It’s a day Jorja Stephensen won’t soon forget. She was fostering a six-month-old puppy for SHUG and things were going well. Over the course of several days, the pup was picking up on potty training, and was loving and snuggly. One day, Jorja had errands to run and she put Scarlett in her crate and left for an hour. When she came back, well, in her words:
She had a major ass-plosion all over her crate, wall, floor, microwave stand, and everything else within shot range. She was covered head to toe. The stench was making me retch. I've got to bleach and mop again.
Anxious pooping like this is only one symptom of separation anxiety. Anxious pets might also pee, pace, howl, chew or dig, leaving the neighbors upset, the furniture in shreds and the dog itself in terrible distress at best and injured at worst. And it may occur more often in dogs that have experienced loss or dramatic life changes – including being abandoned and/or abused – as can be the case with many rescue dogs.
Obviously, separation anxiety must be taken seriously.
The first step is confirming you’re definitely dealing with separation anxiety. Generally speaking, the negative behaviors should only occur after you leave or as you prepare to leave. A dog might occasionally slip back on the house training or chew the occasional inappropriate item (especially if they’re a puppy) when you're home, but for pups that suffer from separation anxiety there's a marked difference in their behavior when you're home versus when you're not.
The main key to managing separation anxiety is to recondition your dog to deal with a lack of 24/7 companionship. This can be much harder than it sounds! Here are some tried and true methods that often help:
If your dog seems primarily anxious about the crate, even when you’re home, consider a different confinement regime. An x-pen, baby gate for a room or another creative alternative might be very helpful.
Add a positive association to your absence (and occupy their time) with a puzzle toy stuff with food or a peanut-butter-stuffed kong that’s been frozen. Ideally, this high-value treat should ONLY be given when you leave and no other time.
Slowly increase the time you are away as part of a desensitization program. You can start this without actually leaving the house. You might just separate yourself by going into the bathroom. Try to return to the dog BEFORE they start to get upset and then try to extend the time for the next separation. If the dog has gotten upset, let him calm down and relax before attempting another separation. You can also put the dog in a command – like sit or stay -- before you disappear into the bathroom.
As you graduate to actually leaving the house, start by being away only a few minutes at a time, increasing it over many weeks. Be sure to leave in a very calm manner. Experts say most of your dog’s anxious responses will occur in the first 40 minutes, so keep that time frame in mind during your conditioning.
Be sure you don’t punish your dog for his anxious behavior. -- no matter how soiled the crate might be or how big the hole chewed in the rug. These behaviors are not “on purpose” and yelling will only make your dog more upset.
Experiment in finding an environment that your dog particularly finds appealing. This might mean leaving the radio on or leaving behind a blanket or towel that smells like you. Homeopathic remedies, flower essences and pheromone products might also help.
Your dog might start to get anxious when he knows you’re getting ready to leave – like after putting on your coat. If there appears to be a trigger, add the trigger to your desensitization program by putting on your coat and NOT leaving to break the association.
Increasing your dog’s level of exercise can also help, especially with low-level anxiety. A physically – or mentally tired dog – might be more relaxed about absences.
Don't be afraid to regress! If you've gotten up to a 20-minute absence without your dog stressing, drop back to a quick 5-minute disappearance once to give them a pleasant surprise.
If the situation is particularly difficult, don't give up! Be sure to consult your trainer or your vet. In cases of severe anxiety, your vet may be able to help with medication. For some dogs it can be a short-term crutch, for others a long-term solution.
We know many of you have faced this problem. Do you have a remedy or approach that has worked for you? Share your stories in the comments.