Summer is probably one of the very best times to get a new dog! The kids are home from school for the summer to help take care of the new addition and teach him all those important house manners. You take him on car rides with you whenever you can; maybe you even take him with you on an exciting vacation, or start a training class with him.
Every day seems to bring a new adventure for the dog with his new family!
But then seasons change; fall can be a very difficult time for dogs. Kids go back to school, parents go back to work. Schedules get busy with after school meetings and activities, and the dog, who’s used to attention and adventures, suddenly finds himself at home alone for much longer stretches of the day.
The dog becomes stressed about being home alone and starts barking, to the point where he’s bothering the neighbors. Then the destructiveness starts: breaking the crate, chewing through carpet, scratching doors and window frames, maybe even injuring himself in the process.
Does this sound familiar? If so, your dog might have Separation Anxiety.
With separation anxiety, your dog experiences the equivalent to a full-blown panic attack every time he's left alone.
How do you know for sure that it’s separation anxiety? Maybe your dog just needs more training and exercise? Don't we all want our dogs to miss us when we leave and to be happy to see us when we come back home?
Sure, if your dog isn’t potty trained and you leave him for several hours, it is not unusual to come home to a puddle on the floor. If he is too young to have unsupervised access to the house, he may chew on furniture until he learns house manners. If he usually barks at people or dogs walking past the window when you’re home, you can bet he’ll do that when you’re away, too.
For these problems, giving more exercise, and confining your dog to a small chew-proof area (like a crate) may solve your problems; if it does, then your dog probably does not have separation anxiety.
But for dogs with separation anxiety, being confined in a small space can make the anxiety and destructive behaviors much worse.
How did this happen?
Separation anxiety can be caused or worsened by many contributing factors, but many of these occur in puppyhood, even before the puppy leaves the breeder’s house. Some contributing factors that happen in puppyhood include:
- Rehoming, especially multiple times
- Illness or malnutrition during puppyhood
- Singleton puppies (only puppy in the litter)
- Early or improper weaning
- Inadequate socialization, particularly to noises
- Leaving the littermates at too young an age
- Air shipping in cargo, particularly during puppyhood
This is one more reason why it’s so important to ask questions of breeders and consult with a trainer if you have any concerns, before buying a puppy.
If you’re not sure whether your dog has separation anxiety, it can help to take a video of the dog when you leave him. Set up a camera, and leave the house.
When you come home and look at the video, pay attention to the behaviors the dog exhibits. It is normal for dogs to whine or even bark when their owners leave, and again when they come home; but ideally your dog should settle down within just a few minutes and take a nap or chew on an appropriate item you left for him. If you notice excessive barking, particularly rhythmic and repetitive barking, that seems to be triggered by nothing specific (unlike, for example, barking at a squirrel outside the window), or if your dog vigilantly hangs out right by the front door, then your dog may have separation anxiety to the point where you should call a trainer to help.
How long will this take to fix?
Treating separation anxiety requires more than just treating the symptoms. Giving your dog more exercise and appropriate chew toys is ultimately not going to fix separation anxiety, because the root of the destructive behaviors is the emotion, the anxiety, and that will not go away until we address it through specialized training.
Instead, treating separation anxiety requires teaching your dog to trust that you will never leave him for longer than he can handle without experiencing anxiety.
In the first training session you may only leave your dog for one or two seconds, but if you can do that without him getting anxious, then you can build on that time and gradually increase it.
But if instead, your dog continually learns that every time you leave you’ll be gone so long he’s going to have a panic attack, or worse, if you sneak out of the house and he doesn't immediately notice you've left, he will only dread your leavings more and more and the problem will get worse.
The bottom line is, our goal for solving separation anxiety is not just for our dogs to stop destroying our house every time we leave; the goal should be to help our dogs live happier, more peaceful lives, whether we are home with them or not; and in that way, they will stop feeling the anxiety which causes them to destroy things in the house.
And how long it takes to get your dog to this point varies greatly from a few weeks to several months. Many factors are in play here, such as the severity of the anxiety, the length of time the anxiety has been going on, the age and general health of the dog, and the ability of family members to follow through with the training. It could take anywhere from several weeks to several months or more.
So how much will this cost?
As a professional dog trainer, I do understand that as much as we're willing to bend over backwards to help our dogs, we need some expectation of the cost of this long-term training.
In this age of technology, treating separation anxiety has become much easier (and cost-effective!) than it used to be. For most clients, the majority of separation anxiety lessons can be done using webcams and video chat, which will help to keep your training costs down.
Of course no trainers can give price quotes before meeting you and your dog and assessing the severity of the anxiety; but it is fair for a trainer to give you even a general idea of the cost to you before you commit to working the program with your dog.
If you’re like most dog owners I know, you are flattered when your dog is the last one to say goodbye when you leave the house, and the first one to enthusiastically greet you at the door when you return. Indeed, these are signs that you and your dog have a solid relationship and love each other. But you also don’t want to think of your dog being in anguish every time you have to leave the house. Fixing this anxiety takes time, patience, and expertise, but it is possible and can literally change your dog’s life for the better!
Elizabeth Morgan, trainer and owner of Alabama Dog Academy, has always found leash walking to be the most fun behavior to train.