Inga MacKellar - MSc

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What are separation problems and how to avoid them?

Inga MacKellar - MSc

Most puppies learn to cope when their owners go to work, but for some dogs being left alone can result in problematic behaviours developing that need to be tackled.

What are separation problems?

Dogs are social animals and when left alone they can become destructive, wee and poo indoors, excessively salivate, pant and pace or bark and howl. Whilst this can sometimes be due to a true separation anxiety, there can be a variety of reasons for these behaviours. Dogs that are under exercised or under stimulated may be bored so might chew the furniture.

Puppies can be very destructive when teething. There may be a lack of house training or the puppy has been left indoors too long without a toilet break. Some dogs may have been stimulated (e.g.seeing the postman) or frightened by something outside or even indoors (e.g.an unexpected loud noise).

Therefore, it is important that your pup is receiving sufficient stimulation and regular toilet breaks and that you consider what may be causing these problems before thinking it might be true separation anxiety. Never tell your puppy off for making a mess or being destructive when left alone.

Why does Separation Anxiety occur?  

True separation anxiety occurs with dogs that are used to having human company and can’t cope with the solitude and separation if left alone. It can affect dogs of all ages, including puppies.

Typically separation anxiety occurs in dogs that are over-attached to the owner, often following them around the house, even to the bathroom! Owners often take time off work to help settle in a new puppy and this can get the puppy used to being with their new owner all the time.

However, despite this most puppies adjust to spending less time with their owner over time. Separation anxiety is more likely to occur when the puppy has just one owner, as they fixate on that one person.

Things to try

To avoid your puppy developing separation anxiety you should train them to get used to sometimes being on their own while you are at home. Dog gates are useful, as they enable your puppy to be physically separated from you, but still see you.

Over time, the room door can be gradually closed so puppy gets used to being separated from you behind a solid door. Practice this two or three times a day, initially for short periods of time and gradually increasing the time if your pup settles. Giving your pup something to do, such as a chew toy, can help.

This training should help adult dogs who develop separation anxiety too, but needs to be assessed and overseen by a behaviourist. Some people mistakenly think that getting another dog will help, but it rarely does, as the problem is due to the owner–dog relationship. Leaving a radio/TV on or a recording of the owner’s voice and using a pheromone collar may also help.

Seek professional help

Some dogs with true separation anxiety can become so distressed that they may cause physical damage to themselves, or to doors and window frames, as they try to follow their owner out of the house.

If you are concerned that your puppy or dog has true separation anxiety don’t delay in getting veterinary advice for a referral to a qualified behaviourist. In some instances, drug treatments may be necessary. However, if you start to teach your pup from an early age that there are times it will be alone, then later problems may be avoided.

Inga MacKellar - MSc

Inga was one of the first pet behaviourists in the UK accredited as a Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist for both dogs and cats. She is a Full Member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC), an organisation recommended by the RSPCA.

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