What is Separation Anxiety Disorder?
Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is a psychological condition in which the dog becomes stressed and anxious when they’re left alone or separated from their owner/main carer.
What are the symptoms?
SAD may manifest itself by displaying many different possible symptoms. This could be as mild as the dog simply not sleeping whilst they’re alone. It is certainly possible that many dogs suffer from a mild case SAD without their owner ever knowing. In other cases dogs may bark excessively when their owners leave. Chewing furniture and being generally destructive, urinating and/or defecating and attempts to escape may also be caused by separation anxiety.
It should also be noted that in some cases, where a dog barks excessively or howls when their owner has left, it can very well be simply learned behaviour. In these cases the dog will have learned from an early age that when they bark or howl, they get the attention they want. There is a vast difference between the two. Real cases of SAD cause the dog real stress and an increase in blood pressure. Severe cases are a serious danger to a dog’s health.
I recently had to deal with a severe case, the worst I’ve ever witnessed. An American Bulldog cross, less than 12 month old came to board with me. To make matters worse, the owner failed to inform me of the problem. After being left for two hours the dog was literally petrified, shaking so badly she couldn’t stand up nor control her bladder. She lay there in urine drenched bedding, eyes wide open and staring, shaking violently. It was truly heart breaking to witness and took a few hours before she settled and for some time afterwards she wouldn’t leave my side for fear of being left alone again. Stress, if sustained at this level can kill.
What are the causes?
There are a number of different possible reasons why a dog would suffer from SAD . It may develop slowly or could be triggered by a single event. For example, it could be that whilst alone the dog hears a loud noise, a firework maybe or a car backfiring, the dog becomes terrified and associates this with being left alone.
One thing is for certain, most cases of SAD are caused by the owner. Nursing your puppy to sleep when he first arrives, taking him to bed with you because he cries when left alone and generally mollycoddling your puppy in the first few weeks poses a risk of your dog developing separation anxiety. Certain breeds are more susceptible than others and the lack of training, guidance, structure and appropriate exercise are all influencing factors.
When you first bring home your puppy he’ll no doubt play for a few hours, wallowing in all the fuss he’s getting from his new family. He’ll then want to sleep for a few hours and often the whole family will want a cuddle while he’s deep in slumber, so he’ll get passed around whilst everyone gets a turn of nursing him. When it’s time for bed he’s very likely to feel alone and frightened. He’s just been separated from his mum and siblings. It’s likely he’ll whine, bark or even howl when left alone at night. So what happens then is you’ll go to console him. “Aww, poor puppy is missing his mummy, here’s a cuddle and a treat, that’ll cheer you up” Big mistake. This is where it all begins.
How do I prevent my dog developing Separation Anxiety?
Make sure you know where your pup has come from, puppy farmed dogs are extremely susceptible to health problems and psychological issues which may increase the risk of developing SAD. It’s always best to buy a puppy from reputable breeders with experience. Their pups will usually be well socialised early on and will have a good start in life. Always insist on seeing the pups with the mum, even better if the dad is available too but this is not always possible. Seeing the mum should never be a problem.
Before you bring home your puppy make sure that the breeder supplies you with a blanket and maybe a toy that your puppy is familiar with and carries the scent of its mother and siblings. This will offer some comfort to your puppy when left alone. If the breeder isn’t willing to supply this then I would suggest you don’t buy from them. You could always take a blanket and rub it all over its mum when you go to collect but to be honest, any breeder worth their salt would offer this as standard practice.
Cuddling your puppy isn’t a problem, cuddling too much however, can be. Cuddling him to sleep is a big mistake. As soon as your puppy starts to fall asleep, put him in his bed and ignore him, don’t fuss and mollycoddle even if he then decides to play a little more. If he’s already started to show tiredness he’ll most likely fall asleep quite quickly. It’s best to use a crate, this not only provides security and safety for your pup but will also prove to be invaluable when house training.
When you go out or to bed, don’t be tempted to make a fuss before you go with “Aww bye bye puppy, mummy won’t be long, kiss kiss before I go” etc, etc. Put him in his bed and ignore him, don’t make eye contact and don’t speak to him, even if he barks, whimpers or howls. Don’t be tempted to console him, completely ignore the crying and whatever you do don’t be tempted to take him to bed with you. At this point many people will be saying “Aww that’s cruel, leaving him to cry like that”. Well actually, no it’s not, what is cruel is creating a psychological condition in your dog that causes him to be stressed when you leave.
You could also give him something to keep him occupied. Kongs are great for this and the dog may never even notice you’ve left.
When you arrive home or wake up in the morning, again, don’t fuss him, let him out of the crate and take him outside to eliminate. That done, fuss him as much as you like.
Uh-oh! Too late. So how do I cure my dog’s separation anxiety?
There is no definitive answer to this as each case can be different. If the dog has a severe case then it is best to call a professional who has experience of dealing with it. Corrective training/rehabilitation needs to be exercised carefully and gradually based upon how the dog is responding to it. In less severe cases, there are some things you could try, beginning with those mentioned in the previous paragraphs.
Some vets may prescribe medication which may or may not work. I see this as masking the problem, it is best to desensitize the dog and cure the problem rather than simply covering it up.
Crating is recommended. But if a dog has never been in a crate, don’t just expect him to take to it immediately, it is likely the dog will need to be desensitized to it. This is achieved by leaving the crate open and throwing in a treat. Let the dog go in for the treat and back out again. Repeat until the dog is making the decision to go into the crate without any encouragement from you. Then you can begin locking the door, for short periods at first and increasing over time. All the time praising and treating your dog. This can take hours, days or even months to achieve and should done very gradually, in severe cases its best left to an expert. Please be aware that dogs who suffer with SAD will often try to escape and can cause themselves harm to their nose and paws whilst trying frantically to get out. Never leave your dog in the crate unattended until you are sure they are desensitized to it.
Avoid your leaving cues. Dogs learn by association, they quickly learn that a particular sound or action will be followed by something. So, whenever you put your shoes on or grab your coat from the hook or put your keys in your pocket, the dog knows that you will soon leave. Even when you think he’s asleep and won’t notice, he will be aware before you even realise it. So what you need to do is ‘play mind games with him’ so to speak. Put your shoes on, take them off, put them on, take them off. Put your keys in your pocket even if you’re not going out, then put them back. Take your coat off the hook, then put it back. Grab the door handle, let go, grab it again, let go. Open the door, close it again. Repeat randomly for days, weeks or even months. The idea is to remove the association with these actions and you leaving, this will help prevent anxiety building even before you’ve left.
Next, crate him and throw in a Kong packed with his favourite treats, make sure you pack it so it will take him a while but not too packed so he gives up because he isn’t getting anything. Then go out and immediately come back, go out again and in a few seconds come back. Keep repeating this over a period of time making it longer each time.
Remember, this can take weeks or even months to complete so don’t expect miracles straight away. All dogs are different and some will take longer than others so be patient and persevere.
And finally, one thing I will add, and this applies to all dog training, whether you are teaching them to do tricks, obedience or correcting unwanted behaviours. In order to train a dog effectively, all his other needs must be met. So make sure you give him the right amount and type of exercise for the breed and a good balanced diet to keep him in optimum health, fitness and happiness.