Helping a dog with separation anxiety

Dog in bed with radio

(Q) We got our beloved Lucy from a breeder at the age of 14 weeks, following the death of our Cocker, Freeway. We were still grieving when we got Lucy and she certainly helped take away some of the pain of our loss, but in hindsight, looking at the breeder and the way she acted, we should have perhaps walked away.

Lucy has brought us immense joy, but has one big problem — she hates it when we go out, even for a few minutes. We leave the TV or radio on, we’ve tried giving her Kongs with treats in, but she still cries. She is never destructive but occasionally has a toileting accident, although this is rare. Our concern is her distress and what we can do to help her. Sedation has been suggested, but I am not keen. What do you think?

(A) Behaviourist Claire Arrowsmith says: Poor Lucy. Separation issues really are distressing for everyone involved. Puppies who have had a bad start can over-attach when they find an attentive home. Additionally, if you were still grieving it’s likely that you focused a lot of attention on Lucy, especially if you felt you were rescuing her. I agree that sedation is not the answer for separation problems.

A consistent and gradual programme to allow Lucy to begin to cope without you will be necessary. It’s important for Lucy to learn to relax while you are getting ready to go out. Can she cope if she is not able to follow you about while you’re home? If not, this is where your re-education programme needs to begin. You may want to help Lucy to relax by trying a dog appeasing pheromone (Adaptil) diffuser in the area where she’s being left. At this stage, this will not resolve the problem by itself but by reducing her stress, she will be able to learn more effectively and change her behaviour.

Other supplements, such as valerian, can also help to relax a stressed dog. In situations where the stress has existed long-term, it can be helpful to consider a course of modern anti-anxiety medications alongside a behavioural programme. You can discuss this with your vet or a qualified behaviourist. However, it would be worth trying a plan first to see if she can improve. Create a cosy den to help her feel safe when she is alone, and praise her for using it.

Try not to encourage clingy behaviour when you are at home and make sure you don’t emphasise goodbyes and hellos. Build up slowly from a few minutes at a time.

About separation anxiety

Signs of separation anxiety include:

  • Pacing.
  • Salivating.
  • Nipping at owners leaving the house.
  • Overexcitement.
  • Loss of toilet control.
  • Self-mutilation.
  • Barking/howling.
  • Destruction of household items.

The problem usually stems from the dog being left alone when he is unused to it. Owners who do not condition their pets to an acceptable routine find they have problems when leaving them, even for short periods.

Separation anxiety is more common in single-owner households, especially when the owners are elderly, and the dog is relied on more as a companion. Nervous dogs, plus those that are great attentionseekers, also tend to suffer more separation-related problems.

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