation anxiety, you need to start by putting the dog’s needs before your own, not always easy.

Dog Separation Anxiety – real case

Dogs Talk - book

I have taken on a few rescue dogs of various breeds over the years plus I have helped a number of people with their dogs. One approach I use is to keep a dog journal; i.e. write a dog journal from the dog’s perspective that can then be read by the owner. This gives the dog a chance to explain what is going on in a way that the owner might be receptive to. I have taken this concept and combined it with my experiences with dogs to write a book. The book features the stories of four dogs, how they were rehabilitated over time and includes all of the symptoms mentioned above. One of the dogs, Kika, suffered from separation anxiety but slowly improved over time with the right encouragement.  Read Kika’s story, from her perspective, along with thos eof the other dogs in “Dogs Talk“.