Separation anxiety is a common behavioral problem in dogs, and may result in very destructive behavior. As pack animals, dogs are very social animals, which prefer to be in the company of their “pack.” When left alone, many dogs panic and exhibit very aberrant behavior, even if they are perfectly well-behaved in your company. Barking, whining and crying are natural vocalizations made by puppies to alert their mother in nature and obtain the rewards of food or attention. When you leave, dogs will revert to vocalization, or attempt to dig and scratch at the door to get to you. Other dogs may lose control and become extremely destructive, or urinate and defecate. Unfortunately, it is impossible to comfort a dog merely by saying that you will be back shortly. You can help your dog, however, by teaching him or her that when you leave through the door, you might be back within a few minutes. This helps to alleviate your dog’s worry when you do need to leave for a few hours.
Because the owner is absent during the bad behavior, they will oftentimes mistake separation anxiety for breaches in training. Many dogs exhibit only mild signs, such as inappropriate urination or defecation, which can become worse over time. Reprimanding your dog for this behavior can actually perpetuate the problem by increasing your pet’s anxiety levels. If you notice destructive actions such as chewing, scratching or even wounds on your pet from self-mutilation, you should seek advice from a veterinarian.
Diagnosing separation anxiety can be done with a little detective work. One method is to leave the home and quietly and discretely listen or spy on your dog to hear or see what your pet does. Some dogs will not react immediately, but instead wait for thirty minutes or so before the worry sets in. Another method is to set up a video camera to allow you to watch how your pet reacts when you leave. If you still are unsure, talk to your veterinarian. Your vet will help determine if your pet may have separation anxiety or may refer you to an animal behaviorist who can help.
Treating separation anxiety is based on desensitizing your pet to your departure. By teaching your pet to sit and stay, you can begin exercises that will allow your pet to accommodate your wishes while you are away. Ask your pet to sit/stay and leave the home for short intervals several times an hour. Start with very short absences, and gradually lengthen the period of time you are away. Attempt to return to your pet prior to the onset of panic, and do not make a fuss over your pet when you re-enter your home. Your pet will learn that your leaving does not mean you are not coming back. In severe cases, medicating your pet with anti-anxiety medications such as amitriptylline, clomipramine, or buspirone can help during this process. Treating separation anxiety will require several days of effort on your part, but with patience and persistence, your pet will learn to control its overwhelming emotions.