I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: separation anxiety goes both ways. I often wish I could text my dog when I’m away from her- “love you, miss you, hope you’re doing okay.” Who is more anxious – your dog or you in those cases?
The difference of course, is that I know I’ll see my dog again soon. And I deal with my anxiety by doodling fish and flowers in the margins of my notepad and singing along with music in my car, not by barking without taking a breath for eight straight hours or by methodically dismantling an heirloom quilt thread by thread. For some dogs, they don’t know any other way. If you’ve got a clingy pooch, here are a few tips for helping them say “see you later.”
- Keep your cool. This is essential. When you know separation is hard for your pet, it can be heartbreaking to leave them and it’s tempting to effusively reassure them. You want to let them know it’s okay, you love them, you hate to leave them, and you promise to come back. You might want to give them cuddles and kisses and prolong the process because it’s so hard to say goodbye. For your pet, the message they get from this is that what’s happening is a BIG DEAL. Their person is acting weird and sad and that must mean something important and possibly scary is going on… and then, suddenly, they’re alone. That’s confusing for them and if they’re already prone to anxiety, it certainly doesn’t help. As tough as it might be, goodbyes should be short and casual. Sure, you’re leaving, but it’s nothing to worry about. You’re just going to Target, not fighting in the Civil War.
- Tire them out! A lot of the time, behaviors associated with separation anxiety are due to boredom and under-stimulation as much as they are to loneliness. Barking, tearing things up, or pooping on the floor are ways to alleviate some of the anxiety, but they’re also just… something to do. Dogs are very social animals and look to their humans for most of their entertainment or enrichment. When a smart or energetic dog is left on their own for hours on end, they have to find something to keep themselves busy.
There are things you can leave for your pet to work on during the day: strong chews, kong toys or other toys, even treats hidden where they can sniff them out. But most of those toys and activities are best enjoyed with human supervision and only keep a dog’s interest for so long. The best thing to do to alleviate boredom is to make sure they get adequate exercise. A tired dog who has had the chance to get in some interesting sniffing or play and enjoy a change of scenery will be a lot happier spending 8 hours just chilling or napping.
- Try a crate. Crate training is its own whole blog, but here are a few short steps to get you started. One important point is that the crate should not be used for punishment. As much as possible, it should be a happy place. It should be where they get special treats and peace and quiet. Having a crate can help your pet feel safe while you’re away- as though they have their own little “den.” And, for practical purposes, it can help a lot in terms of preventing or containing mess or destruction. Make your crate up in whatever way suits your dog safely. While some dogs may be okay with bedding and toys in their crates, others may need to stick to the basics until they can be trusted not to get into trouble.
- Talk to your neighbors. If your dog is a barker or a howler, it can be hard to know how long the noise goes on. Maybe they settle down right away and maybe they go for hours. If you have nearby neighbors who might be annoyed by the noise, take the time to let them know that you’re working on the problem. They may be able to give you some insight into how well your efforts are working as time goes on and being open and honest with them can help get them on your side.
- Consider having someone come let your pup out during the day. For workdays or long days, a visit from a friend can break up the monotony and give them a chance to stretch their legs, a little social time, and something to think about. For puppies, small dogs, seniors, and others whose mid-day potty accidents may be more out of physical need than anxiety, having someone take them out can make them a lot more comfortable and help reinforce solid housebreaking.
- Try gradual desensitization training. Do everything you normally would before leaving several times throughout the day- grab your keys, put your shoes on, etc.- but then don’t leave. Let them get used to the idea that those actions don’t always mean it’s time to panic. Leave for short periods of time so that they get used to the idea that you’ll be back. Gradually extend your time away until your dog can handle a whole work day without losing their marbles. This will take time and patience, but it works in the end!
- For some cases, medication can help. Your veterinarian can prescribe a variety of anti-anxiety meds. Ideally, this is less an alternative to training than a tool to be used in conjunction to training. A dog who is out of their minds with panic isn’t in a good place to learn and easing some of their fear with medication can help make them more able to take in some of what you’re trying to teach them.
Separation anxiety is difficult from all angles. Knowing your pet is so lonely and unhappy during the day is a stab to the heart. Coming home to find that they’ve pulled all the couch cushions onto the floor and peed on them can be infuriating. And there’s no easy, quick, or magical solution- it’s all going to take time, patience, and work. But when you love someone and they love you, it’s worth the effort. Keep your head up and don’t give up on them.
Do you need someone to stop by for that mid-day visit, help you out with those long tire-them-out walks, or keep them company while you’re away for an extra-long time? Well, you’re in luck- that’s kind of our thing! When your pet is happy, you’re happy, and we can help you out with that. Check out our services for a visit, a walk, or pet-sitting! And because your pet’s not the only one who hates to be away, we’ll even send you photos from our visits that you will be able to show off to everyone!
Janie founded 4-Legged Kids, Inc in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1997 and provides education through her PetBizHIVE podcast and her PetBizMBA membership and courses. She is a Certified Professional Animal Care Operator, Fear Free certified and a Certified Professional Pet Sitter. Learn more about the Founder, Janie Budnick.