Separation Anxiety: Calm Your Dog's Destructive Behavior When Left Alone

Pug staring out window

Q. My dog scratches the door in our home when we leave her alone. What can I do?

A. Your dog may be exhibiting signs of separation anxiety. For dogs who suffer from the ailment, being left alone can cause panic that's often expressed through destructive behavior in the home.

Dogs that harm the home when left alone are not doing so out of spite or a desire to "get even" for being left. Home destruction may be a panicked expression of fear. It may also be caused by a lack of appropriate stimulation, overattachment to the owner, or anxiety.

Escape at All Costs

When canines target exit points like doors or windows, it may be because they are in such an anxious state that they attempt to escape at all costs, whether it's by chewing, climbing or clawing their way out. A dog may chew or bend bars on a cage, climb or dig her way out of a fence, jump through an open window, or claw or chew her way through a door.

Besides attempting escape, signs of separation anxiety in a dog may include shadowing her person, frantic behavior upon the person's departure and return, drooling, panting, anorexia, the inability to settle, vocalization, pacing, self-trauma and loss of bathroom habits.

A dog with separation anxiety needs immediate help. The dog is at risk of physical injury and further emotional damage while her anxiety continues. Escape attempts can cause injuries including broken teeth and claws, wood splinters, cuts from glass, fall-related trauma and strangulation. Some canines become so distressed, they self-mutilate, such as by chewing their own tail. With each panicked experience of being left alone, the dog may create anxiety memories that intensify her response in the future.

Consult a Professional

Addressing separation anxiety is best done with professional help. Start by consulting a veterinary behaviorist or working with a veterinarian in combination with a positive reinforcement dog trainer.

There is no "one size fits all" approach for treating separation anxiety, as each dog differs in her level of anxiety and response to treatment. In general, treatment involves desensitizing and counter-conditioning the dog to being left alone, making the experience of departures less intense, and increasing her feelings of enjoyment and relaxation when alone. Other common practices include increasing physical activity and mental stimulation to help the dog settle. The times of leaving and coming back are made less emotional and exciting to prevent the dog from getting worked up. The environment the dog is left in also is adjusted for the dog's comfort, which in many cases means a doggy-proofed area that's open rather than closed in, as many dogs panic over the feeling of being enclosed. Training for independence, such as by teaching stays on a mat, also helps to build a dog's confidence when her owner is absent.


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