How to Handle and Prevent Separation Anxiety
In our Adopter’s Guide series, we’re helping you tackle every challenge puppy owners face so you can spend more time loving your pup and less time training her.
Left for just a few hours, only to come home to a puddle of piddle on the floor, scratches on the door, and a puppy who couldn’t possibly be happier to see you and proceeds to follow you everywhere you go? Uh-oh: might be a sign of separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is no fun for anyone involved. The puppy experiences emotional agony and may physically hurt herself. The owners are unable to leave her without finding destruction upon their return.
Luckily, separation anxiety is both preventable and treatable. In this post, we’ll show you how to do that.
What Is Separation Anxiety?
There is a difference between separation anxiety and naughtiness, and the distinction is all in the name: anxiety. When you get ready to leave, your puppy gets visibly distressed. She begins drooling, panting, or pacing. Her pupils dilate. She barks, whines, or howls.
That’s the biggie, but there are other signs she might show, too.
When you come back, she may act as if you’ve been on an eons-long journey to destroy The One Ring, even if you just went to the grocery store to pick up some milk.
Upon further investigation, you may find that she has relieved herself in the house while you were gone. Your door and walls might be scratched up after she clawed at them. She may even be bleeding — a sign that she was absolutely desperate to get out.
And if something like this happens every time you go away, and she does not typically behave this way when someone is home? She might just have a case of separation anxiety.
Normal naughtiness, on the other hand, is not accompanied by such a degree of distress and may happen whether you’re at home or away.
What Causes Separation Anxiety?
We’re not entirely sure; there may be a variety of reasons. A significant move or a change in owners or schedule can trigger it. It could also be due to the dog’s personality, plain and simple.
For an unknown reason, dogs from shelters tend to be more prone to it. That could be a result of past history (i.e. dogs were surrendered by their previous family and felt abandoned) or the result of living in an animal shelter. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t adopt! With work and patience, this can be overcome.
How Do I Treat Separation Anxiety?
We’ll cover how to prevent separation anxiety below, but first let’s tackle how to address existing anxious behaviors.
Contrary to popular belief, treating a debilitating fear isn’t always about diving into it headfirst. It’s about gradual exposure, and that’s what desensitization aims to accomplish.
We recommend this process be done with the guidance of a certified dog trainer. But just to give you an idea of what it involves, you might leave your puppy’s sight for a few seconds, return, and repeat the process, gradually increasing the amount of time spent away. You’ll need to go slowly, only progressing as far as she can handle.
Before you go away, take your puppy for a brisk walk around the neighborhood or throw her favorite toy around and play fetch. Anxiety takes a lot of energy. If your dog is already tuckered out, she’ll be calmer when you leave.
This is not meant to get rid of separation anxiety entirely, but it is meant to make the symptoms less devastating while you treat her through behavioral therapy.
Do you and your vet agree your puppy needs it, but you don’t like the thought of giving her psychoactive medication? Certified dog trainer Jolanta Benal has a reminder: “if your dog has separation anxiety, he or she is suffering.” Just like you might give her pain medicine if she were hurting, you might want to consider alleviating her anxiety through medicine.
How Do I Prevent Separation Anxiety?
Even if your puppy does not currently have separation anxiety, she can develop it. Here are some ways to stop that from happening.
Normalize Leaving And Returning
It is oh-so-tempting to lavish your pup with affection before you leave for work and after you come home. How can you resist when they’re so cute? How can you hold back when you’ll be away for a while or have been away for a while?
Well, try. Your puppy picks up on the mood. If you make hellos and goodbyes a big deal, she’ll begin to think they are a big deal. Just grab your coat and keys and leave. Is the thought of that unbearable? Then stick to a quick pat or scratch behind the ears and be on your way. Do the same when you get home. Remember: there’ll be plenty of time for cuddles later!
Teach Her to Be Alone
Teach your puppy that being alone is not only tolerable but also fun! Before you leave the house, give her a treat-filled KONG® toy and let her go to town. This will keep her occupied and teach her to associate your absence with a fun toy.
Even when you don’t go away, it’s important to keep an appropriate level of distance. Give her some alone time in a kennel, or keep her penned in a puppy-proof space and leave her for a while. That way, she’ll learn she doesn’t need to be adjoined to her humans’ hips.