It is estimated that around 10% of dogs suffer from an exaggerated negative reaction to being left alone

It is estimated that around 10% of dogs suffer from an exaggerated negative reaction to being left alone. This fearful response to being left alone is referred to as separation anxiety. We are not entirely sure as to why exactly separation anxiety occurs, but it does seem there is no single cause for it.

Both puppies and older dogs can suffer from separation anxiety. In the case of puppies, it is natural that any young animal should become fearful when left alone, however, in the majority of cases the problem rights itself over time. It is also suggested certain breeds are predisposed to separation anxiety, for example, German Shepherds, Spaniels, and Shih Tzu. Dogs that are separated from their mothers prematurely or rescued dogs,’ are also much more likely to suffer from separation anxiety, as are dogs that have nervous dispositions.

Changes of routine, for example a new job that causes you to be out of the house a lot, a house move, or the dog having a frightening experience when you have been out of the house can also trigger separation anxiety.

A further cause of separation anxiety could be due to species predisposition; dogs are highly social animals that rely on a ‘pack’ system of living, for safety, security, and companionship etc. Wild dogs and wolves for example, use this hierarchical system of living extremely effectively, however, one of the main differences between wild packs of dogs or wolves and our domesticated dogs, is wild packs remain together for more of the time, whereas, the relationship between humans and domestic dogs is being constantly broken and re-established, due to our continuous comings and goings.

I think one of the main intensifiers of separation anxiety is owner behaviour. Often this negative behaviour is reinforced unwittingly, for example, the owner may coddle the dog when it shows signs of distress and anxiety, as the owner prepares to leave the house. Usual behaviours the owner performs before leaving the house, such as putting on shoes and coat and getting the car keys etc, become to act as triggers for anxious or fearful behaviour in the dog.

The types of behaviour your dog displays can tell you right away if he suffers with separation anxiety. They include, barking excessively, crying, whining, or howling. He may follow you closely when you are preparing to leave the house, jumping on you to get your attention. When you have left the house his behaviour will intensify, he may begin salivating, pacing up and down, and bark constantly. In some cases the dog may urinate or defecate around the house, he may also chew or destroy things around the house. In severe cases the dog can become self destructive, for example biting out his fur.

If you have an older dog or puppy who suffers with separation anxiety, he can be helped, however, this may take some, and you will need to take gradual steps when retraining him. You will need to address a number of issues, when helping your dog, so let us take a look at these now.

Your goal here is for you to be able to leave your dog alone at home, and for him to be comfortable with this. So, the first thing you need to do is examine the pack structure in your home. Do you offer your dog strong leadership? Strong and confident leadership is important to your dog, in fact he will quite naturally follow you, and have confidence in what your require of him, if you lead with assurance.

In order to develop your leadership abilities, teach your dog basic obedience exercises, like sit, down, and stay. If your dog has a tendency to follow you around the house or jumps on you demanding constant attention then, put a stop his unwanted behaviour by ignoring it. Be ready with some food treats to reward your dog’s behaviour when he is calm, but only when he is completely calm. What you are trying to do here is to teach your dog that everything he gets from you has to be earned, in this way you communicate to him you are the leader of your pack.

Next, try going into different rooms in the house and closing the door behind you, so your dog cannot follow you. Initially, do this for one or two seconds and build up very gradually. In this way you begin to change your dog’s feelings towards you leaving him alone.

The next thing to tackle will be your leaving routines. To help break the negative associations your dog has built around you getting ready to leave the house. Try putting your shoes on and sitting back down, or picking your keys up and not going anywhere at all, or putting your coat on and wearing it around the house for a while.

When your dog is relaxed with this, it’s time to actually leave the house. Again, initially you will only be going out for seconds and building up gradually. If you drive a car, your dog may have developed the sound of it moving away into a trigger, so turning the engine on, and then of and quickly re-enter the house, again, you can build this up to moving part way up the street, and driving around the block etc.

The key points to remember are before leaving and when re-entering the house act as calm as possible. By showing your dog it’s no big deal to you coming and going, he will begin to react in the same way. Don’t talk or pet your dog before you leave the house, and when re-entering for at least 10 minutes or so. Settle yourself down first, and go about your usual business, and wait for your dog to become completely calm before quietly calling him over and gently petting him. When you call him, if he shows any excited behaviour at all, then ignore him again until he becomes calm, and then try calling him quietly to you again, if he responds peacefully, then pet him, and tell him how much of a good dog he is, but remember do so as coolly as possible.

If you leave your dog alone for long periods when you are still retraining him, this will weaken all the good work you have done, so do try to have someone look after him in the early stages when you are not at home.

Some dogs are more relaxed when they are confined, so a dog or puppy crate may be helpful, but please make sure your dog or puppy has been introduced to it correctly, to be sure it does not cause him further distress. Once he is used to his little den, you can leave him inside it with some chew toys, especially the type you can stuff with food and treats, as this will help keep him occupied when you are out of the house.

Finally, never, punish your dog or puppy for his behaviour, as this is not only totally unfair to him, but will only help to intensify his problems. Be kind, calm, and consistent when helping your dog, and given time, he will overcome his problem of separation anxiety.

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