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Anxiety associated with separation in dogs

Dogs are highly social animals, and many suffer from separation anxiety when left alone. The Pet Food Industry Association of Southern Africa (PFI) has compiled the following tips to assist you in recognizing warning signs and taking the appropriate action.

Due to the dramatic increase in time spent with our dogs during the Covid lockdowns and the possibility of a return to a new normal in which there isn't always someone at home with them, you should be aware that separation anxiety may develop.

Dogs thrive on human companionship and require a great deal of it. If given half a chance, many dogs would choose to spend their entire lives in the company of their 'best friend’.

Separation anxiety can be extremely distressing for a dog and it may also have a spill over effect onto other aspects of their lives, which may be interpreted as poor behaviour.

In the case of puppies, having grown up with their humans around during “lockdown-life” and throughout their socialisation phase, they may be conditioned to expect that there will always be someone around.

How is separation anxiety defined?

Separation anxiety occurs when a dog becomes distressed and anxious when left alone. It's a behavioural problem that can be very unsettling for even the most confident of dogs.

It is common in puppies who haven't yet learned to cope with being alone, as well as in dogs whose behavior has gone unnoticed and then managed from a young age. It is frequently misinterpreted as mischief, which then becomes the norm, and people frequently believe they have a misbehaving dog. This, however, is rarely the case.

In severe cases, you should consult a dog behaviourist, as this behaviour can negatively impact your dog's health and well-being and may even impact on the quality of your relationship with your pet. Furthermore, it is a behavioural issue that can be managed and rectified.

How does a dog suffering from separation anxiety behave?

There are numerous signs of separation anxiety, and they vary according to the individual dog, the duration of the absence, the location of the absence, and a variety of other factors. A dog experiencing separation anxiety may exhibit one or more of the following signs:

  • Howling, whining or barking

  • Chewing on or destroying furniture, walls and personal possessions

  • Pacing the room or the house

  • Panting and rapid breathing associated with an elevated heart rate

  • Making a mess, damaging property or urinating in the house

  • Following you around (especially if you appear to be leaving)

If you want to learn more about what your dog does when you're not home, setting up a small camera and recording them is fairly simple. If this device also has a voice function, you could use it to attempt to calm them down if they become agitated.

Why is my dog afraid of separation?

The primary reason for this is that your dog is missing you. As pleasant as this is, it's critical to recognize that it's occurring as a result of your dog's distress. It could also be that they are fearful of something that has occurred recently, perhaps in their home. Changes in routine (such as lockdown life changes), boredom, your dog's personality and life experience all play a role.

In a few instances, separation anxiety may be caused by a dog that is in pain. If you believe this may be the case, please consult your veterinarian.

Numerous puppies and dogs will almost certainly be impacted by the routine change that many households have experienced as a result of the Covid lockdowns. Everything about our daily lives has changed dramatically over the last 18 months, and in many households there has been someone present at all times. Your dog probably enjoyed this, but times are changing, and it is important to recognize how this will affect your dog.

What can I do to assist my dog?

The trick is to determine how long your dog can be left alone; for some, this will be longer than for others. Once you've grasped this concept, you can attempt to work around it. Is it possible for a friend or neighbour to drop by briefly to check on your dog's well-being? Can you hire a dog walker to help them get through the day? Is doggie day care a possibility? It's growing in popularity, which means there is a high demand for it – always conduct extensive research before entrusting your dog to a third party.

Ensure that your dog has access to food and fresh water, as well as a sufficient supply of toys to keep them entertained. These toys, which are intended to occupy your pet’s time and attention while you are out, should be rewarding and your dog must be able to engage with them alone and without assistance. Certain dogs enjoy having the radio or television on for company.

Secure the room (or rooms) that your dog has access to while you are away. For instance, if they enjoy jumping at the window to see when you return, it's a good idea to keep this area clear of items they might knock over in their excitement.

If a change in routine occurs, be aware that it will need to be managed gradually. Covid lockdown is an excellent example of this; if you know that your dog will be alone more in the coming weeks. Allow them to adjust gradually, rather than abruptly changing it and inflicting a severe shock on your dog.

Is it any different when you have a puppy?

If you have a new puppy it's a good idea to start early on acclimating them to brief periods of time alone. This may simply mean isolating them in a separate room and providing them with toys to encourage self-entertainment. Remember to reward them when they perform well and to be patient with them when they do not. It will take time.

If you're crate training, encourage the desired behaviour and reward your dog when they perform it correctly; this will encourage repeat behaviour. Along with rewards, it's critical to maintain a calm and consistent demeanour.

Gradually increase the amount of time your puppy is left alone, rather than in large bursts when you leave the house. The way you handle this during your puppy's early months is critical to the development of a healthy, happy dog who is capable of surviving without you beside them at all times.

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