There are few things more joyful in the world than giving a new home to a dog in need. While they’ve come a long way since their days as wild animals, dogs retain a strong pack instinct, which means that time spent isolated in shelters can be deeply stressful—no matter how caring the adoption center team may be.
Of course, social stress isn’t restricted to dogs looking for foster or forever parents. In fact, most dogs will experience anxiousness of some kind during their lives. Of all types of social stress, separation anxiety is among the most common, which can be defined as a hyper attachment to a member of the family, resulting in excessive negative behaviors when apart from that person.
However, if a dog has spent time in a shelter or other solitary environment, the chances of separation anxiety developing are far higher. Canine behavior experts aren’t completely sure exactly what triggers separation anxiety, but they know that the loss of an important person or group of people can be a major factor.
So, what can you do to help ease the transition for your new addition to the family?
Identifying separation anxiety
Canine behavior experts aren’t completely sure exactly what triggers separation anxiety, but they know that the loss of an important person or group of people can be a major factor.
Part of getting to know your new four-legged friend means finding out about their quirks. Your dog will have their own colorful personality, and may also have certain expectations of home life based on previous experiences and training.
Pups who are especially excited to have a new owner, or who aren’t used to indoor life, may exhibit unwanted behaviors such as:
- Barking and vocalization
- Pacing and head shaking
- Chewing, gnawing, and destructiveness
- Peeing indoors
The easiest way to determine whether the cause of these behaviors is related to separation anxiety is to monitor how your pet acts when they’re alone. An in-house camera, or simply sitting in another room across an open space from your dog, should give you an indication of whether these actions are connected to your presence.
This is worth doing, as what might first appear as separation anxiety may actually be an excess of energy due to the new surroundings your dog finds themselves in. More playtime, a few longer walks, and an extra dose of incentive training should help ease this.
If, however, these behaviors seem to increase when your dog senses that they’re alone (or about to be left alone) then it’s likely you have a case of separation anxiety on your hands.
When does ‘getting settled’ turn into a long-term issue?
Hopefully, both you and your new furry companion will be on a high after making your relationship official. It’s likely you’ll both want to spend as much time as possible together after adoption, and that’s great!
But how long should this honeymoon-type period last, and when is it a good time to start initiating a more normal routine? If your dog comes to expect constant attention from you, it may be harder for them to get used to your real day-to-day lifestyle and other responsibilities.
As well as making separation anxiety far more likely, clinginess in dogs can begin to impact on family life and the dynamics of a household. Some people may become less willing to engage in training and pet care if they feel that their efforts are not having any positive results.
If you want to see a good result from your training. The right tools can save you a lot of energy, time, and effort. When exercising, for instance, a waist-clip leash allows you to keep your hands free. Giving your pet treats as rewards keeps them motivated. Dog training pads or mats are used to teach your dogs to recognize territorial boundaries as well as provide them with a safe place to settle in. Good training tools can help minimize separation anxiety in dogs.
What can owners do to help?
Counter conditioning (but be careful with crate training)
Counter conditioning training is the practice of identifying triggers for anxiety and/or bad behavior and re-associating those triggers with a positive outcome (and hopefully good behavior.)
When it comes to separation anxiety, the classic example of this is your ‘leaving the house’ routine. Many anxious dogs will become attuned to signs that you may be about to leave for work or groceries. Jingling keys or opening the shoe closet can be more than enough to trigger panic.
Here, counter conditioning will involve countering associations to those actions or objects—so, jingling keys at random times of the day, or introducing new treats and toys when putting on shoes to leave. The ideal end result is one where your dog can’t wait for you to walk out of the door so that they can get their treat or another reward!
Often, training strategies for separation anxiety promote the use of crates, as a safe and private place for your dog to spend time when alone. It’s true that crates can work well, especially for dogs who value a quiet, dark space of their own, but it’s important to be mindful of any negative connotations a crate might bring up.
Whether due to time spent in shelters or inappropriate treatment with a past owner, many newly fostered or adopted dogs will not respond well to confined spaces and may panic if you try to crate them.
Work with an adoption center that has a well-established process
You only get one chance to give your new dog a forever home, and hopefully, your dog will only ever have to go through adoption a single time. That makes the way the adoption process especially important, and your adoption center should be on hand to help things go as smoothly as possible.
Ideally, shelters should have an adoption process with multiple stages, that begins with a period of objective assessment (by both you and the center) and ends with a lengthy period of support and communication post-adoption.
However it works with the shelter of your choosing, try to ensure you have an opportunity to ask questions about your dog's history and experience in previous homes, take them for multiple walks, and spend a good amount of time with them, one-on-one. Many shelters now also offer trial periods designed to ease your pup's transition into their prospective new home.
Seek professional support if needed
Taking on a dog should not be a solitary process, and no pet parent should feel obligated to go it alone, especially if their new pet is struggling to acclimate. Adoption centers, vets, and canine behavior specialists are all ready and willing to give you the knowledge and tools necessary to help your dog thrive.
If training isn’t progressing, they may also recommend anti-anxiety medications such as Paxil or CBD oil, which has been shown to produce anti-inflammatory / anti-anxiety effects.