for those who foster and work with adoptions of animals. The first indication is that items in the home may have been destroyed, or neighbors complain about constant barking or howling when no one is home to care for the pet.
Dogs are pack animals and do not like to be alone. Some will wait patiently, while others will go into a panic mode of behavior. Some destroy things, bark, whine, urinate or defecate in your absence. Those that have experienced a traumatic experience such as losing their home or other trauma are more likely to exhibit these behaviors.
There are varying perspective on what causes these behaviors in an otherwise wonderful companion dog, and a myriad of methods in changing this behavior. Dogs like humans are unique individuals, and not every method will work on every dog. Like all fears, finding an approach that will help desensitize a particular dog is always a challenge.
Some of the most common situations that can contribute to separation anxiety include:
Change in daily routine
Move to a new home
Fear of abandonment
Neglect or abuse
Often if puppies are removed from their mother or littermates at too early an age, they will not learn the social norms of coping skills or develop their confidence in their ability to adapt. Their fear thresholds will be higher, and they will not have developed coping skills to stressors during the formative weeks in their young lives. The mother often helps to instill that confidence as she teaches them proper manners, and dog etiquette. Most dogs in our society live with a human pack partner, and have little interaction with other dogs. They have no way of learning the calming signals and other means that dogs use to communicate to each other, and/ or learn to calm themselves.
Separation anxiety is more severe in dependent dogs, sometimes called “velcro” dogs. Often owners will unknowingly reinforce the anxiety, by making a production of leaving, trying to reassure the dog. This in fact, has a reverse affect. The best way to welcome or leave any dog is in a calm, assured manner. Keep farewells very low-key, even to the extent that you may ignore your dog for 5-10 minutes before leaving. Offer low-key greetings on return, and greet only when your dog has calmed down. This reduces the emotional roller-coaster many dogs experience when their owner comes and goes. Actions speak louder than words.
Like all fears, desensitizing a dog to your coming and going will help him get over this fear of abandonment. One method is to leave the house for just a few seconds, then come back. Once your dog is accustomed to seeing you go out and come right back in you can slowly increase the time you are out.
Do not reward barking, whining, jumping, pawing, or hysterical behavior with any attention (not even eye contact). Reward calm, quiet, and non-dependent behavior with low-key praise and attention.
Make sure the dog gets plenty of exercise. Pent up energy can result in destructive actions when coupled with the frustration of being alone. He will also be too tired to get worked up into a panic. It is also a good idea to have some good, mind consuming toys. A Kong stuffed with treats, peanut butter, or cheese will keep your dog busy, so he may not think about your being gone.
Crate training helps tremendously. Most dogs prefer a small, cozy place to an open area. It is comforting and give a feeling of safety. A crate trained dog will always be safe and comfortable in his crate when you are out of the house.
Anxiety wraps such as the Thundershirt can also help calm your pet in many situations, including the anxiety felt when left alone.
For more severe situations, medication either homeopathic or traditional as recommended by your veterinarian in conjunction with help from an animal behaviorist to help with behavior modification will be helpful.
This is a very complex and challenging situation as it takes on many faces, and there are varying approaches. Punishing the behavior never helps as it usually leads to more fear and anxiety. There are many good resources such as Jean Donaldson’s book, “Dogs are from Neptune, and Trisha McConnell’s “Is Your Pet Home Alone?”