Separation anxiety is one of the most common conditions self-diagnosed by pet owners, and often diagnosed incorrectly. Most dogs display some degree of distress when their people leave, often barking or whining for a short period of time, which is a normal behavior and is not indicative of any overwhelming duress. Actual separation anxiety or separation distress is when the animal is in a perpetual state of panic when left alone and unable to calm down. Symptoms of separation anxiety include excessive vocalization, house-soiling, pacing, drooling, destructive behavior and, in extreme cases, self-mutilation. Dogs who rip off nails trying to claw out of a kennel or jump through glass windows may need to see a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist. Prescribed anti-anxiety medication coupled with behavior modification is often necessary in these severe situations to help the animal cope with their stress.
In less intense cases where the dog is not physically damaging him/herself in order to be reunited with their owner, behavior modification without medication is often successful. There are several over-the-counter anti-anxiety products that can be useful in helping your dog calm down, such as Dog Appeasing Pheromone (D.A.P.) made by Comfort Zone. This synthetic pheromone mimics that of a nursing mother and is reminiscent of a safe, warm, and secure environment. This product comes in several forms, including a plug-in diffuser for dogs confined to a specific area, a spray bottle which can be used to anoint multiple surface areas, applied to a bandana tied around the dog's neck, or a collar to be worn by the dog. The product is effective for approximately one month. Bach's Rescue Remedy for Pets is a liquid made of herbs and flowers, and when added to their water bowl, rubbed on the tips of the ears or given to the dog by mouth can be effective in reducing stress and anxiety. There are also CDs available that are compilations of soothing music with a heartbeat sound threaded in the background which studies have shown can help lessen an animal's anxiety.
Products alone cannot help rid your dog of anxiety; you must work on altering the dog's reaction to being left alone. One of the most important things you can do in combating separation anxiety is desensitizing your dog to the cues which signify you are leaving. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety typically begin to panic even before you have left the house because they know you are leaving by recognizing your behavior pattern. You don your coat, grab your backpack or purse, pick up your keys and head for the door and by that point your dog is already agitated. So put on your coat and sit down on the couch for five or ten minutes. Grab your keys when you go to the bathroom. Put on your backpack and head to the kitchen for a snack. Eventually your dog will cease getting worked up over these cues and you will have a calmer dog upon your departure.
Additionally, keep your comings and goings low-key and without ceremony. Dogs can hear stress and worry in your tone of voice, so do not let it seep into your goodbyes. There is also no cause for an exuberant greeting when you return for you are trying to impress upon your dog that your departure and arrival is really not that big of a deal.
Practice mini-departures starting at only a few seconds and extending to a few minutes. Walk out the door and walk right back in. Walk out the door, wait a beat, and walk back in. Leave to get your mail and return, ignoring your dog until he/she is settled and rewarding with soft praise and a cookie when calm. Also do not let your dog be permanently attached to you when you are home. If your dog is constantly in your presence it is more difficult for him/her to handle your extended absence.
Give your dog something marvelous when you leave. Stuffed Kongs are a superb parting gift as you can fill them with all sorts of tasty morsels, and working the food out of the Kong can keep a dog occupied for an extended period of time. Once they get the hang of it you can make the Kong more challenging by freezing the item, turning it into a palatable popsicle that will take longer to lick. Also, your dog only receives this special item when he is left alone, ideally turning alone time into a good thing as that is when he/she gets the extra awesome stuffed Kong!
If you are using a crate to confine your dog when alone, make sure he/she views the crate as a happy place by having good things associated with crate time. Feed your dog in the crate and crate him/her for brief periods of time when you are home, dropping treats whenever you walk by and praising him/her to the skies. Never use the crate for a ‘time-out' punishment. Your dog needs to feel safe and secure in his crate if he is to remain calm in there when you leave.
As frustrating as it is to come home to side effects of your dog's anxiety, such as a puddle of urine or a ripped up magazine, do NOT punish your animal for deeds done in your absence. They will not understand the correlation between your ire and the mess they made, and your reaction can in turn cause further behavior issues.
Get your dog tired. Increasing the amount of exercise you provide your animal can help insure your dog will nap when you are gone, rather than expend even more energy getting stressed over your absence. Mental stimulation is exhausting as well, so throw in a couple brief training sessions. Go over basic commands he/she already knows and spend a few minutes working on a new trick.
Patience is a virtue. Depending on the severity of your dog's stress, it may take several weeks to begin to see results of your efforts. If you have neighbors who have complained of your animal's excessive barking, beg their patience and understanding with a plate full of pastries and pictures of your dog doing something cute. Explain you are doing everything in your power to address the situation but it will take some time.
Dealing with separation anxiety can be frustrating and emotionally exhausting, but if you tackle it from multiple angles and persevere through the worst of it you and your dog will be happier. For even more tips on how to handle separation anxiety, pick up a copy of Patricia McConnell's "I'll Be Home Soon!" booklet, one of the most comprehensive and helpful pieces of literature on this condition.