Do you regularly come home to suspicious puddles on the floor? Does your couch have a bite missing from it? How about those new shoes? The door, too?
It sounds like your dog (and your living room) may be suffering from separation anxiety.
“Next to aggression, separation anxiety is the most common behavior problem we see,” says Dr. Katherine Houpt, a professor of behavior medicine at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Newly adopted shelter dogs, says Houpt, are especially likely to experience separation anxiety. However, the condition can also surface in family dogs who have never previously shown symptoms: A change in work schedules, a move to a new home, or advanced age can trigger the condition.
Here are four common signs that your best bud may be suffering from separation anxiety—and what you can do to help him relax.
1. Destructive behavior
Many dogs with separation anxiety will exhibit destructive behaviors. Common targets include doors, which your dog may chew or claw at in an attempt to escape, and couches, which provide comforting “nesting” material. Your personal objects—such as shoes or sunglasses—may also be at risk, as they remind your dog of his favorite human.
It’s important to remember that your dog isn’t acting out of spite, says Houpt. “We don’t think dogs have the capacity to be vindictive,” she says. “He’s not thinking, ‘I’m mad that she’s leaving, I’ll destroy her pumps.’ He’s anxious.”
It’s also crucial not to punish your dog—not only will he be confused, but it will lead to more anxiety and unwanted behaviors. “If he scratched up the door at 10 a.m. and you correct him at 6 p.m., he’ll have no idea what you’re upset about,” says Houpt. “Your dog really wants to see you, and if you punish him when he sees you, it will make him more anxious.”
2: Urinating and defecating
If your perfectly house-trained dog has started having accidents when left alone, he may have separation anxiety, says Houpt.
Again, it’s important not to punish your dog: He soiled the carpet because he was stressed, not disobedient. Any corrective measures will confuse him and result in more anxiety.
Some dogs with separation anxiety will “clean up” the mess on their own. Consuming excrement, also known as coprophagia, while left alone is one of the condition’s least charming symptoms.
3. Unusual pacing
If you have a nanny cam or home-security system, check in on your dog periodically. If he spends much of the day pacing, he could be suffering from separation anxiety. “They only do it when you’re not there,” says Houpt. “Many people think that their dog is annoyed with them, but when they see the pacing, they realize they’re upset.”
A dog with separation anxiety may pace in straight lines, circles, or a fixed path through the home.
4. Excessive barking
If your neighbors complain that your dog has a lot to say throughout the day, it could be a symptom of separation anxiety, says Houpt. Out-of-character or unusual barking is often a result of anxiety. For example, a habitually chatty beagle is likely to be vocal whether or not his family is home. But if your typically quiet Labrador is howling all afternoon, he could be stressed out.
To provide a tasty alternative to barking, Houpt suggests providing your dog with a long-lasting and especially delicious treat when you leave. Although you can get crafty with frozen peanut butter, there are plenty of specially designed treat toys and food puzzles on the market.
What you can do
Although separation anxiety is stressful for the entire family, the good news is that it’s very treatable with behavior-modification training, says Houpt.
But first, as always, you should consult your veterinarian about any troubling symptoms or changes in your dog’s behavior to rule out any medical problems that can cause anxiety-like behaviors.
A certified professional trainer or veterinary behaviorist can work with you to create a program that slowly acclimates your dog to being alone. “We teach the dog to be by himself, sometimes starting with five seconds at a time,” explains Houpt. “Gradually, he learns that you’ll come back and the world won’t end.”
While you work on training, Houpt recommends checking into doggy daycare. For severe separation anxiety, your veterinarian may prescribe medication in addition to behavior modification.