Separation anxiety is the second-most common problem that canine behaviorists address. The signs include destructiveness, vocalization, salivation, urination or defecation while the owner is gone and not at other times. Some dogs are so severely affected that they can hurt themselves attempting to get out of a crate or out of the house after their owner has left.
The initial treatment of separation anxiety involves various changes to a dog’s routine and management. Dogs with separation anxiety should NOT:
• Sleep on the bed or in the bedroom
• Be greeted exuberantly after the family has been gone
• Be given more attention, especially when they are anxious
• Be punished for their destructiveness or “bad” behavior while the owner is away
• Be chained or fenced in the yard
• Have another dog added to the household for company
You should try to help your dog relax and be less attached and dependent upon you. Before you leave for the day, you should give your dog exercise and feed him if he does not defecate while you are gone. For the last 20-60 minutes before you leave, you should ignore him. Put him in the crate (if he is crate trained) about 20 minutes before you go and give him something like a T-shirt or towel with your scent on it. You can leave a radio playing or a tape of your voice. You should also put a special toy that he ONLY gets when you are gone in the crate with him. Some examples are a Kong toy with peanut butter or cheese inside, a Buster cube (food puzzle that you put some of his breakfast in), or rawhide if he can safely chew it without choking.
While you are gone, keep the room dimmed to help soothe him. Your crate should be a closed “airline” type crate (hard plastic) and not a wire one. The closed-type crates help a dog to relax because they create a den-like environment. If your dog is not crate trained, you should crate train him (please ask us for more reference material about this topic). You can also practice your departure several times a day without leaving. This will help desensitize the dog to your routine and will help keep him from building up anxiety as you go about your morning routine. To do this, go to the door first and keep repeating this behavior until the dog does not react anxiously. The next step is to open the door up several times and repeat until the dog does not react. You will gradually build up until you can leave for a few minutes without the dog reacting. Eventually, the goal would be to be able to leave for a longer amount of time and have the dog be relaxed while you are gone.
When you come back home, do not greet the dog until he is calm. Once he is calm, release him from the crate, and ask him to sit, and then pet him and give him attention. Your dog should have good basic obedience skills, and if he does not, you should work about 10 minutes twice daily on basic commands like sit and stay. Dogs with separation anxiety should not be allowed on the furniture at home and should not be rewarded for attention-seeking behavior. If he comes and asks for attention, you should ignore him. A few minutes later, ask him to sit or do another command, and then give him attention as a reward after he does the command that you have asked of him. Dogs with separation anxiety also respond to being rewarded for relaxed behavior. As your dog relaxes, you reward him (with petting or treats) once he reaches the relaxed state and not while he’s still very excited and anxious.
There are some anti-anxiety drugs labeled for use with separation anxiety in dogs but they will not work without also changing the dog’s routines and trying the above-mentioned behavioral modifications. In severe cases, if these suggestions do not work, there is an excellent behaviorist available at Cornell and we can help you with a referral.