It is so heartbreaking to witness separation anxiety in senior dogs, I want to take a look at what it is and how we can help.
Separation anxiety can be experienced by dogs of all ages, yet it is one of the most common behaviours in senior dogs. Not only can it be harder for older dogs to handle changes in routine, but losing hearing or sight will likely make them more anxious in general. Add an absent owner to the mix and you have a recipe for some serious anxiety.
Separation anxiety is, literally, anxiety a dog feels when separated from his guardian. There are various degress of anxiety ranging from mild discomfort to ripping the house apart.
My experience with separation anxiety
None of my senior dogs have had separation anxiety I’m happy to say. However my foster Petra has it bad…very bad. She is a Podenco, a Spanish hunting dog who was living on the streets.She’s about 1 1/2 years old, and was found wandering and very skinny. We don’t know anything about her “officially” but because of her extremely skittish nature, we assume she was gun shy, of no use as a hunting dog so was tossed out (too common in Spain I’m afraid but that’s another story).
Her anxiety was obviously caused by being alone on the streets, abused, taken into a home then given back to the rescuer, then put into kennels for 7 months until my husband and I took her a few weeks ago. She is attached to my husband 24/7 and shrieks when he goes out. She tears around the house looking for him, and looks out the window as he walks away. When he’s home she sits with him constantly. If she’s left alone she’ll chew whatever she finds, although I have discovered if she’s left in the hallway with a couple of toys she’s better. We see the progress she’s made in the short time she’s been with us – love, a routine, tons of exercise, a good meal twice a day.
She’s off to her new home in a few days, and I have told her new dad what’s what, but to see such an incredibly sweet dog going through hell is heartbreaking. She’ll settle into her new forever home, and with guidance on how to help her she’ll start feeling better. I don’t know if she’ll ever be totally anxiety free, but I’ll keep in touch, see how she’s getting on and offer advice when I can.
It can cause overwhelming panic leading to:
- Incessant barking
- Running from room to room searching for their people
- Being destructive
- Chewing through barriers confining them
- Having accidents
When the parent returns, the greeting is frantic, as though they’ve been apart for a very long time. It goes without saying this is very stressful for the dog, the pet parents (if they know about it), and the neighbours forced to listen to this all day long.
The good news is, separation anxiety can be worked through.
But is it really separation anxiety?
Sometimes separation anxiety can be confused with boredom, since they both often result in destructive behaviour and excessive barking. When we talk about separation anxiety in older dogs, there may be other factors at play.
As dogs age, many find it harder to cope, and certain medical conditions like Canine Cognitive Disorder (or doggie dementia) can up the anxiety level. Some dogs may even keep their humans awake at night, because they view sleep as separation.
Previously housebroken dogs may “forget” their training, or a medical issue that causes frequent urination may lead to accidents in the house. Some pet parents resort to using a crate to confine their dog when they’re out, not understanding that crate training is a process, not something you just throw your dog into. The “being locked up” part can cause serious anxiety, not the separation from you.
If you are noticing changes in his toileting habits or general behaviour, please see your vet, as there are several medical conditions that can explain these changes.
Another point to consider – if you have recently welcomed a senior dog into your home, it is quite possible his anxiety is simply him getting used to his new life.
If it is separation anxiety, what causes it?
Conclusive evidence as to why some dogs develop separation anxiety, really doesn’t exist. In addition to conditions like Canine Cognitive Disorder mentioned earlier, things like: moving house, being bounced around from shelter to shelter or home to home, neglect, loss of important people in his life, an emotionally traumatic experience, lost in unfamiliar surroundings and a change in schedule, are all known causes.
What you can do to help
Don’t wait until your dog is experiencing anxiety to take him out. Every dog needs more than a backyard. They need long walks, at least two 30 minute stints a day. Obviously the length, intensity, and frequency will depend on your dog’s age and physical condition. Tiring him out before you leave the house, may make him more relaxed about spending time alone.
Training, games, tracking, and agility are just some of the ways to challenge your dog mentally, in addition to physically. Again, the activity you choose will depend on your dog’s physical capabilities, but perhaps some of the more challenging ones could be scaled back to accommodate.
Mix up your routine to throw him off track
Most of us have a routine we follow each time we’re ready to leave the house. It doesn’t take long for your dog to learn it, and realise that once you’re finished, he’s going to be left alone. That can send him into full panic mode.
