As back to school craziness takes hold across the country, I worry about how all of our dogs are handling the inevitable changes in the family schedule. Fall can mean less time with beloved family members — particularly those who might be heading off to college or out of the home for work for the first time — and that can be a trigger for separation anxiety in dogs.

Separation anxiety is a feeling of nervousness, fear, or panic that develops when a dog is unable to be in contact with his or her caregivers. Often, symptoms of mild separation anxiety are missed by owners, since they tend to occur when we are not home or are misidentified as simply being a sign that our pet loves us. Dogs at risk for separation anxiety may:

  • Frequently seek an owner’s attention( through pawing, barking, etc.) throughout the day
  • Follow owners around the house
  • Seek comfort from owners whenever something unexpected occurs
  • Greet owners exuberantly when they return home

Symptoms of established separation anxiety include:

  • Barking, whining, or howling when left alone
  • Destructive behaviors (e.g., chewing and clawing at objects in the home)
  • Escape attempts through or around doors and windows, crates, or fences

If you believe that your dog might suffer from separation anxiety, it is important to remember that he or she is truly terrified in your absence not being “bad.” Punishment of any sort is absolutely the wrong response to fear and will actually make the situation worse rather than better. Effective treatment for separation anxiety involves avoiding behaviors that reinforce “neediness,” teaching the dog to relax, and providing positive reinforcement for doing so.

Behavioral modification protocols often include recommendations like:

  • Pretend to leave (e.g., pick up your keys or purse) but then stay or walk out the door but immediately come back in. As long as the dog remains calm, gradually increase the amount of time you stay away.
  • When you do get home, ignore your dog until he or she is calm.
  • Do not allow your dog to sleep in your bed.
  • Ask someone else to do things with your dog that he or she enjoys (e.g., going for walks).
  • Get your dog to look forward to time alone by handing out special toys (food-filled ones work well) when you leave and putting them away when you are home.
  • If you often have a television or radio on when you are at home, keep it on when you leave.

Prescription and nonprescription anxiety relievers (e.g., medications, nutritional supplements, and pheromone products) can also help, but should be viewed as a way of enhancing the effectiveness of rather than replacing behavioral modification techniques. A dog’s primary care veterinarian can usually make recommendations for handling mild or moderate cases of separation anxiety, but if the situation is completely out of control, referral to a veterinary behaviorist may be in everyone’s best interests.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Sinisa Botas / Shutterstock