How To Manage Your Dog's Separation Anxiety
Does your dog cry, bark, howl, or simply just go crazy and be destructive around the house when left alone?
These behaviors listed above could be signs of your dog having separation anxiety. If this is your dog, then don’t worry—you are definitely not alone!
It just so happens that I have been getting a lot of questions about how to deal with a dog who has separation anxiety lately.
A lot of owners think that their dog has separation anxiety, when in actuality, the behaviors the dog is exhibiting are learned behaviors, and does not truly have separation anxiety. Rather, the dog has learned that if he acts badly, he will get attention.
Therefore, he will bark in the crate, destroy items, whine, etc. just to get the attention that he wants. It is very easy for me, as a behaviorist, to determine if the dog has true separation anxiety, or if the dog is just exhibiting these behaviors for attention.
If your dog truly has separation anxiety, he experiences emotional stress when you leave.
However, owners sometimes mistake their dog’s barking (for attention or to get what he wants), as separation anxiety, when it actually is not.
It is very important to understand the difference between real separation anxiety and learned behaviors because there is a different course of action to take if you are needing to correct your pup’s learned behaviors.
With that in mind, even if your dog shows NO signs of having separation anxiety, this blog will still be incredibly helpful for you to ensure that you are doing everything you can to not feed into any behavior in your dog, that could develop into separation anxiety.
Working through true separation anxiety in dogs is definitely something that takes time but it certainly is possible for a dog to get over his separation anxiety.
What causes separation anxiety in dogs?
In my experience working with dogs, I have found that every case of separation anxiety is unique.
There is typically not one, concrete answer as to what causes the separation anxiety in each individual dog because there are a number of factors that go into the development of separation anxiety, and they vary between every dog.
Factors such as...
What happened to the dog in his past?
How long is he left alone each day?
Was he crate trained properly, so that he associates the crate with positivity?
How does the owner respond to his unwanted behaviors?
Some dogs are inherently more attached to their owners as puppies, and are therefore more prone to developing separation anxiety, while other dogs end up developing it later on in life.
Working through separation anxiety is a process that is unique and different for each dog, depending on the circumstances and behaviors of the dog.
Fully overcoming separation anxiety in your dog will most likely take the help of a professional dog trainer or behaviorist, but I will give some general advice that can help with the process if you want to try on your own!
Here are 3 frustrating mistakes that dog owners make that can contribute to separation anxiety (or behaviors that may seem like it!):
1. Rewarding Unwanted Behaviors
The most common reason why dogs develop learned behaviors (mistaken as separation anxiety) is typically because of owners who incorrectly reward unwanted behaviors.
In fact, owners often feed into these behaviors in their dogs without even knowing it.
When your dog is crying or whining, do you ever ask him: “Ohhh Rover, what’s the matter?”
When your dog is barking just for attention, do you ever give in and give him the attention he is looking for?
I can almost guarantee that just about every dog owner has been guilty of responding to these behaviors in this way at least a couple times.
What’s wrong with this?
Well, when you respond to these kind of unwanted behaviors, you are telling your dog: “When you whine or bark, you will get my attention.”
When you give them this attention that they’re so desperately asking for (in the form of unwanted behavior), your dog is going to think: “When I whine or continuously bark at mom/dad, I get my way!”
Therefore, your dog will continue this behavior of whining and/or barking because your response to these behaviors is the reward.
I’m going to repeat this point because one really can’t stress it enough… your response to these unwanted behaviors is essentially rewarding your dog for misbehaving, which will only cause it to occur more frequently.
After fully grasping that crucial point, let me offer a suggestion.
Instead of rewarding your dog for exhibiting these unwanted behaviors, reward your dog for wanted behaviors. Well, duh!!!
This sounds very simple, but is SO overlooked by most dog owners!! When your dog is simply sitting calmly next to you and behaving, THIS is when he should be rewarded.
Yes—reward your dog for doing absolutely nothing at all! Positive reinforcement is all about rewarding your dog for the behaviors you want repeated.
Of course, we all want our dogs to sit calmly next to us and have their focus on us all the time. Well, then you must TELL them and REWARD them when they are doing exactly this!
When you reward your dog for being calm and quiet, he will think: “When I am calm and quiet and focused on mom/dad, I get rewarded”, and will continue to practice this behavior. It is as simple as that!
2. Overdoing Hellos And Goodbyes
Another extremely common way that owners feed into their dog’s separation anxiety is by making goodbyes and hellos a big deal.
When you get home, do you ever greet your dog very excitedly saying something like: “HI ROVER! OH HI ROVER! I MISSED YOU SO MUCH!!!!”