His anxiety may even start building as you begin getting ready, because he knows what’s coming. Changing your routine may help. For example, he knows that when you put your coat on, you leave the house. Why not put your coat on randomly during the day, then open the mail. Grab your keys, and put them in a different place.
After a few weeks with no discernible pattern, he may be less anxious when you walk out the door.
Never make a big deal out of coming or going
You know the tilt of the head a dog gives you when you go out? That look that says “I’m way too cute to leave me?” How many times do you go back in when you see the head tilt?
We smother them with affection and attention before we leave, and again when we return. Whether it’s guilt, or because we genuinely hate to be apart from them, it’s bad all around. All this drama simply adds to his anxiety.
The better way is to not pay attention to your dog a few minutes before you leave, and for a few minutes after you get back.
The new message, and the right message you’re now sending him, is that your absence is temporary, and nothing to be concerned about.
Practice longer and longer absences
This exercise involves a gradual buildup of time spent out of the house. For this to work you need time, patience, and commitment.
Throughout this training, you must never allow your dog to reach that highly anxious state. Plan to spend about 30 minutes a session, which is comprised of the seconds here and there that you are actually out of the house, and the time in between.
To begin, step out the front door for just a couple of minutes, then come right back in. Remember, don’t make a big deal out of it.
If your dog suffers from severe anxiety, you may only be able to step outside for a second, literally, before having to coming back in. If that’s the case, than a second it will have to be.
Once you’re back in the house go about your business, giving your dog a few minutes to relax, then do it again, slightly increasing the time outside.
That might mean only 2 seconds, than 3 the next. That’s fine, just keep adding each time. You can also vary the length of time you stay out. For instance – say you’ve worked up to 7 minutes, the next time leave for 4 minutes, then 8, than 5.
Within a few weeks, your dog’s anxiety should be significantly reduced.
A very important note: if at any time your dog barks or seems agitated when you’re out, you have moved too quickly. Go back to the time he was still comfortable, and start from that point.
Helping your dog right now
The above suggestions, while helpful, do take time to work, and in the meantime, your dog will still be suffering from anxiety. Here are some suggestions to help give him some relief.
A chat with your vet
Consider asking your vet’s opinion about prescribing a low dose anti anxiety tablet for short term use. I’m not a fan of excess medication, but in this case instant relief may be the kindest thing you can do. Less stress might also mean greater ability to focus on the training.
There are many pheromone products available on the market that mimic natural dog pheromones, and may relieve stress. They come in various formats such as plug in diffusers (like the air freshener you plug into sockets in your home), collars and sprays.
Rescue Remedy is made up of 5 Bach flower remedies, to help your pet deal with stress. It’s easy to use, just add a couple of drops to drinking water, or a drop to a treat or meal, or rubbed on paws or ears. Many vets I’ve dealt with have recommended this product and I know lots of people have had success with it as well. I personally haven’t, but that was just my experience.
A garment that applies gentle but constant pressure around the torso, to help calm nerves.
Valerian or Valerian and Skullcap
How about some company?
Why not hire a dog walker or ask a neighbour, family member or friend to help? It will give your dog company and relief while you’re out, a bit of help coping until he’s feeling better. If your dog is anxious because of a condition like doggie dementia, having someone be there with him can be especially important.
A doggy daycare facility is another option to consider, giving him the chance to interact and have fun with other dogs.
Reminders of you
Put one of your t-shirts or sweaters in his bed, as your scent may comfort him.
Make some noise, but not a lot of noise
Leave a radio on low, playing soothing music or invest in a selection of music specifically created to calm pets. I played some snippets of this CD for my senior dog Red, and she fell asleep instantly. I think it relaxed me as well!!
Attention on your terms
Help your dog learn independence by paying him attention when you want, not when he wants. He will soon learn he gets more attention by not constantly seeking it out.
Many humans find massage relaxing, and stress reducing, why not dogs?
While these tips usually work, they aren’t guaranteed to work with every dog. Your dog may respond to one, or you may need to consider trying a combination.
If you’ve tried everything and nothing seems to work, a behaviourist experienced in dealing with this issue may be the next step you need to take.
Separation anxiety in older dogs – conclusion
There is so much help available to treat separation anxiety in older dogs, please don’t let him or her suffer another moment.