Different dogs have different reactions to our absence. As pack animals, they crave the company of others and turn to their leader (you) as a model for proper behavior. This actually contributes to some of the many misconceptions about separation anxiety, anxiety provoked in a dog by separation or the threat of separation from their owner or others in general.
True separation anxiety can result in symptoms like excessive salivation, barking, whining, destroying items in the home, scratching at walls, doors, and floors, and attempting to escape from their crate or room. You’ve seen the picture of separation anxiety painted by scenarios of coming home from a long day at work and finding an entire apartment’s worth of furniture torn to pieces. But this classic scene can just as easily be created by what dog expert Cesar Milan calls “simulated separation anxiety.” In simulated separation anxiety, Milan argues that many of the same symptoms of true separation anxiety appear from your dog because our own actions teach them that acting out can be a rewarded or acknowledged behavior that will earn them some much-wanted attention. In reality, Milan says, real separation anxiety is extremely stressful and even painful for our dogs.
So the question becomes: does my dog have separation anxiety or does he (or she) just need to be properly trained?
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, there’s no clear and definitive factor that dictates why a dog develops separation anxiety. They do, however, point out that adopted dogs are far more likely to exhibit the behaviors true to separation anxiety than dogs that have been raised with and lived with a single family from puppyhood through development. The other factors the ASPCA says could contribute to or trigger separation anxiety are abrupt changes in schedule, a change in residence (even with the same family), and the sudden absence of a member of the family (such as a death in the family or one of the kids moving away to college).
With that said, the organization still points out that everything from boredom to juvenile destruction and even urine marking could be the actual root of your dog’s destructive behavior while you’re gone.
While some vets may be quick to prescribe drugs, it’s important to know there are training methods you could employ first in favor of medicating your pet.
“It really starts the moment you get your puppy,” Milan says. “All too often a puppy taken from the litter begins to cry when left alone. This is a big change for the pup, they no longer have the pack they were born with. When he cries, we go and pick him up and show sympathy—his crying is rewarded. Later, if he is crying in a crate, and you let him out he is being rewarded for his crying. Only reward desired behavior.”
Milan points out that rewarding calm and patient behavior is the easiest and most direct way to combat this. Instead of rushing to comfort and soothe your dog when they are whining or asking for attention (our natural and instinctive reaction — one that they’re hoping for), we instead need to show them the desired reaction once they calm down.
“This approach lets your dog know what is expected of him, helping his good behavior to become a habit. He feels wrong showing an unwanted behavior even without you indicating it. Take advantage of that.”
While Milan’s training method is more of a preventative measure, the ASPCA suggests you can take a slow and steady approach to treat true separation anxiety by desensitizing your dog to being alone with short separations.
“It is essential to ensure that your dog never experiences the full-blown version of whatever provokes his anxiety or fear,” they write. “He must experience only a low-intensity version that doesn’t frighten him. Otherwise, he won’t learn to feel calm and comfortable in situations that upset him.”
In this scenario, the key is that the short separations won’t induce anxiety. Over time, you can help them build up a tolerance to longer separations as they learn to control the stress of being alone. They also suggest you can introduce counterconditioning to this practice, which is done by rewarding your dog with a treat when they’ve remained calm during short “out-of-sight” absences of even just 10 seconds. Dogs will quickly learn they’re staying calm while you're gone can actually be a rewarding experience. On top of this, they suggest being mindful of how you space your disappearances from them after returning. If the arousal of your return quickly blends into the anxiety of your leaving, they could still instinctively hold onto that stress when you are gone.
Another method both Milan and the ASPCA recommend for battling separation anxiety is mixing up your own routines. When we tend to follow a basic routine before leaving the house our dogs begin to pick up cues that we are leaving. If they suffer from any kind of anxiety over this, the stress will start to set in before we’ve even left them alone, and this can start a downward spiral.
“Use a different door, put your coat and bag in different places,” Milan suggests. “Make changes to create a different picture. If you are watching TV or working on the computer, and your dog gets up every time you get up, simply get up and sit down again.”
“This will reduce your dog’s anxiety because these cues won’t always lead to your departure, and so your dog won’t get so anxious when he sees them,” the ASPCA adds. “Please be aware, though, that your dog has many years of learning the significance of your departure cues, so in order to learn that the cues no longer predict your long absences, your dog must experience the fake cues many, many times a day for many weeks.”
Both also say we shouldn’t make a big deal of saying goodbye when it’s time to leave or make big boisterous hellos a habit when we come home as these are behaviors that encourage equally excitable reactions.