By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA
One of the most important lesson to teach any puppy is how to be alone, training that starts the day you bring your puppy home. However, many people adopt rescue dogs only to discover that they have not learned how to be alone. Separation anxiety in dogs is one of the most common reasons dogs are surrendered to shelters.
Like humans, dogs are a social species; it is due to our similar social structures that the extraordinary relationship between our two species came to exist at all. Dogs want and need to be with humans, which is great—until it’s not. When a dog becomes unduly upset when left alone, we call this “separation anxiety”.
However, just because after you leave for work your dog tears up furniture, soils the carpet, or barks all day, it does not automatically mean he’s suffering from separation anxiety; he could just be bored out of his mind or under-exercised. You can never leave your dog alone for hours on end, having not fully exercised his body and mind, without expecting pushback.
Separation anxiety or isolation distress?
With clinical separation anxiety, the symptoms occur every time the dog is left alone; destruction occurs at exit points, typically where people leave the house; and continues unabated until they return, largely manifesting as full-on panic. In the most severe case I have encountered, the dog had jumped out of a three story window! There are many factors to consider in determining whether your dog has full-on separation anxiety or is just bored or otherwise improperly managed.
Treatment and management
It is important to understand that there are no magic bullets but that in nearly all cases you can work towards resolution. The key word there is “work”: It takes time, commitment, creativity and the patience of a saint. Alleviating separation issues requires a combination of desensitization exercises—such as breaking your departure routine into tiny pieces and getting the dog comfortable with each, incrementally increasing the amount of time you’re gone; and management—finding ways for your dog to not be alone as you work on desensitization.
Further reading and specialized professionals
If you believe your dog has separation issues, consider hiring a professional dog trainer to help diagnose the true nature of your dog’s symptoms and to establish a program to address the problem. I typically refer severe cases to either a veterinary behaviorist or Malena DeMartini, who’s organization exclusively treats separation cases.
I also recommend this excellent book on the subject by Nichole Wilde: “Don’t Leave Me: Step-by Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety”. In fact, if your dog exhibits the symptoms of separation anxiety or isolation distress, this book is a great starting point.
Have faith in your dog and yourself. The situation is far from hopeless!