“My dog howls when I leave home.”
“He rips up the furniture and digs up the garden when I’m not there.”
Sound familiar? Separation anxiety is the likely cause. This is a very real condition which must get the appropriate attention or it will spiral into the kind of uncontrollable behaviour that no dog owner wants to live with. “Any breed of dog can develop it though it is more common in Spaniels and small terrier breeds like Jack Russells,” says Dr Ingrid de Wet, senior veterinarian at Country Animal Clinic.
“There are two main reasons dogs develop separation anxiety: as a puppy they weren’t taught to be on their own, or trauma,” Dr de Wet says.
Small puppies often accompany their owners everywhere. They’re even carried in handbags when we shop. This means that they are never left alone when they are in their socialisation developmental phase so they don’t develop the coping skills necessary for aloneness. Then, we think that when they are bigger they can cope fine with being alone at home, but they can’t. Separation anxiety can also be precipated by a traumatic event such as a house break in, a big storm or rehoming.
My dog howls is also a common refrain from owners of rescue pets. Dogs rescued from a shelter, especially if they’ve been there for a very long time, can be chronically anxious. Also pets that have been rehomed multiple times. If you are rescueing an adult or puppy, have a discussion with your vet first. It may be worth putting them on anti-depressants for the first few months in their new home to give them a positive experience of their new environment.
My dog howls and other symptoms
Complaints from your neighbours are often the first indication dog owners have that their pet is suffering separation anxiety: “My dog howls when I leave home, says my neighbour”. Or the dog may bark incessantly, or become destructive digging up the garden or chewing the sofa or tearing pillows apart. Your dog may become frantic when you pick up your car keys, or put shoes on to go out. Some dogs will self-traumatise, chewing or licking repeatedly at themselves, others will try to break out of the house or garden. Some may retreat and hide when you aren’t there. If you suspect your dog does this, set up a camera to note his behaviour when you’re not there.
Your dog may also have underlying medical conditions which cause him to be fearful, like blindness or canine cognitive dysfunction, which is like Alzheimer’s in humans.
Punishment is an absolute no-no
Punishment does not work to stop separation anxiety. Your dog is not being deliberately naughty or attention-seeking. Just as humans suffer panic attacks, dogs with separation anxiety can’t control when it happens to them. In fact, punishment just increases anxiety and makes it worse. If you come home and discover your dog has chewed the sofa and you start yelling at him then, he’ll have no idea why. He’ll begin to associate your coming home with punishment and that’s not good for either of you.
My dog howls: how you can help
Your first port of call is your veterinarian: to ensure your dog has no underlying medical conditions and to suggest a plan of action best suited to your dog.
“We may recommend getting an animal behaviourist on board,” says Dr Ingrid, as they are able to desensitise the dog to separation cues (like keys etc). A behaviourist will help with environmental enrichment and behaviour modification when you are out of the house, giving your dog things to do to increase his endorphins to help him feel good, decrease his anxiety and to keep them busy when you are out of the house.”
Unfortunately by the time most dogs get to the vet, says Dr Ingrid, they’re already presenting with severe separation anxiety and need medication. “We use a combination of anti-depressants – chronic anxiety causes depression the same as in people – and we give them medication for anxiety. While the medication helps rebalance their brains, they will still also need to see a behaviourist. Medication may be lifelong; it depends on the owner’s commitment to behavioural modification. If the dog does stay on medication it needs to be seen by your vet every six months to check dosages and continuing effectivity.
“It can be along process and quite difficult, especially in the beginning. It takes commitment and can be costly,'” Dr Ingrid says.
Preventing separation anxiety
Start early. The window of opportunity occurs when puppies are between 8 and 12 weeks of age. This is known as their socialistion period and this is the time to teach them to endure short periods of separation. Start by placing them alone in a room with the door closed, or outside, for a minute or two and then reward them. Slowly increase the time alone. What you are teaching them is ‘you may be alone but you’re fine, we’ll always come back, you don’t need to panic’.
“Sometimes getting a friend for your dog may help but not always, because the anxiety is related to people leaving so even though they have a canine friend their people aren’t there and that’s what makes them anxious,” says Dr Ingrid. “However, if you’re going to get a dog it’s worth considering getting two because dogs that are alone will get lonely and bored and that leads to behavioural issues.”
*My dog howls since I’ve gone back to work after lockdown: yip, dogs that have never experienced separation anxiety before may suddenly develop behavioural issues as a result of lockdown. They’d become used to their owners being with them 24/7 during lockdown level 5 but now owners are returning to work and they can’t understand why their owners are gone again. “It’s been a real problem for owners with puppies because you can’t get away from the puppy in order to train him. However, even putting him alone in another room with the door closed for a few minutes at a time will help,” Dr Ingrid says.
Frankie is a miniature Dachshund. When bought by his mom Anuschke from a breeder, he was the only pup in the house and seemed perfectly happy, confident and ok with being alone. “He came to work with me at first since I didn’t want to leave a six-week-old alone at home but my mom works from home too so he was never really alone and mostly when we went out he went along too,” says Anuschke.
But when Anuschke broke her leg and had to stay at home for two months, the trouble began. ” Once I returned to work he became destructive, shredding tissue packets, messing in the house, eating hundreds of Rands worth of underwear, and barking excessively. If I got up just to go to the bathroom he followed me; he followed me absolutely everywhere and went ballistic when I showered because he couldn’t get to me. I ended up letting him shower with me because he went so insane,” Anuschke recalls. When leaving home to go to work she heard Frankie shrieking and barking from three houses away. “It was horrible. No matter how much I tried to discipline him with treat training or scolding him and giving time outs, nothing helped. I cried at least once a week because I felt so helpless.
Anuschke spoke with veterinarian Dr Rosali Bruggemann at Country Animal Clinic who suggested gradual time outs rewarded with treats. She started with a minute in the bathroom and if he didn’t moan she let him out and rewarded with a treat. Every few days the time alone was lengthened. “I managed that until he got to 7 minutes in week 2 and then it didn’t work anymore; he just went ballistic again,” Anuschke says. Frankie was then prescribed anti-anxiety medication. “Even just after the first dose he was already 10 times better. He listened, he walked off the lead without running away, and he started eating his food a lot more slowly; I no longer needed the slow feeder which he had been using since the age of 12 weeks.”
Frankie is on a daily medication and his behaviour has improved dramatically. He is not a ‘zonked out zombie’ on the meds, says Anuschke, and is still an active little dog though he is no longer in panic permanent mode.
“I monitor situations now so I react before they happen to keep him calmer and ease him into a situation . For example, I don’t just let people come into the house. They ring the bell and then I’ll ask him in a very positive tone of voice “who’s there Frankie, who’s at the door?” His tail will start wagging and he runs to the front door to greet them, whereas initially he wanted to bite anyone that came in.