Separation Anxiety: Calm Your Dog’s Destructive Behavior When Left Alone
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.
Many times, medication prescribed by a veterinarian improves a dog's ability to stay panic-free and is a helpful addition to training. The specific regimen will depend on the veterinarian's recommendation.
The management of anxiety-provoking situations is also important in helping a dog succeed. Every time the dog experiences separation, her anxiety may be strengthened and reinforced. Until her tolerance can be built to a point of accepting separation or medication is at a level where she can stay relaxed, management tactics are needed to prevent the dog from being alone for too long. Doggy day care, housesitting or even taking the dog in the car on errands (depending on the weather) are examples of strategies for preventing panic.
A Camera: Gathering Evidence
Setting up a camera while you're away can help you evaluate and monitor your dog's distress when left alone. A video offers evidence that allows you and a behavior professional to pinpoint a problem and assess whether treatment is working. It shows a dog's stress level at separation and the specifics of her anxiety, such as becoming stressed after 30 minutes of being alone. Taping also can capture oddities such as panic related to a sound that occurs around a particular time or on a particular day, such as when a neighbor does woodworking or the garbage truck arrives. Noise anxiety can cause panic that mimics separation anxiety.
Dogs with separation anxiety are in many cases capable of significant improvement or a complete turnaround if they are given proper training and management and possibly medication. I would consider the door-clawing behavior described here as a major red flag, and take all the necessary steps toward helping the dog by working with a recommended professional in the most timely manner possible.