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Does Your Dog Freak Out When You Leave?

How to help with your dog's separation anxiety

The Humane Society of the United States

  • If your dog becomes destructive or soils the carpet when left alone, he's expressing panic, not punishing you. iStockphoto.com

If your dog seems to worry when you're heading out, destroys stuff when you leave the house, follows you from room to room when you're home, goes berserk when you come back and seems to be eyeing you suspiciously even before you leave—you may be dealing with a case of separation anxiety.

Dogs with separation anxiety exhibit distress and behavior problems when they're left alone. Some of the most common ways:

  • Digging and scratching at doors or windows in an attempt to reunite with their owners
  • Destructive chewing
  • Howling, barking and whining
  • Urination and defecation (even with otherwise house-trained dogs)

What causes separation anxiety

It's not fully understood why some dogs suffer from separation anxiety and others don't. But remember, your dog's behaviors are part of a panic response. Your dog isn't trying to punish you! He just wants you to come home!

These are some of the scenarios that can trigger separation anxiety:

  • A dog accustomed to constant human companionship is left alone for the first time.
  • A dog suffers a traumatic event (from her viewpoint), such as time at a shelter or boarding kennel.
  • There's a change in the family's routine or structure or the loss of a family member or other pet.

How to treat minor separation anxiety

  • Don't make a big deal out of arrivals and departures. For example, when you arrive home, ignore your dog for the first few minutes then calmly pet him.
  • Leave your dog with an article of clothing that smells like you, such as an old T-shirt that you've slept in recently.
  • Establish a safety cue—a word or action that you use every time you leave that tells your dog you'll be back.
  • Consider using an over-the-counter calming product that may reduce fearfulness in dogs.

How to handle a more severe problem

Use the techniques outlined above along with desensitization training. Teach your dog the sit-stay and down-stay commands using positive reinforcement. This training will help her learn that she can remain calmly and happily in one place while you go to another room.

Create a "safe place" to limit your dog's ability to be destructive. A safe place should:

  • Confine the dog loosely rather than strictly (a room with a window and toys, not total isolation)
  • Contain busy toys for distraction
  • Have dirty laundry to lend a calming scent cue or other safety cues

How to cope while your dog learns to be calm

It can take time for your dog to unlearn his panic response to your departures. To help you and your dog cope in the short term, consider the following interim solutions:

  • Ask your veterinarian about drug therapy. A good anti-anxiety drug shouldn't sedate your dog, but simply reduce his overall anxiety.
  • Take your dog to a doggie daycare facility or kennel when you have to be away.
  • Leave your dog with a friend, family member or neighbor when you're away.
  • Take your dog to work with you, if possible.

What won't help

  • Punishment. Punishment isn't effective for treating separation anxiety and can make the situation worse.
  • Another dog. Getting your dog a companion usually doesn't help an anxious dog because his anxiety is the result of her separation from you, not just the result of being alone.
  • Crating. Your dog will still engage in anxiety responses inside a crate, and she may urinate, defecate, howl or even injure herself in an attempt to escape. Instead, create other kinds of "safe places" as described above.
  • Radio/TV noise. Leaving the radio or television on won't help (unless the radio or TV is used as a safety cue).
  • Obedience training. While formal training is always a good idea, separation anxiety isn't the result of disobedience or lack of training; therefore, that won't help this particular issue.

If you need more assistance resolving your dog's issues, consult a professional animal behavior specialist.

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