Most dogs will naturally seek out company and in fact companionship is one of the five welfare needs that dogs require to be truly healthy and happy. However, it is inevitable, especially in modern society, that dogs will occasionally be left on their own and it’s important that they are able to cope with these (ideally) short periods of solitude.
Some dogs have never learned that it’s ok to be left in their own company and the resulting panic manifests itself as a condition called separation anxiety. One theory is that these dogs have suffered early cases of abandonment but whatever the root cause, the outcome is very difficult to deal with.
The treatment of this condition is a long training process, which requires constant input from the owner. The investment of time and energy is substantial and unfortunately not every owner can commit. In fact, many dogs that are currently in rescue centres are there because owners couldn’t cope with the stressful and destructive behaviours that accompany this condition.
It is worrying that the latest PDSA Animal Wellbeing report published that 24% of UK dogs, a staggering 2.1 million pooches are being left on their own for more than 5 hours on any one day. These figures do cause concern and could be one of the reasons that we regularly see cases of separation anxiety in our dog population.
There are a number of common scenarios where you might see the typical behaviours in a dog suffering from separation anxiety. They often get agitated and distressed when their owner leaves. People often go through some very similar patterns of behaviours when they leave the house such as the routine of picking up bags, keys and coats. Dogs soon learn that these signs indicate that their best friend is about to abandon them. Anxiety builds up quickly and continues to build long after the owner has left.
Another common behavioural manifestation of the condition is when an owner returns to the house. Dogs naturally get excited when we come home and there is nothing that brings a smile to your face more than a wiggly, waggy-tailed dog greeting you at the front door. However, this reaction can become quite extreme in dogs that are suffering from anxiety. Erratic barking, howling, drooling and shaking are some of the common and quite visually distressing signs that you might see. In addition these dogs have often caused considerable damage to parts of the house through toileting, biting and other destructive behaviours.
These types of behaviours are also sometimes seen in dogs that suffer from other conditions, and it is possible that even extreme boredom can result in these signs. To be absolutely certain you often need to consult both a vet and a behaviourist to rule out other diseases and behavioural problems. Many experts will also advocate the use of cameras to film a dog left on their own so that you can truly see patterns of behaviour that suggest the condition is due to anxiety.
As already mentioned, treatment of this condition requires a great deal of time and commitment. The first step is to use techniques that gradually reduce your dogs need for attention so that they become more and more comfortable with being left on their own.
Desensitising them to the triggers that signal your departure is important. You can try breaking your routine by putting your keys in different places and using different coats or bags. It’s also helpful to leave the house multiple times, and wait outside for different periods of time so that your dog learns that just because you are leaving, it doesn’t mean you will be gone for a long time.
Each time you leave or arrive, try and do so in quiet and calm fashion. Acknowledge your dog but don’t make a big fuss of them. You can also consider leaving the TV or radio on whilst you’re out so that the house isn’t completely silent when the dog is on their own. It’s also important not to physically or emotionally punish them if they’ve toileted or damaged property in your absence. It is often too late for them to associate your reaction with the damage and your anger will only serve to worsen their anxiety.
Vigorous exercise is a really good stress reliever in dogs and it’s preferable to take your dog out directly before your departure so that they are nice and tired when you leave. Mental stimulation is also good and routine training can help develop the dog’s brain so that they are much calmer with reduced emotional responses and reactions.
The action of chewing in dogs can help to calm them and a number of activity toys are available on the pet market that provides engagement through play. The most successful ones are the commonly used simple rubber toys that can be stuffed with food, paste or treats.
Severe cases of separation anxiety may need to be prescribed behaviour modification drugs, however this is not a replacement to the behavioural therapy but rather a way to facilitate it and make it more effective. Some owners expect a quick fix for this condition but unfortunately lasting results will only be seen with a proper investment in behavioural modification. With patience and persistence, even the most destructive and distressed dogs can become calm, content and happy!
Paul Manktelow regularly appears in the media as one of the UKs leading veterinary surgeons. His accomplished career as a vet allows him to talk on a number of key animal subjects and he regularly provides valuable advice to pet owners across the UK. Appearing on TV shows such as Junior Vets, Animal Madhouse and This Morning, he also writes columns for the Times, Dogs Monthly and blogs on his popular website Vital Pet Health.