Separation anxiety can be a source of great stress for owners and their dogs, and it presents itself in many different ways. It seems to be that this issue becomes noticeable in a dog, usually between the ages of 12 – 36 months, although a puppy can occasionally go through a fearful stage a little earlier than that. Lets look at some of the causes of separation anxiety in dogs.
Most anxiety is fear based, when a dog anticipates, what he feels is, a potential threat, something that puts him in danger. His nervous system will go into overload, which sparks a neurological ‘fight or flight’ response or he may freeze and sit trembling and shaking. If your dog was living in the wild, this response would be appropriate but, as part of his comfortable life with you and your family, it is an abnormal response that is preventing him from becoming a happy, well-adjusted dog that can easily cope with whatever occurs.
In a state of anxiety, your dog may urinate or pass a bowel movement even when he is normally very clean in the house. Some dogs, if consistently experiencing this anxiety, on a daily basis, can develop colitis which is an irritation of the colon usually brought on by stress. Owners sometimes think their dog has done this to ‘get back at them’ for leaving him, but this is not the case as dog psychology is not the same as for humans. Your dog has toileted because he is extremely anxious and needs your help to overcome it.
When anxious, your dog may bark, howl or whimper and either pace the room, or not move at all. He may tremble or become extremely emotional or clingy as you try to leave. Typically, many dogs that suffer from separation anxiety, will present destructive behaviour. This happens as a result of his inability to cope and acts as an outlet for his anxiety. The level of destructiveness can be quite spectacular, or just the ripping up of toys or cushions.
So, let’s move on to the causes of separation anxiety. In our experience, one of the causes that we see is that breed specific needs are not being considered in regards to exercise and mental stimulation. For instance, the Siberian Husky is a dog that thrives on being part of a pack and they can happily run for many miles. With an extremely high prey drive, the vast majority of huskies cannot go off lead, because they will simply disappear looking for something to chase. So a quick walk round the block does not address the mental or physical needs of this breed. Another example is the Pointer (German, English or Wire- Haired) which is a dog that enjoys company and LOVES to run. They are highly intelligent dogs that need a lot of exercise. Of course, there are the exceptions to the rule, but dog behaviour usually does follow the genetics of his breeding.
Separation anxiety can occur with all breeds and types of dogs, but we do see this problem a lot with rescue dogs.
After you have had your dog’s health checked by a veterinarian, the next stage is to address your response to your dog and understand how you can help him with a few changes.
Learn all you can about the breed, what was their original role in life? If, your dog is a collie for instance, you will learn that he likes to herd and chase. There are many games that you can play with a collie to address the herding instinct. This needs to be considered before bringing any dog into the home because this can be one of the biggest causes for behavioural problems, and specifically fear and anxiety.
If you know what mix of breeds your dog is, research these breeds and see which traits he displays from the breed. A dog we worked with for a while is an English Setter/Pointer rescue dog from Spain. Extremely anxious, getting Lulu to respond to anything was impossible. She had mentally shut down, but tore the house apart if her owner left her. We researched both breeds and advised the owner that a strong prey drive and the need to run was something they could work with. They found a form of exercise where Lulu could run at fast speeds and, within a few weeks, the behaviour began to improve.
With a rescue dog, (or any dog for that matter) try not to condition their attachment and dependency upon you. As nice as it is to have a dog following you everywhere around the house, when you come to leave, your dog will feel distraught. We always advise that you limit the changes in your routine when you bring a rescue dog home. If you take time off, as many people do, the dog gets used to this and then becomes anxious when you go back to work after a week.
Separation anxiety does not have to be a long-term concern. To help you to get started, as you begin a training program with your dog, we recommend the Thundershirt anxiety vest for dogs, which brings an immediate calming effect as it works on the neurology of your dog.