Shih Tzu Separation Anxiety – how to cope


What is Separation Anxiety?

Previously known as “owner absent behaviour”, separation anxiety is the intense fear, panic and distress shih tzu (or any other breed of dog) may experience when their owner or owners leave them alone in the house for any length of time from a few minutes to several hours.

Up to 14% of dogs in total are thought to have suffered from separation anxiety but for the smaller breeds this percentage rises somewhat. Shih tzu in particular were bred as companion dogs and as such are in need of constant attention, which means the chances are high that you will have to deal with shih tzu separation anxiety at some stage, most likely when as a puppy.

Shih tzu separation anxiety
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Our domesticated dogs are descended from wild dogs that lived in packs with a social hierarchy that helped ensure their survival. Nowadays our pet shih tzu still instinctively think of themselves as part of a pack with us, the owners, as the leaders. They depend upon social interactions with us to feel comfortable, happy and relaxed. When we suddenly go out and leave them on their own, without any idea of if we will be returning or not, it’s no wonder when anxiety sets in.

Consequences of Shih Tzu Separation Anxiety

While you are absent your stressed out shih tzu may indulge in certain undesirable behaviours such as incessant loud barking and whining, chewing things like furniture legs, shoes and his own tail or paws and urinating or defecating in inappropriate places in the home. None of this is done out of malice, they are not acts of revenge on you for leaving him alone, it is just simply because he is distressed and doesn’t know what to do.

This condition does need addressing, however, as any dog that is scared and under stress, no matter how well trained otherwise, can suddenly channel these feelings into aggression causing damage to property or, worse still, harm himself or others. For these reasons you need to train your shih tzu to behave properly with you and while you are gone.

But fear not, there is no need for you to become anxious over your shih tzu’s separation anxiety. With the proper training this fear and distress when you leave can be overcome eventually, no matter how severe.

Diagnosis of Shih Tzu Separation Anxiety

When you first notice you shih tzu puppy or dog behaving unusually and inappropriately and you suspect separation anxiety disorder is present, you will need to eliminate all other possibilities first to ensure that it is, in fact, separation anxiety and not something else.

For example, if your shih tzu is house trained and he suddenly starts peeing around the house, then it is not likely to be separation anxiety but a medical condition such as a urinary infection. Or he could be relieving himself because he hasn’t been taken out for hours and he just can’t hold on anymore. If in doubt, consult your vet.

Or, again if he hasn’t been taken out for a walk for some time, he could just be chewing cushions and shoes or running around the house, accidentally knocking things over in the process, while he works off the excess energy he has from the lack of exercise.

If  he starts barking suddenly, it could be that he has been startled by a loud noise or a stranger passing close by.

Some puppies and dogs actually learn to simulate separation anxiety in order to manipulate a reaction from you and gain your undivided attention. It is important that you learn the difference between this behaviour and true separation anxiety.

Symptoms of Shih Tzu Separation Anxiety

If your shih tzu exhibits any of the behaviour such as that listed above only sporadically then he probably doesn’t have separation anxiety. However, if he is misbehaving in your absence on a constant day-to-day basis and he makes an exaggerated fuss every time you leave from and return to the home, then separation anxiety is the likely diagnosis.

Typically, when your separation anxiety affected shih tzu knows you’re going to leave him alone, he’ll go into a panic and make a big fuss, probably follow you from room to room possibly whimpering or whining or trembling and he may even try anything he can to prevent you from leaving, such as sitting on your shoes to prevent you from putting them on or lying in front of the door in an attempt to stop you from opening it. In extreme cases he may become more aggressive and actually do something like clamp his teeth on your trouser leg and try to pull you back.

After you have left, usually for the first twenty to forty minutes, there will be a period of inappropriate behaviour which could take several forms. There could be a bout of incessant, loud barking; there could be a destructive session which may include the of chewing objects such as furniture legs, cushions or shoes, or it may include urinating and defecating around the home in inappropriate places, even if he is house trained. He may lose his appetite and not eat his food. Some self-harm may occur in the form of chewing his own paws or risking injury by spinning and chasing his own tail. He may try and escape by scratching and chewing at doors, walls and windows. Your shih tzu may perform any of these actions just because he is scared and distressed over the fact that you are gone and doesn’t know if you are coming back.

When you return home your dog will be very pleased to see you and will make a fuss over you for some time. A well-balanced, happy shih tzu will greet you for a period of around a few seconds up to a minute but a separation anxiety affected dog will continue with his over-enthusiastic welcome for much longer before calming down somewhat.

