Will the door be scratched up this time? Or will the pillows be in tatters? Separation anxiety can cause pets to be destructive in ways that make their owners not even want to leave the house. And while it’s a stressful situation, most dogs can overcome it. “We have a lot of interventions to help us, and we have good success in many, many cases,” says Dr. Debra Horwitz of Veterinary Behavior Consultations. “It is one common reason people end up giving their dog to a shelter, but it’s a very treatable condition.”
If you think your dog has a case of separation anxiety, experts say it’s important to confirm that diagnosis before starting treatment. Sue Schulze, a pet behavior counselor at Kennelwood Pet Resorts, says that many times, what owners think is separation anxiety is actually a lack of training. “They’re not taught what’s appropriate and expected. If you just throw them in the crate and leave, they don’t understand,” she says. If that’s the case, you might just need to train your dog to go into the crate on command with positive reinforcement like treats. “Then try walking out the door and coming back in, then go back out and back in. The dog usually catches on really fast that they’re supposed to wait there.”
True separation anxiety can be caused by many factors—a change in the owner’s routine, moving to a new home, a new baby or pet, or returning to school or work, says Dr. Shannon McCollough, associate veterinarian at the Animal Protective Association of Missouri. It also can be caused by cognitive changes due to aging, she adds. “We don’t understand everything about aging—with people or pets—and sometimes there are changes in the dog’s brain as they age, which can manifest as separation anxiety.” Common signs include hyper-attachment to one person, so that the pet never allows that person out of their sight; obvious anxiety as the owner prepares to leave; and owner-absent behavior problems like chewing, scratching, house-soiling, barking and excessive drooling. McCollough adds that the targets of destruction are often near the window or doorways where the owner leaves the house, and items that have the owner’s scent on them.
However, there are other behavior problems that can cause these symptoms, such as fear of storms. “Or, a dog might be destructive because they don’t have the right kind of stimulation,” Horwitz says. As a fool-proof way of diagnosing separation anxiety, she recommends setting up a video camera or audio near the door where the owner leaves. “All you need is at most 15 minutes of video, and you’ll know, because if the dog has anxiety you’ll hear them panting and pacing back and forth, and many times we hear the dogs whining or barking,” she says. “Sometimes people videotape the dogs and find out they’re not distressed; they just think chewing up the couch is fun!”
If your pet’s problem is separation anxiety, it’s best to work with your veterinarian, a trainer or behaviorist rather than on your own. For behavior training, “you have to work sub-threshold, never go above that threshold of stress,” Shulze says. “You want positive reinforcement, and most people do it way too fast. You can set training way back.” McCollough says your vet may recommend some of the following steps:
* Teach the dog to be more independent: Attention must be on the owner’s terms, not when the dog nudges at the owner’s hand to be petted.
* Change the pre-departure routine to alleviate stress leading up to departure. This may include exiting from a different door, leaving shoes or keys in a different spot, and putting on your shoes after you’ve gotten outside.
* Homecomings should be low-key. Put your things down and get a glass of water before greeting the dog.
* Teach basic commands such as sit or stay to build confidence.
* Make sure the dog is getting enough exercise, and use highly stimulating toys that can be enhanced with food to distract them when you leave.
* Pheromones or pharmaceutical therapy may be used in conjunction with behavioral modification.
“Most people who have a dog with separation anxiety come to the realization that the dog is suffering,” Horwitz says. “They see it when they depart, and if they don’t, they see it when they take a video. The dog is not trying to be spiteful, they really are distressed and we can make them feel better. I know every pet owner wants to do that.”