TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — Dear Carla,
We have a 3-year-old Akita named Tasha who seems really anxious when we leave her alone. When she was a puppy, my wife and I had jobs where she was with one of us all the time. Now our jobs take us out of the home and we can’t always take her. She doesn’t destroy things, but we find puddles of drool and she’s overly excited when we come home. She also moves things like socks and shoes around the house. We love her very much and worry that she may have separation anxiety.
There are varying levels of severity when it comes to separation anxiety, ranging from nearly symptomless to very extreme. In the most extreme cases, dogs can hurt themselves and cause a lot of damage. A dog with milder symptoms may anxiously follow the owner around before they leave and may get into things during the day. One test I do to test for mild cases is to offer a tempting bone or treat when I leave. If it is untouched upon my return, I know the dog was stressed.
The first thing a fearful or stressed animal will do it stop eating. As we move up the spectrum toward more severe cases, a dog may whine or scratch at doors, bark constantly, chew up pillows or furniture, pant, pace, and in the most severe cases break teeth and rip nails as he tries desperately to escape.
In Tasha’s case, it sounds like she has mild to moderate anxiety. The drooling is a definite sign that she is stressed while you are away. Living with constant anxiety is not healthy and can cause other medical problems later on, so I would recommend addressing the problem. If possible, set up a video camera so you and a trainer can watch her behavior while you are gone. This will tell you if the problem occurs just when you leave or if it persists throughout the day.
To address separation anxiety, whether it is mild or more severe, we use a process called desensitization and counter-conditioning. Desensitization requires breaking down each small step in your routine and then working to change Tasha’s reaction to it. She starts observing you from the moment you wake up in the morning so see if the routine is going to lead to her being left alone. Each step in the process contributes to her increasing anxiety until it culminates with you leaving. The goal of counter-conditioning is to change her emotional reaction to stimuli. For example, picking up your keys may be a sign to her that you’ll be leaving so we work to make the act of picking of keys predict something good will happen.
If you are thinking that this will be a slow process, you are correct! It is something you will need help from a qualified trainer to accomplish and will take structure and commitment, but in the end you will have a more relaxed and happier dog.
Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at email@example.com.