Causes of Shih Tzu Separation Anxiety

Shih tzu separation anxiety can develop early especially in puppies that are taken away from their mothers and litter siblings at too early an age. This is especially true of puppies not sourced from a reputable breeder. The puppy is taken away from his mother and familiar surroundings before he is fully weaned and then kept in a box or a cage for perhaps several weeks until sold. Lack of socialization and lack of adequate exercise causes much distress. Then, when sold, the puppy has to go through another upheaval when he is taken to his new home and new family. It’s no wonder then, that once he is settled in and familiar with his new owners and new surroundings, that he becomes anxious and scared that he is going to lose it all again.

Even puppies from reputable breeders can be susceptible to separation anxiety if left alone for hours a day at too early an age. Ideally a puppy should be at least eight months old before being left alone. In the real world, people have to go to work and to school, they have to go shopping and run errands and they have no choice but to leave their shih tzu puppies alone for periods of time. The chances of the possible onset of separation anxiety in these circumstances can be minimised by some preparation work and training. For more information on puppies, see the “Prevention of Shih Tzu Separation Anxiety” section below.

Bruno showing no signs of separation anxiety.
Bruno on the bed, definitely not stressed!

We, the owners, can at times be apportioned some of the blame for developing separation anxiety in susceptive dogs. Your shih tzu, being one of the more intelligent breeds, will monitor all of your actions and learn the routine you undergo whilst preparing to leave the home. So, when he sees you put your shoes on or put your coat on or pick up your keys he will start getting excited and anxious. Similarly, when you return, your shih tzu with separation anxiety will be overcome with emotion and excitement on seeing you again.

It is natural to us humans to think that by following our instincts and joining in with all of the fuss and commotion in these situations that we are comforting our dogs and calming them down. In fact, if we do that we are doing totally the opposite. We are teaching our dogs that at our departure and arrival times working ourselves up into a distressed and anxious state is the correct way to behave. Continuing in this manner at departure and arrival times will make this behaviour even more intense. This problem needs to be addressed.

Another factor that can contribute to separation anxiety is exercise, or rather, the lack of exercise. If, before you leave the home, your shih tzu has not been out for a brisk walk of at least twenty minutes then he is going to be full of pent up energy that he is going to work off inside the home.

Though not an actual cause of separation anxiety, your shih tzu’s sense of time and how long you have been away can exacerbate their distress at your absence.  Of course, dogs don’t understand hours, minutes and seconds but they can sense how far through the day we are from the position of the sun and certain noises they hear at certain times of day. Your shih tzu can also sense how long you have been away from the diminishing strength of your scent around the home. Although a shih tzu’s sense of smell is far inferior to that of, for example, a bloodhound, it is still good enough to detect the length of your absence and add to the intensity of his separation anxiety should he be suffering from it.

If you happen to have a rescue shih tzu, dogs that have come from shelters are even more prone to suffer from the discomfort of separation anxiety. Not only have they been through the separation issues a puppy has to go through but they have also been parted from the leader of the pack, that is their previous owner. Apart from this they may be grieving if their previous owner has passed away or they have may been abused and abandoned or their previous owners may have given them up simply because they could not cope with the demands of looking after a dog. Whatever happened in a rescue shih tzu’s past, it all contributes to separation anxiety that is likely to lead to behavioural problems. You may never be able to completely correct these problems in a rescue shih tzu but you can work to lessen their impact.

Treatment of Shih Tzu Separation Anxiety

As I said previously in this post, you need first to diagnose that it is separation anxiety that your shih tzu is suffering from and not some other medical condition. Again, if in doubt, consult your vet. Your vet may even recommend some training exercises for you and your dog to complete, either at home or in classes; in extreme cases he may even refer you to a behavioural specialist or even prescribe an antidepressant such as fluoxetine to get your shih tzu through the worst of his separation anxiety. If he is prescribed such medicine it will only be for a temporary period until traditional training methods begin to alleviate the condition. If you don’t like the thought of giving your dog such drugs there are calming pheromone releasing diffusers available specially made for destressing dogs. These are also available in the form of a wearable jacket.

There are things you can do at home to reverse the symptoms of separation anxiety and perhaps, after time, eradicate them altogether. This involves training your shih tzu to cope with your absence and certain psychological strategies to help him be comfortable with being home alone.

The first thing to know about treating shih tzu separation anxiety is NEVER to punish your dog for his actions. Remember, a dog always wants to please the leader of the pack, you, the owner and any inappropriate behaviour is acted out of panic and distress and not because your shih tzu wants revenge or to display any malice towards you.

For the sake of discussion, we can split the separation anxiety day into three sections. When you depart for work or school, the time your shih tzu is home alone and the event of your arrival back home. I’ll deal with departure first.

