We recently adopted a two-year-old male dog from a rescue shelter. He is a Pomeranian/Fox Terrier mix and was neutered and housebroken when we got him. Five people live in our home and he has become a very loving, happy, and content member of the family. The problem is, when left home alone, he barks, howls, damages shoes left on the floor, gets into the trash, and sometimes poops in the house. When family members come home he is so happy he will bark and jump up and down, especially with my wife. The rescue shelter told us he was crate trained, but we are hesitant to put him in it when he is being left alone. Can you explain his behavior and offer any suggestions?
— Norman Hershek, Coopersburg, Pennsylvania
Your happy go-lucky dog is suffering from separation anxiety. It’s sort of like a human panic attack, except people don’t destroy the house and dogs do. It happens when a dog’s family leaves the house and he becomes anxious for his family’s return. He will pant, pace, whine, bark, get into the trash, destroy things and defecate in the home, just as you describe.
There are things you can do to help him.
Because separation anxiety usually occurs within the first 30 minutes of someone leaving, give your dog something to do during that time. Fill up a Kong toy with wet food and freeze it. First, give it to your dog while you are still at home. The next day, give it to him about 10 minutes before you leave the house. (Never give it to him as you are leaving the house.) Don’t make a big deal about leaving. Just grab your keys, walk out the door, and drive around the block. Walk back into the house 10 minutes later. Say “hi,” and walk past your dog. Don’t gush over him or give into any enthusiastic greeting. In fact, don’t greet him until he is calm. He will likely go back to his food treat, which is what we want him to do.
Add five minutes to this activity every day until you are away from home for up 60 minutes with no damage to the home. This training should reassure him that it’s okay for you to be gone and keep his mind busy when you are away. If your dog needs more help during this training period, use plug-in pheromones in the home or ask a vet about anti-anxiety medications.
You mention the crate, and that is certainly an option. My dogs have all been crate-trained; it’s a great management tool. But dogs who suffer from separation anxiety can also hurt themselves in a crate. So, if you decide to try the crate, test out the crate with the same training techniques used above, so you can be sure he’s not destroying the crate or hurting himself when you leave the house.
Finally, we often train our dogs to “sit” and “stay,” but very few of us train our dogs to “relax.” This means not calling your dog or waking him up when he is in another room – content without you. Reward him with a treat when he is relaxed, and pay him little attention when he is too enthusiastic in his greeting. It sounds counterintuitive, but it really does help reduce anxiety when you are gone.
Cathy M. Rosenthal is a longtime animal advocate, author, columnist and pet expert who has more than 25 years in the animal welfare field. Send your pet questions, stories and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, city, and state. You can follow her @cathymrosenthal