Question from Sue Michele Whitehouse

My 3 year old yorkie gets very destressed when left on his own howling and barking, neighbours complain so I try and take him wherever possible with me, but sometimes this isn’t possible and he can sense I am going out and starts getting upset before I even leave him………thanks
Hi Sue, and thank you for your question about your Yorkshire terrier. What you have described your dog as suffering from sounds very much like a condition known as Separation Anxiety. I will try to explain what separation anxiety is, how it affects dogs and some ways to try and combat it.

Answer from Shanika Winters MRCVS (online vet)

So what is Separation Anxiety?
Separation Anxiety (SA) as the name suggests is when your pet becomes worried and or distressed when alone. There are many ways in which dogs can show their distress including vocalising (barking and howling), chewing at furniture or themselves (often chew or lick at paws), toileting in the wrong place, pacing around, hiding, drooling and generally being miserable.

Why do some dogs suffer from Separation Anxiety (SA)?
As with most behaviour related problems there is not a definite explanation as to why a particular dog develops a condition such as SA but it may well be related to poor socialisation as a puppy or changes in the household. The peak socialisation period for a puppy is around 1-2 months of age, during this time it is really important that your puppy is exposed to lots of different people, animals, places and situations. Household changes can include: moving house, new family members, new pets and changes to family members daily routine such as starting a new job.

How to try and avoid Separation Anxiety?
It is really important to check that your dog is in good health and that you are not assuming a problem to be behavioural when an underlying medical condition exists. If you are in any doubt then take your dog to your vet for a full health examination and also to discuss treatment options. All dogs benefit from a good diet, fresh water, regular exercise and mental stimulation appropriate for its life stage. We assume that once dogs have grown up from being puppies that they are not as interested in playing, if you give your dog to opportunity to play you will realise how much they still love it. It can be helpful to make a weekly chart of games to play with your dog to remind you to keep things varied. Try and choose activities that you and your dog enjoy such as: fetching a ball, finding hidden treats, heel work, agility work, grooming, bathing and massage. It is also worth making sure your dog is slowly introduced to having time apart from you so that they can adjust gradually to longer periods of separation. Always make sure that your dog has had chance to toilet and has a safe comfortable place to rest.

It is also worth trying to reduce the triggers for your dog’s SA by leaving the house in a quiet and subtle way. By having your shoes, bag, coat and keys all ready and close to the exit it will be less obvious that you are leaving and hopefully less stressful for your dog. A lot of owners think that by making a fuss over their pet and explaining that they will be home soon they are helping SA but unfortunately this just acts another trigger for your dog to become stressed. It is more important to positively reinforce your dog’s good behaviour on your return home and never punish it for its distressed behaviour. I strongly believe that negative reinforcement does not help owner or dog.

Some pets also benefit from background noise such as having the television or radio on so the house is not so quiet and they feel less alone.

What can I get to help reduce the symptoms of Separation Anxiety?
Pheromones such as the DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) can help reduce anxiety in some dogs. Pheromones are chemicals that are specific to a particular species of animal, the DAP products (plug in diffuser, spray and collars) contains an artificial version of a pheromone that helps to relieve stress in dogs. Correct use of pheromones along with a change to how you approach leaving the house can help reduce SA.
Behaviour modifying drugs, these include Valium related chemicals and antidepressants can also help to reduce SA but must be used under the direction of your vet.

What do I tell the Neighbours?

It is worth talking to your neighbours and explaining that you are aware that your dog barking is really annoying for them and that you are working with your vet to try and reduce the problem. Most people will appreciate you acknowledging the problem and that you are working towards stopping it but that it will take time.

I hope that this answer has been helpful and that your dog manages to overcome his Separation Anxiety.
Shanika Winters VetMB MRCVS (online vet)

If you are worried that your dog is behaving strangely please see your vet or use our online symptom checker for guidance