The Stubbington Ark (RSPCA Solent Branch) Animal Shelter
174-176 Ranvilles Lane PO14 3EZ
Fareham, Hants GB
Tel 01329 667541
Fax 01329 665262

Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety

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One of the most common problems in rescued and rehomed dogs is the inability to be left alone. Quite often the dog will attach itself to its new owners, in particular one person, and follow them around constantly, becoming visibly distressed when parted from them. Even the company of other animals within the household rarely helps. If left alone the dog can become destructive, soil the house or bark constantly in order to be reunited with its owner. On the occasion where a dog has been rehomed two or three times, this problem can increase to a point where the dog will not let his owner out of sight.

This over-attachment is a form of insecurity, and an illness. It is not something the dog is doing out of spite or to get even with you for leaving him, contrary to common misconception. Dogs do not have these powers of thought or reason. Almost the worst thing an owner can do if the dog has soiled or destroyed household items, is to reprimand the dog upon their return, however angry or frustrated they may feel. This may be minutes or even hours after the event took place and the dog will not be able to associate its owner’s displeasure with the act of chewing or soiling. It may also be counter-productive in that the dog will learn to expect an angry outburst upon the owner’s return and may therefore display an increase in anxiety. In turn, a possible increase in destructive behaviour may occur and you will then be caught in a vicious circle. It is unlikely that the dog ‘knows he has done wrong’ rather that he is reacting to his owner’s anger and body language.

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Many people give their new rescue dog time to settle in before leaving them alone, during which time the dog is with them constantly, even sleeping in their bedroom and certainly getting lots of attention on demand. Some people even try to make up for what they feel the dog has suffered in their past life or in kennels and give them undivided attention and spoiling. This makes it extremely difficult for the dog to cope when the time comes for it to be left.

Not all rescued dogs suffer from separation anxiety. Those that are less insecure do not usually mind short periods left on their own. This however, depends on the nature of the dog and its history as to whether it can cope with being separated from its human pack.

The following recommendations may help when settling in a dog with over-attachment problems:

  1. Try not to allow your dog to constantly follow you around the house. Get him used to you closing doors between you for very short periods. Do not respond if he begins to whine or bark, instead wait for a break in the proceedings before returning as it is important he learns his barking has not been successful in bringing you back.

  2. Make sure that all demands for attention are instigated by you and that your dog is not constantly given cuddles and fuss as he is then more likely to cope without attention when you are out. Whatever the temptation to keep fussing the dog, try to ignore him for periods throughout the day so that he doesn’t become too dependent.

  3. Endeavour to go out at the same time each day to help establish a routine, having exercised the dog well beforehand and perhaps given him a meal before departure. This may well induce sleep and the dog may be happier to settle down for a while.

  4. Sometimes even the preparation for departure can bring about panic. Desensitise the dog to this by going through the motions of leaving, i.e. picking up keys, putting on a coat, etc. but instead of leaving the house carry out some household chores or just have a cup of coffee before removing your belongings and continuing normally. This should be carried out a couple of times each day and the dog will soon realise that these actions are not necessarily a prelude to your departure and is less likely to panic.

  5. Provide your dog with something to amuse him which he will find stimulating, i.e. a Kong or other chew toy stuffed with food to alleviate boredom. Practice leaving your dog with this special toy for very short periods whilst you are still in the house or garden, with a door closed between you, and praise his good behaviour when you return. Keep the chew toy for these occasions only to increase novelty value. Very gradually increase the time you leave the dog with the toy and don’t proceed too quickly, remember you are setting up for success, not failure. Once he can cope with half an hour or so it should be safe to attempt leaving the house for a few minutes and building up the time again slowly, always rewarding your dog upon your return. He can always be fed the remaining contents of the chew toy after which the toy can be removed until the next time. However frustrating it may be, do try to ignore any destructive behaviour, it may be that things have progressed too quickly for the dog to cope with and the programme should be taken back a stage or two.

  6. Try to ensure your dog does not have access to your bedroom at night as he will certainly suffer from over-dependency if he is allowed to sleep there. Move him out gradually by moving his bed a few inches each night until he is outside on the landing, then begin closing the door an inch or so per night. It should not be too problematic if the operation is carried out gradually and you are resolute in your determination that he sleeps on his own bed on the floor.

  7. You may also like to leave the television or radio on for the dog while you are out, or even a taped recording of a family conversation. It all helps to lessen the stress of your departure. Leaving an old sweater or sweatshirt with your scent on can also be a comfort to the dog.

  8. Occasionally the condition can re-appear especially with dogs who have had constant company during weekends or school holidays. It may help to taper off the time devoted to the dog towards the end of the break so that he gets gradually used to time spent alone again.

Separation anxiety can be overcome but it can take a long time especially in dogs with a history of problems or those that have never been left. However, in most cases with tolerance and patience it is not impossible.

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