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How to tell if your dog has separation anxiety

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Some dogs can become nervous and anxious when separated from their owner. Here we look at the signs of separation anxiety and how to tackle it.
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Can you remember your first day at school? Or how you felt when you dropped off your child in the classroom for the first time? Your dog can experience the same emotional turmoil when you leave. Most dogs are comfortable on their own, but some become distressed in their owner’s absence, a condition known as dog separation anxiety.

Signs of separation anxiety in dogs include barking for long periods, howling, whimpering, going to the toilet indoors, destroying furniture and even self-harm. If there’s no evidence, you may not even be aware how distressed they’ve been unless you’re alerted by a neighbour.

“True separation anxiety is of great concern, both in terms of the dog’s welfare and of the impact it has on owners’ lives... and it can be a nightmare to live with,” says Lucy Daniels, a Canine Behaviourist at danielsdogs.co.uk.

Tackling separation anxiety
If your dog displays any signs of separation anxiety when he’s left alone, you need to deal with the problem before it becomes chronic. The simplest approach is to gradually increase the time he’s left alone, simply by moving to another room and closing or part-closing the door. Relax your dog before you leave and reward him when you return to show him being alone is not unpleasant. Make his alone time as positive as possible – leave him with a favourite toy or a long-lasting treat in a space he feels comfortable in, and offer lots of praise upon your return. Remember, it is important to wait until your dog is silent before you return to the room. If you return while he is whimpering or barking, he will learn to associate this behaviour with triggering your appearance.

This process may take a few weeks before it begins to have an effect. If the dog becomes anxious when he sees you preparing to leave – as you pick up keys or put on a coat – you will have to take the process back a step further. He has to get used to you not paying him constant attention. Do not let him follow you around all the time. Demonstrate you’re focused on other things and don’t react when he brings toys or attempts to gain your attention. Build up the sequence of events you follow before leaving the house.

Ensuring he’s well exercised, goes to the toilet and has something to eat will help settle him before you leave. Try not to make a big fuss of departures and returns.

It’s also important to understand that a dog that ‘plays up’ or makes excessive noise when you’re leaving is not being naughty or trying to manipulate you. He is genuinely upset. Any form of punishment will only reinforce the problem. The animal will worry about your reaction on your return if he has relieved himself or caused damage. So, don’t punish – but do reward positive behaviour. Dogs generally learn very quickly this way as long as you are consistent with them.

Why crate training can be great training for separation anxiety
Crate training can be a very useful way to prevent anxiety. Crate training is a good idea anyway – your dog will almost certainly experience crates at some point in his life, whether for travel purposes or at the vets – so teaching him to love a crate when he’s young may prevent a lot of anxiety further down the road.

Also, it is a really positive experience for dogs. Dogs are den animals, and teaching them that their crate is a safe place to retreat to when alone can help to keep them calm – and prevent them from destroying your house!

The key to crate training is making the crate a wholly positive experience – your dog will come to think of it as his own little haven. When you start with crate training, furnish the crate with toys and bedding that he likes. You could even put an old piece of your clothing in so he has your comforting smell!

Leave the door open the first few times so that he doesn’t become anxious and learns to associate it with positive feelings. And of course, there’s nothing a dog finds more positive than food, so give him treats inside his crate (but not if he is whimpering or barking), and even give him his dinner inside his crate. Slowly build up time with the door closed (again using treats as positive reinforcement) until he is happy spending time inside his crate. It may take a while before he will spend a few hours in there, but it will happen with perseverance. Remember, don’t let him out when he is whimpering or barking as this will soon become a learned behaviour – rather, wait for him to be quiet, then let him out and give him lots of praise.

Make sure you encourage your dog to use the crate when you are in the house too – it should not only be associated with alone time. When your dog is alone in the house, leave the door of the crate open so that he can wander inside of his own accord. This will help to tackle separation anxiety.

Preventing puppy separation anxiety
Young dogs train very easily, and when it comes to separation anxiety prevention is definitely better than a cure. Puppies in particular can be taught to love their crate by associating it with all their favourite things, making it a long-term den for them.

They also need to learn to be alone, so don’t allow your puppy to follow you around all the time. Leave them in their crate surrounded by their favourite things, and start with very short periods away, gradually increasing the duration over time. Try to leave and return discretely and without fuss, and avoid developing trigger words that will mark the moment that you leave. Making sure that your puppy has plenty of physical and mental stimulation – both when you are there and when you are not – will go a long way to keeping them happy and anxiety free.

A lot of patience may be required to tackle separation anxiety. If you’re unable to address the problem yourself, it’s best to seek help from a qualified animal behaviourist.

You might also want to read our dog training guide, as this can also be crucial to the control and wellbeing of your dog.