We’ve all seen this little meme making its way around the internet. The adorable, smiling dog in the foreground is so happy to see its owner while destruction dominates the background. We chuckle at the cute dog and its silly antics. I have to admit, I even smiled at his cuteness the first time I saw it.
But the issues behind this picture are very real, and if you’ve ever had to deal with a dog with separation anxiety, you know how difficult and frustrating it can be. Thirteen years ago, after a random stop at a Petsmart to see the dogs at an adoption event, I went home with a 6-month old German Shepherd that had been picked up off the street the day before. The rescue’s best guess was that she had been left alone in a yard and had managed to escape. I instantly bonded with her and she with me. She trained easily and took well to her crate. Things were great for a while. Then we moved to a new apartment, and her fears started to appear. A few years and two more moves later, I could hardly leave the room without her going into a panic. The crate that she once loved was now something that terrified her, and she began breaking out of it every time she was in it. I would come home to destroyed rugs, torn up window blinds, and my baby’s paws tinged in blood from scratching at the door. I read every book and article that I could find on separation anxiety to help her, but she was an extreme case. One day I let her out into the backyard when she scaled the 8 foot fence. Two days later, I came home to find her lifeless body under my front bushes, returned home by a good samaritan who saw her get hit on the road. To this day, I still feel the pain of not being able to save her.
It’s so easy to see separation anxiety as an insurmountable mountain. In fact, it is one of the main reasons why adult dogs end up in shelters. But there is hope!! Like all problems, the sooner you can start recognizing and dealing with the problems the better. And separation anxiety in most forms can be absolutely cured! But careful work must be done. Bottom line is a dog with separation anxiety is a dog with very little confidence. He is needy and clingy. You may notice he shows signs of worry when you’re about to leave the house (panting, pacing, or whining). He may chew or destroy things while you’re away. Or he may follow you around the house when you’re home, rarely spending any time playing independently. These could all be early signs of separation anxiety.
So what can you do? And how can you keep things from getting worse?
1) Provide your pet with a comfortable crate and train him to love it. Include a cozy bed or blanket and always make this space a positive one. NEVER use his crate as a place of punishment. (In fact, punishing a dog with separation anxiety can greatly backfire. Keep in mind, this is a dog with little confidence, and it is your job to help build that confidence.)
2) Make your comings and goings as low key as possible. The longer it takes you to gather your things, get your keys, go back for your coffee, set the alarm, remember to run upstairs to get your glasses, tell your pup how much you’ll miss him, etc., etc., the more stress you are causing your dog. Plan in advance, have your things ready, and go. Same goes for coming home. Give your dog zero attention for at least 5 minutes after you get home. Yes, this is hard. We all love our animals and WE are happy to see THEM! But do it. Set the kitchen timer if you have to.
3) Establish a daily routine and stick to it. Dogs are creatures of habit, and they find comfort in this. And make sure plenty of exercise is a part of this routine. Remember, a tired dog is a happy dog. Check out Liz’s post on exercise for more ideas.
4) Get professional help if needed. If left untreated, separation anxiety will only get worse. Reach out to your vet, trainer, or an animal behaviorist. Reversing separation anxiety is a slow and pain-staking process, so be patient! But also get professional help if you need it.
If your dog is showing any signs of separation anxiety, please start to work on it immediately. It will save you much future heartache and frustration. Your dog and the relationship you have with him is worth it!