Does your dog ever get “mad” when you leave and you find something has been destroyed or damaged, or you find “presents” of pee or poop when you return home?  Although your dog may be destructive out of boredom, it is more likely that his or her “issues” are due to separation anxiety (SA) rather than “getting back at you” for leaving. There are many degrees of SA ranging from mild (pacing and whining) to severe (howling, destructive chewing around doors/windows, ripping up pillows/couches/curtains, digging up carpeting, panting, drooling, defecating, or urinating.)

There are several factors that make SA more likely to occur.  The most common is adopting a dog from a shelter or from a prior home.  Another similar factor is never allowing a dog/puppy to be alone (sleeping with the dog, taking it with on any and all errands, etc.)  In both of these situations, the pet doesn’t want to be without its owner or doesn’t know how to be by themselves.  This is because the bond that has developed between a dog and its owner has become extremely strong and can sometimes be unhealthy for the pet.  When an owner makes a big “fuss” over their pet upon returning home and/or leaving their pet, the pet learns that it is a very big deal when their owner leaves or arrives back home and so “arrivals and departures” becomes a major event in their lives.

There are many different triggers that will set off an SA episode.  A sudden schedule change such as working from home and then having to work at the office, or going on a vacation without the dog can increase the risk of SA.  A change in the makeup of their “pack” such as an addition of a new baby, a kid going to college, divorce, etc. may also create more stress and lead to SA.  A fearful event such as sudden loud noises (thunderstorms, fireworks, construction in/near the house) when the pet is home alone can also increase their anxiety when you leave them alone at home in the future.

If you are unsure how your dog reacts when you leave, then ask a neighbor if they hear your dog howling, scratching at the door, throwing itself at the windows, etc. (they probably have wanted to tell you for some time if it has been occurring.)  You can also “leave” with a spouse/friend and have them drive off without you as you stay hidden out of sight and far enough away that your pet can’t hear or smell you.  In addition, you may decide to hook up a “nanny-cam” to film what your dog does after you leave.  The dog will usually display symptoms within the first thirty minutes, although some will continue for an hour and a half before they calm down.

Once you have a diagnosis of SA you can begin to help decrease your dog’s anxiety.  Although drugs aren’t THE answer, they may be a helpful part of a treatment plan in a behavioral modification program.  As with most problems, SA is easier to prevent than it is to treat.  Correctly introducing a crate to a puppy and providing “down” times for the young puppy to be alone will lessen the chances for SA to develop.  Having more than one individual involved in the care, interactions, and feeding of a pet will lessen their dependence on any one person.  Waiting until you have BEEN home (20-30 minutes or until your pet has calmed down) BEFORE you begin your “love-fest” with your pet in addition to not making a “big deal” when you leave will lessen their anxiety over your going or being gone.  The goal should be a dog that loves you without being a “co-dependent”.