Training & Behavior

Help for dogs with separation anxiety

A common complaint with dog pet parents are disruptive and destructive behaviors while they are away. Some of these may indicate boredom or lack of mental/physical exercise, while for some it may indicate anxiety, including separation anxiety.

sa dogWhat is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is distress a dog undergoes when separated from a certain individual, or individuals. Some dogs may have subtle signs of anxiety, while others may be in extreme distress. Signs of separation anxiety include: digging and scratching at doors or windows in an attempt to get to the person(s); destructive chewing; vocalizations such as whining, barking or howling; pacing, drooling and other signs of stress; escaping; and urination and/or defecation. Some dogs may also engage in copraphagia—eating their own excrement—something they may not do in the presence of their parent. Some extreme cases can result in self-injury.

It can be difficult to determine separation anxiety, so it’s important to set up a way to monitor the dog while you are away to see what is going on. Living in the digital age makes this relatively easy as there are built-in webcams and applications that allow for easy setup. By setting up a system you can then watch your dog for body language indicative of stress and evaluate if the dog is anxious, or simply bored while you are gone.

What Causes Separation Anxiety?
There is no single answer for why a dog may have or develop separation anxiety. Genetics may play a role, as may detachment issues (i.e., being weaned too early). Other causes include life changes (moving residences, losing a family member or other pet, or changes in regular routines), a traumatic event from the dog’s viewpoint, or being accustomed to never being alone and then suddenly being left alone.

How to Treat Separation Anxiety
First, it’s important to be patient. Understand that your dog isn’t trying to embarrass you or make your life awful. Punishment for any destruction or soiling can be very detrimental in treating the problem successfully. I never use punishment in training for any reason, and anxious dogs in particular should never be subjected to harsh, aversive training that is based on unscientific traditional or dominance-based methods. I highly advise obtaining professional help from a certified dog trainer, and/or dog behavior consultant, particularly in severe cases. Nothing can replace the help of a well-versed professional!

If your dog has mild separation issues, make your departures and arrivals uneventful. Ignore your dog for a few moments when you do come back home: get a drink of water, take care of other simple tasks first, and then say hi in a way that is friendly, but not over the top! Likewise, when you leave, you can say a simple goodbye, or I always say, “I’ll be back,” (Terminator-style, lol). Drawing less rather than more attention to your comings and goings is important.

Make sure you have project toys ready to keep him preoccupied when you leave; stuffed Kongs are a great option. Ten to fifteen minutes before you leave, give him a frozen, stuffed Kong and put on some soothing music (classical music is great, or I also recommend the music from Some dogs benefit from calming tools like Thundershirts, Rescue Remedy, ADAPTIL or ComfortZone diffusers/collars/sprays, aromatherapy sprays, or homeopathic supplements. You can read more about calming tools on a blog of mine here. Chewing items are important to consider: you want to use items your dog won’t hurt himself with, so don’t leave him with anything new that you haven’t tested. It’s important the dog has outlets for chewing, as it is relaxing for him, but you also want to ensure his safety.

Having a calm environment and using tools to help your dog relax is very important; by doing all this in advance of your departure, you can then get ready while he is busy with his Kong and draw less attention to yourself. However, to ensure that these items don’t become “triggers” for your departure, from time to time you will want to give him these items when you aren’t leaving. Triggers are items or situations that cause a dog to react in a way we do not want—so with separation anxiety, your routine for leaving can trigger anxiety in your dog. It’s important to render these triggers meaningless, so by picking up your keys and putting them back down periodically throughout the day, the dog sees that the keys don’t always signal that you are leaving. Repeat this process with your purse, jacket, briefcase or anything else in your routine that your dog may use to predict your departure.

For some dogs with separation anxiety, confinement may make the problem worse, so crating or confinement in a small room may not be a good idea. If you are worried about your dog being destructive, try managing the environment by using closed doors and gates as appropriate to limit your dog’s ability to roam in your home. Also pick up and put away items that are valuable or may be dangerous to your dog.

Practice smaller departures. Maybe don’t even leave at first; just touch your door knob or turn it slightly, on and off, throughout the day. This will also desensitize your dog to that being a trigger for your departure. You can then practice just stepping out the door, or staying outside for just a few seconds to minutes, then coming back in. Gradually doing this so that the dog isn’t too stressed is very important. You can then increase the time, decrease the time, and vary it as the dog can be comfortable while you are gone, to help him learn how to be alone.

Of course, it’s hard to manage this problem and do things very gradually if you have a regular 8 – 5 job, so you may need to get creative in managing the problem as you can treat it. Using dog walkers or friends to come by as needed to shorten the time alone is an alternative, especially in milder cases. Dog daycare may be a better option for some, or maybe you can take him to work with you. It’s important to do whatever possible to ensure the dog isn’t in distress on a daily basis, as stress will make it impossible to modify the behavior, so management is extremely important for success.

It’s important to do training that will help your dog gain confidence and independence. Clicker training cues such as sit-stay and simple tricks and games will go a long way in helping your dog build confidence. If your dog sticks to you like Velcro when you’re home, honing a good sit-stay and using some gates as barriers to gradually help them learn to be physically separated from you while you are with them, will help them cope when you are ultimately gone.

Likewise, if you walk your dog and do some basic training drills done before you are going to leave, he will have less energy to be anxious while you are gone! Physical as well as mental stimulation is important for a well-tired dog who can rest while you are away.

Consider your dog’s diet as well. Commercial diets are filled with ingredients that can make things worse for your dog. Fresh diets (raw or dehydrated raw, home cooked meals) are ideal, or at the very least, kibble/wet foods that are made using all-natural ingredients with no preservatives/artificial colorings or additives, are very important. Read the labels! Whole Dog Journal and are great sources of information about how to properly evaluate dog foods and understand your dog’s nutritional needs.

For extreme cases, especially where natural calming aids and management tools may not be enough to reduce stress to have success in behavior modification, a consult with a vet who specializes in behavior modification and medicines may be necessary. Pharmaceutical intervention is not always needed but may very well be helpful, depending on the severity of the anxiety and the individual dog.

Other Resources
There are two books I can recommend concerning separation anxiety: Nicole Wilde’s Don’t Leave Me! Step-by-Step Help for Your Dogs and Patricia McConnell’s I’ll Be Home Soon!: How to Prevent and Treat Separation Anxiety.

The Importance of Professional Help
While I hope this article is a good resource for anyone with questions about dog behavior and training, it does not replace the need for a qualified professional. Please do not try to go it alone if you have worries about your dog’s health and well-being. We have many great positive reinforcement trainers and behavior consultants in the greater Denver area, and throughout Colorado. I am happy to help you find a qualified professional who will treat you and your dog with the respect you deserve. Feel free to contact me for help.

Thank you!
Laura McGaughey
Owner, Delightful Doggies


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