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  I Don’t Want To Be Alone:  Separation Anxiety in Dogs
by Debbie DeSantis, CPDT, Dog Trainer and Behavior Consultant,
Going To The Dogs Obedience Training, (610) 558-4951,


Dogs are social creatures that want to be with other members of the pack, including with us.  Most dogs readily become accustomed to us leaving them alone for various periods of time.  However, some become very anxious when we are gone.  These dogs may exhibit many manifestations of their anxiety such as becoming destructive, urinating, or defecating while you are gone.  Some dogs become so anxious that they injure themselves in the process.  Please note that some dogs are destructive because they haven’t been sufficiently exercised or have accidents because they haven’t gone to the bathroom before your departure.  So rule out these issues first. 

There are various things you can do to help prevent separation anxiety from developing.  When you get your puppy, accustom it to being alone for varying periods of time, including time when you’re out of the house and even when you’re in a different room than the pup.  Give your pup a sufficient amount of attention through play and training while you’re home, but don’t make him the center of the universe, so that it won’t expect you to be present all the time.  This will be easy to do if you have accustomed you pup to a crate or exercise pen first, so that it can’t follow you.  “Velcro dogs” are much more likely to develop this problem.

Make your departures and returns low-key without becoming excited.  Vary the lengths of time that you are gone.  Calmly saying “bye” or “I’ll be back” only once. Make sure that your pup has been exercised and pottied before you leave.  A dog that is more tired is more likely to be calm when you’re gone.  To occupy its time, give your pup some safe toys, such as a Kong, while you’re gone.  Doing these things should help prevent your pup from developing separation anxiety. 

What if your dog already has separation anxiety or you adopt a dog with separation anxiety?  There are various measures you can take to help modify this behavior problem.  This is a process that can take weeks or longer, depending on the severity of the problem.  Start accustoming your dog to your comings-and-goings by desensitizing him the cues that you’re leaving.  You want it to be no big deal to him when you’re leaving or returning.  For example, do the following without going anywhere.  Pick up your keys periodically and put them down.  Put your coat on and take it off.  Also do other similar cues without leaving, such as putting your shoes on and taking them off.  Then, as long as your dog can’t escape, open and close the door.  Eventually, go outside and back in. 

Progress to leaving for short periods of time, increasing and decreasing the time.  With time, you should be able to leave without incident for a business day (assuming your dog is old enough to not have to potty for that long).  Advance in the desensitization program at the speed that the dog is able to handle without being stressed.  Each situation is different.  Don’t rush it or your progress will be lost.

If you can, during this process, it’s best to confine your dog to a safe room, exercise pen, or crate when you’re gone so that your dog is not injured and your possession aren’t destroyed.  But make sure that you’ve accustomed your dog to a crate or other confined area first.  If your dog’s problem is very severe, including injuring itself when you’re out, you should seek professional assistance from a qualified trainer.  You also can consult with your veterinarian, as there are various drugs that can help alleviate your dog’s anxiety.  But, even with the behavioral drugs, the desensitization program must also be performed.

Separation anxiety can develop at any time in a dog’s life for many reasons.  Some dogs develop it because a negative event occurred while the owner wasn’t home.  Others develop it because they were never accustomed to being alone.  A move to a new location can create separation anxiety in some dogs.  Dogs who have been re-homed multiple times are candidates for developing separation anxiety.  If your dog has this problem, it’s important to work with the behavior modification techniques described above.  It’s equally important that you don’t punish the dog for any destructive behavior or potty accidents upon your return or it will increase the dog’s anxiety and exacerbate the problem.

Most destructive behavior due to separation anxiety occurs within a short time of the owner’s departure.  So, if you’ve consistently worked with the behavior techniques plus assured that your dog has gone to the bathroom and been sufficiently exercised prior to when you leave, things should go smoothly.  Some owners even set up video cameras to capture the pattern of the dog’s behavior while they’re gone.  Have patience with the process of working through the separation anxiety behavior and seek professional assistance if you need it.  Your dog will thank you for it. 


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