Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety (SA) is a serious condition in which a dog becomes upset when his guardian leaves his/her sight. There is an over attachment to the person(s) around him. Quite often this behavior issue is seen in puppy mill dogs, abused dogs and/or re-homed dogs. Dogs that have SA are not being destructive “out of spite”. Dogs do not have that emotion. They are experiencing a true panic attack. Milder forms of this is referred to as separation or isolation distress. Either way, a dog requires immediate assistance. The overall goal is to build a dog’s confidence up while re-teaching or conditioning him/her to the idea of being left alone. Dogs are the most social animal on earth and all too often they are de-socialized by being locked behind doors along all day. It is our responsibility as their guardians to offer them help. The behavior modification required for separation anxiety takes time; however, the rewards are priceless.


Common Symptoms

House soiling, destructiveness to the house (usually at doors) and/or to himself. Barking, howling, etc. Similar to how people bite their nails, smoke, drink, in order to relieve their tension – a dog becomes destructive. Many dogs that have SA are called “velcro dogs” they follow the person everywhere. The separation and departure of the person is the trigger.

Symptoms of SA often become worse after a weekend, a holiday, or a life change such as a move. This is referred to as “Monday Blues”. SA does not get rectified either by scolding or getting another animal. These typically exacerbate the issue. The anxiety is a direct result of the human / animal bond. In many cases, the bond is a big piece of the puzzle. In other words, if a person is stressed, their dog picks up on that emotion and becomes stressed as well. Far too many of my clients that have dogs that are struggling with this condition have anxiety themselves. Address any emotions that you are experiencing. This will facilitate the training. Dogs are masters of reading body language.


What Not to do!

The problem is usually heightened by the way that a guardian initially deals with the issue.

Punishment is counterproductive

People become angry or frustrated that their dog has soiled or destroyed items in the house. This just compounds the dog’s anxiety about being left alone. In addition, it creates fear and anticipation of how the guardian will react to him/her when they return.

  • It’s the same thing as screaming at a crying baby.
  • If you want your dog to learn successfully then you must eliminate any and all reprimands.

The successful rehabilitation of SA dogs requires a threefold approach:

  • Time/Patience
  • Take your dog’s perspective
  • Desensitization and Counterconditioning

If your dog has even a mild case of a of crate anxiety, opt for leaving him/her in a dog-proof room rather than creating another problem. Dogs w/ SA usually do better in a crate but not always.

Implement calming tools such as cbd oil, herbs, calming collars, etc. This program will take time, especially if it has been going on for quite some time; however, there is an excellent prognosis for treating SA!

If the behavior has been going on for a while, then expect that it will take a while for it to even begin to be rectified. Keep on track and make sure you work as slowly as possible. There has always been a higher success rate with clients that work slower. Your goal for your dog should be my mom/dad is gone … yippie!!!! Time for some fun and games!


A few points to keep in mind before/during and always:

  • Short term protection of property for dog’s safety and yours.
  • Give your dog and yourself different expectations about what being left alone means.
  • Relieve the dog’s anxiety via a multitude of tactics.

40% of dogs with separation anxiety demonstrate an improvement when guardians mildly ignore their dog 15 mins before leaving and upon arrival. This is not easy; however, it does help to yield a more well-adjusted dog.
Don’t make a big deal about your departure – just leave without emotion or commotion.

Exercise – Dogs need more of it mentally and physically. Remember – A tired dog is a less stressed one. Get outside


Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning

As with any form of behavior modification, it’s paramount to always work below your dog’s threshold. In other words, work with your dog so as not to elicit anxiety. Your goal is to get your dog to work at a level where they can grasp what you are trying to teach. As a result, you will be conditioning them and there will be a positive shift in their behavior.

You will need to get your dog used to you leaving at a slow pace and do this when you are actually NOT leaving. They are referred to as “Mock Departures”. All this means is that you are pretending you are leaving when in reality you are not. BUT, you need to assess the entire process of you leaving. What EXACTLY are you doing? Dogs are wonderful observers, so they know every nuance of what you do, what it sounds like, what it smells like, way BEFORE you actually leave. Be mindful of what your departure cues are. That means, sit down and write all of the things you do before you leave. You may want to write it down as you do them. Once this is done, break them down and desensitize your dog to them. When desensitizing you do NOT want to elicit any anxious behaviors. If you do, stop and go back to the place where the dog feels calm. Examples of departure cues below:

  • Put your shoes on, take them off.
  • Pick up your keys while you are making dinner and put them down.
  • Open the garage door and close it.
  • Put your hand on the door and walk away from the door.
  • Pick up your purse, jacket, bag, etc. and put it down.

ADDITIONAL STRATEGIES

Once this is done w/ success, begin to teach your dog to accept being alone. Do this for short periods of time and when YOU ARE HOME. Do all of the “departure cues” that are applicable to you, then leave, ignore and remain out for 1 min. Repeat and GRADUALLY increase the time 1 week at a time. Video – taping is very useful with this type of condition. It is also useful to incorporate these key components as well while you are doing the training:

  • Give a stuffed/frozen Kong 10 mins before leaving
  • Leave radio on
  • Use an activity ball or a safe mental stimulation toy that dispenses food intermittently. NO bully sticks or Nyla Bones
  • Use homeopathic / flower essences: Rescue Remedy, Star of Bethlehem Rock Rose, etc.
  • Independent Training – teach dog to get used to being in house while guardian is there. But at a distance. This would be an appropriate time to teach the “wait” cue.
  • Teach your dog to accept being away from you for a short period, while still seeing you of course and being praised for calm behavior.