We ask a lot from our dogs when we expect them to fit into our hectic modern lives. Most dogs adapt to their owners’ lifestyle with seeming ease. However, some dogs will not adjust to their routine and environment or develop difficulties to cope later in life. Some of these dogs may turn to destruction, house soiling, or vocalisation, while others may become inhibited and withdrawn as a way of releasing their feelings. Living with these dogs can be very stressful for owners.
What is separation distress?
This disorder is caused by when dogs are away from their owner (including when the owner is at home but now with the dog). There are no specific breed predispositions, and it may partly be the result of poor socialisation in puppyhood or traumatic event later in life.
Why do dogs get separation distress?
Dogs like to be part of the family and (in most cases) see their owner as their primary attachment figure. It is not natural for them to be left alone while the rest of the family goes off without them. The condition is more common in dogs that have been repeatedly re-homed or moved to new owners when they were less than one year old, probably because these animals feel very insecure. The problem becomes worse because when someone re-homes a dog from a kennel and finds out it is destructive,dog is often returned to the kennel for re-homing again.
What triggers separation distress?
There are many possible triggers for separation distress. Puppies that are separated from their mothers must cope and develop new bonds. Not all puppies can do so, and unless there is strong support from the owner, they may not cope. The problem can also start after a period of separation, for example, following a kennel stay. Dogs are also more likely to show separation distress when their owner returns to work after a long period at home, eg after maternity leave or the school summer holidays. The dog has been used to plenty of attention and company, and all of a sudden it is alone in a quiet, empty house. In some cases, a traumatic event or disease may trigger separation distress.
What are the signs of separation distress?
Young adult dogs seem to be over-represented. Most dogs with this problem start to become agitated when they sense that their owner is about to leave. They often follow their owner from room to room and show excessive attachment. Once the owner has left the dog may start destroying objects or cause damage directed at exits, house soil, and vocalize (eg barking and howling). Some dogs may show visceral signs reactions such as vomiting or diarrhoea when left alone and others may harm themselves. When their owner returns, many dogs are submissive and cringe amid the debris because they have previously been punished by the owner coming home to the mess.
How can I help my dog?
In most cases, dogs can improve. However, you must be prepared to invest time and efforts to help your dog overcome its distress. Punishment should never be part of the management; it will only make the problem worse. Your dog is destructive because it is so anxious, frustrated, and possibly had a panic attack when left alone. If you punish your dog, it learns to associate the combination of you and the mess with punishment. When you are gone, it is left in the house alone and becomes destructive. Now your dog is alone with the mess and becomes more anxious about your return and subsequent punishment.
Treatment aims to get your dog used to longer periods alone gradually. Your vet will be able to give you advice about managing the problem and, in particularly tricky cases, may recommend that you and your dog visit a specialist in dog behavioural problems. With individual advice and some effort, most dogs improve over about 4-8 weeks and will be much better after a few months.
Are there any medications that will stop my dog being anxious?
There are medications that your vet can prescribe to help your dog overcome its anxiety. Unfortunately, these drugs are not a miracle cure but can make treatment with behavioural management work more quickly.
What else could I do?
Remember that the problem only arises when your dog is left alone. If you can avoid leaving it for long periods while you are in the early stages of treatment life will be much easier for everyone. If you have to go away think about getting a house sitter to look after your dog rather than putting it in kennels. If you can, try to arrange to take it to work with you for a while. These things will help to reduce your stress levels as well as your dog's!