I know that you are probably just as excited to see your dog after a long day at work as he is to see you, but making it a huge deal when you are reunited IMMENSELY contributes to a dog’s separation anxiety.
When you make arrivals and departures a grand event, this often creates emotional stress for your dog while you are away.
Therefore, if you want to teach your dog to remain calm and keep his cool, you will have to practice calmness at both of these times.
Acting as though hellos and goodbyes are not a big deal is one of the most important things you can do to work through your dog’s separation anxiety.
Of course, you can still calmly say “hi” to your dog and give him love when you get home, but wait until he is calm and sitting before you do so.
3. Leaving Your Dog Alone In A Poorly Conditioned Environment
Another very important aspect of working through a dog’s separation anxiety is thinking about where you leave your dog when you are gone, and how you introduce that place to your dog.
Do you leave your dog in the crate every day when you are gone for 8 hours at a time?
For many people, the answer is probably yes (which is completely fine, by the way).
What really makes the difference is your answer to my next question:
Is this the only time that you leave your dog in the crate?
Or even more important: the other times that you place your dog in his crate, is it to let him relax, or to punish him?
If you were put in a small room every day for 8 hours at a time, what would you think about the room? Probably like a prison! However, imagine that you were forced to stay in this tiny room every time you made a mistake.. How much more would this make you dread that room?
Now, let’s say that you were put in that same room every day for 8 hours at a time; but instead of your other exposure to that room being for punishment, it was your place to eat delicious meals.
This is the power of operant conditioning, that is, how certain stimuli and specifically, positive reinforcement, can positively impact the emotional state of your dog when he is left alone for long periods of time.
So what can I do?
By this point, you should grasp the point that how you associate certain spaces (such as their crate) with them while you’re present will greatly impact how they feel when you’re gone.
If the only time that your dog is in his crate is when you leave him in there for 8+ hours, or even worse, when you punish him as well, he is going to associate the crate with nothing but suffering and being abandoned for long periods of time.
You obviously want your dog to like being in the crate and not associate it with the negativity of being alone.
Therefore, if the crate is the big issue, you will need to go back to the basics of crate training, but for now, I will touch on the basics of associating the crate with positivity.
NOTE: If your dog is left in an enclosed space instead of the crate, use the same approach that I am describing, just substitute the enclosed space in for crate.
How do you associate the crate with positivity?
1. Feed your dog his meals in the crate
Food equals positivity in a dog’s mind (and in ours too, let’s be honest), so associate the crate with meal time and this will help your dog enjoy his crate.
2. Give your dog chewing items in the crate
Antlers, bully sticks, and frozen kongs make great chewing items that dogs love!
Chewing items are a very positive way for dogs to exert their natural need to chew, so chewing items in the crate are an excellent way to keep your dog distracted, and his emotions at bay.
3. Give your dog treats when he is in the crate
Treats are an obvious positive! So be sure to reward your dog when he is in the crate with treats, treats, treats.
4. Give your dog these items of positivity EVERY time he is in the crate!
On top of these quick tips, it is very important that you make your dog understand that the crate does not always equal being alone for long periods.
To prevent this type of anxiety, allow your dog to have breaks inside the crate WHEN YOU ARE HOME in addition to the times that you are gone.
Have your dog spend some time in the crate while you are home so that he isn’t automatically associating the crate with being left alone.
How in the world does putting my dog in the crate for short periods of time help his anxiety?
It makes your dog realize that just because he is going into his crate and you are leaving, does not mean that you will be gone for 8 hours every time.
For instance, if you start by putting him in the crate for very short periods, such as when you are just going to get the mail, it will slowly condition him to grow comfortable with spending time in the crate.
As he starts to get used to the crate and being left alone for short periods, you can slowly increase the amount of time he is in the crate—when you are running errands, shopping, etc.
Obviously you will still have to go to work and leave him for long periods as well.
However, the idea is that he won’t get himself worked up prior to you leaving and think that you will gone forever, every single time he has to go in the crate.
It’s a long process that some owners need to work on over the entire span of their dog’s life!
Don’t let that discourage you though, as I’ve equipped you with the best of the best, the knowledge and techniques that I use every day with my own clients.
If you ever feel lost along the way, I offer E-Training sessions via skype/facetime, where we can dig into the nitty gritty details of what you’re experiencing with your dog, and work on correcting these behaviors.
Or, if you have a couple quick questions, feel free to schedule a free 20 minute consultation directly in my schedule here, I’d love to help you out!
Either way, whether or not you need extra help, I know that I’ve given you a TON of tools today, so take the time to re-read this blog as needed, and take notes on some of the tactics that you want to apply with your own dog. Good luck!