So, your shih tzu picks up the signs that you are about to leave and starts making a fuss and you know from earlier in this post that the worst thing you can do is make a fuss back. You should just ignore him and leave without even saying “goodbye” and conquer the urge to pick him up and give him a cuddle before you go.  If you need to show affection to you your shih tzu make sure you do this no closer than twenty minutes before you leave.

There are things you can do to reduce the amount of fuss he makes when you leave. A good thing to do is to observe which are the signs of you leaving it is that he picks up on. Whether it’s putting on your shoes or your coat, picking up your keys, any combination of these or something else, if you start performing these actions several times during the day without leaving the house then your dog will become more comfortable when you do this and not associate these actions with your departure.

As well as this, you can train your shih tzu to sit calmly as you leave. Say the command “sit”, pass your arm over his head and gently push his bottom down to the sit position, When he does assume the sitting position give him a reward. I suggest you make the reward one of those rubber toys that you can stuff full of treats or part of his daily food that he has to work out how to remove from the toy. This will not only make him start to associate your departure with a pleasurable experience in place of a stressful one, but it will also keep him occupied beyond that crucial first forty minutes after you have gone. Repeat this routine every time you depart and eventually he will sit calmly on command.

A good thing to do at least an hour before you leave if you can make the time is to take your shih tzu for a brisk walk of at least twenty minutes duration. This action will use up any excess energy your shih tzu may have and make him more prone to have a nice, peaceful sleep in that crucial first forty minutes after you have left. Not only that, he will have had the opportunity to pee and poo making it much less likely that there will be any “accidents” around the house for you to find when you come back later. If you really don’t have or cannot make the time to walk your shih tzu before you leave for the day then consider the services of a professional dog-walker to take him out while you are away. Of course, this would need to be somebody you trust with your dog and your dog trusts, otherwise the anxiety will become worse for both of you.

While you are gone, your shih tzu should have a corner or section of a room to be his own. A part of the home that is his to relax in, whether you are there or not. This area may include a window but this depends upon your dog. Some dogs find relief from boredom and mental stimulation by sitting and watching the world go by through the window while others may bark and scratch at the window for most of the day in a vain attempt to be reunited with their owner. You may have to experiment to find out if your shih tzu is happier with a window or without one.

This sectioned off territory for your shih tzu can be enclosed with baby gates if you don’t want him wandering around the rest of the house while you are gone, alternatively you could use a large, child’s playpen but whatever you choose the area needs to be furnished with certain basic requirements. This is much better and much more humane than, as some owners do, keeping your dog locked in a crate alone all of the day. Yes, some dogs do take to being a crate quite well and there’s nothing wrong with that – just as long as they are free to come and go from the crate. Confining a dog to a crate that doesn’t want to be confined to a crate will only serve to dramatically increase the panic, stress and anxiety levels.

Shih tzu feeling at home in an open crate.
ID 17446633 © Willeecole | Dreamstime.com

The main thing your shih tzu must have in his area is a soft, comfortable and warm bed, preferably of the type that has raised sides; some experts think that this type of bed offers a dog a greater sense of security and lessens the stress factor. A fleece blanket for the bed would be a positive addition. If you were to place a sock or a t-shirt or other article of clothing that you have recently worn in the bed your scent will comfort your shih tzu while you are gone.

As your shih tzu may be confined to this area there also needs to be adequate water and food to last at least until you come home, perhaps a little more in case you are unexpectedly late. This water and food, especially the water, needs to be in stable, spill-proof bowls or in dispensers. If my two boys are anything to go by, shih tzu are not greedy dogs and only eat what they need, so there is no need to worry about them over-eating.

Of course, if they are going to eat and drink, they are going to need somewhere to pee and poo, so place some newspaper or a puppy training pad within the enclosure but away from the bed and eating areas.

To prevent boredom, your shih tzu needs to have something to occupy his mind while he is alone. To this end a basket full of his favourite, most colourful toys, particularly ones that he can interact with, should also placed inside his area. One such toy could be the aforementioned rubber one that holds those hard-to-get-at treats. Another good toy to add to the basket would be one of those available that is fitted with a device that simulates a heartbeat; these toys have been found to be very effective at comforting dogs with separation anxiety.

You may also like to experiment with leaving on the television or radio tuned to a station that broadcasts programs with tones that your dog will find soothing; avoid programs that have loud music or people shouting aggressively. There are also CDs available especially recorded to play sounds aimed at calming dogs. Leaving a light on during dark hours may also help.

