More than many other breeds, Cocker Spaniels tend to attach themselves to someone in the home and become very anxious when they leave. Many breeders recommend that Cocker Spaniels aren't a good choice for those households that are empty for the majority of the day, but even in those cases where a member of the family works from home, a Cocker could become abnormally upset during an absence - after all, even those working from home must leave the house from time to time! It is important to note that not every Cocker Spaniel will have this problem, but if your Cocker becomes unnaturally upset when left alone and exhibits destructive behavior, he might be suffering from Separation Anxiety.
What is separation anxiety?
First, it is important to understand that separation anxiety is not the dog's way of getting back at being left alone, nor is it a manifestation of love for his owner. Instead, separation anxiety is a panic disorder. It won't occur in every dog, or in every Cocker Spaniel, but some factors early in its life might help increase the risk in developing separation anxiety if the dog is predisposed to become unnaturally dependent. Puppies that are weaned too early or miss out on proper socialization could develop SA, while some dogs with abusive histories could develop it as well. It can occur in multi-pet homes, and it could happen later in a dog's life if the owners' schedules have drastically changed or the household has moved.
Separation anxiety can manifest itself in a number of ways. In very mild cases, a dog might gather a few of his owner's possessions and curl up with them, or rearrange some items around the house in order to relieve some of the mental tension. In the worst cases, the dog may panic if he can't even see his owner, following her from room to room. Other dogs may be able to amuse themselves on their own as long as they know the owner is still in the house. Some dogs may become anxious the moment the owner leaves the house, while others will be calm for a certain amount of time and begin to feel anxiety after a certain period of time.
Once the dog begins to panic, he can express it in many different ways, from whining and pacing to barking and howling. Some dogs will urinate or defecate, others will destroy items in the home, and some may even hurt themselves. When the owner comes back, these dogs usually have an overexcited response such as running in circles, whining or urinating, and this behavior sometimes lasts an unnaturally long time, whether the owner has been gone for an hour or five minutes.
What can you do?
If you suspect that your Cocker Spaniel is suffering from separation anxiety, the first thing to do is to consult your veterinarian. The vet may wish to run a few tests first to determine that the dog isn't suffering from any medical problems such as a urinary tract infection or a thyroid problem. The vet may suggest starting a regimen of anti-anxiety medication and behavioral modification exercises. For those that are concerned about medicating their pets, there are also herbal remedies available that you can try. Your vet may be able to give you some exercises you can do with your dog, or refer you to a pet behaviorist or a trainer that can help you. While the medication will help calm your dog and help him to concentrate, it is the exercises that will retrain the dog to have normal responses while you are out of the house.
Always remember that your dog isn't trying to exact revenge on being left alone. Punishing him will only increase his anxiety and confuse him. Consult your vet and do the best you can to help your dog. Separation anxiety can be frustrating for everyone involved, but with proper training and patience this disorder can be dramatically improved.