Arriving back home requires from you the same self-discipline that was necessary when you left. That is, when your shih tzu, who may have been scratching at the inside of the front door and barking on sensing your approach, begins to jump up excitedly at you when you open the door and enter the home that you, at first, completely ignore him. Any response to his overzealous welcome will reinforce his pack mentality tuned-in brain that this is the correct behaviour for whenever you walk back in through the front door. By ignoring him for the first few minutes he will eventually realise that staying calm is the correct behaviour when you come home.

Give it a few minutes, go through whatever routine you would normally do when you come home after a day at work, take your coat off, take your shoes off, put your slippers on, make a cup of tea or whatever it is you do. Then sit down and call over your shih tzu; now is the time that you can greet each other in a more sedate atmosphere and it won’t seem to him like such a big event to become stressed over. This arrival routine repeated every time you return home will eventually play a huge role in diminishing your shih tzu’s separation anxiety.

Lastly with regards to treatment, some people think that the introduction of a second dog into the household will alleviate the loneliness and reduce the separation anxiety endured by the original dog. This is probably NOT going to work as the original dog is not going to view the second dog lower down in the pack order as a replacement for the leader of the pack, the owner. I know in a previous post I mentioned that I had bought Charlie successfully to keep Bruno company while I am out but Bruno, thankfully, wasn’t suffering from separation anxiety.

Shih tzu separation anxiety therapy
ID 71382198 © Photosbaf | Dreamstime.com

Prevention of Shih Tzu Separation Anxiety

It is possible to nip any leanings towards separation anxiety in the bud at the puppy stage but it does need A LOT of  time commitment  and patience from you, the owner.

As explained earlier in this article, your new shih tzu puppy will have already undergone at least one major trauma being separated from his mother and litter siblings. To avoid further stress and the possible development of separation anxiety your puppy needs to be trained from the moment he joins your household.

First of all, you have to avoid the overwhelming temptation to cuddle and pet your puppy at the times they are excited such as when you are leaving a room. You must only cuddle and pet them on your terms.

Set up a section of the room to become your puppy’s safe and secure area as depicted in the “Treatment of Shih Tzu Separation Anxiety” section above. The colourful, interactive toys you place in his area will help develop his mental skills, confidence and self-control which will all come in useful when he is finally ready to be home alone.

The training begins by getting your puppy used to you leaving the room without him getting excited. Start by leaving the room for just a few minutes. Before you leave the room, go through giving out your departure signs as previously discussed in this article. As you leave the room teach your puppy to “sit” and “stay” on command. This could take some time but when he eventually understands and complies with your commands, give him a reward of a treat or a toy; it’s important to vary the reward. When you come back into the room ignore any excited behaviour and command your puppy to sit again. When he does, reward him again.

You will  need to repeat these actions many times, gradually increasing the time interval that you are away from the room. Leave enough time between leaving exercises for your shih tzu to calm down. When you are up to around twenty minutes away from the room you can think about leaving through the back door if you have one and then progressing to the front door. Of course, once you can leave through the front door, as long as you are back in the time frame, you can pop down the shop for a pint of milk or whatever you need. You need to be back within the time frame because of what I said previously in this post about your scent becoming weaker the longer you are away.

As the time you are away increases you can cut down the repeats to just a few per day. Ideally, try to synchronise these exercises with the times you would leave anyway. You will need to build up the time you are away to around an hour and a half to two hours before you can safely leave your shih tzu alone for a typical eight hour working day. Up until then, for the entire time that you are patiently persisting with this training, if you have to leave the room for longer than the time interval stage you have progressed to, you will need to take your shih tzu with you to avoid any chance of separation anxiety setting in.

During the period of this training your shih tzu puppy will also need to be socialized to ensure he develops a stable mind and is comfortable with life. So, with this in mind, when you are house training him and taking him for, ideally, his twice daily walks, take him somewhere where there are plenty of other people and people walking dogs. With care, and I would keep him on a training leash and harness for this so that you can pull him away if necessary, allow him to socialize with other clean and friendly looking dogs. If you cannot do this, or in addition to this, take him to training classes where there will be other dogs under control for him to socialize with.

Final Words on Shih Tzu Separation Anxiety

Whilst shih tzu separation anxiety is a problem that needs to be dealt with it isn’t the end of the world. Follow our guidelines and you will go a long way to preventing, diminishing or even eradicating the fear and distress your shih tzu goes through while you are away. If you are still anxious to know what he gets up to when you’re not there, there are some great, webcams on the market now that are specially designed so that you can remotely interact with your dog.

If you do have a shih tzu with separation anxiety, I wish you both all the best for a calmer future. Please feel free to leave a comment or contact us.

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