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September 27, 2011 at 9:33 AMComments: 2 Faves: 0

Does Your Dog Suffer from Separation Anxiety?

By Victoria Swanson More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the Paws & Awws Blog Series

Separation anxiety is a common problem in dogs, but unfortunately, many dog owners have trouble identifying the issue, and those that do are often at a loss when it comes to helping their dog cope.

So, what IS separation anxiety and how can tell if your dog has this issue? I'd like to be clear that dogs don't "get even" or get mad at us when we leave them alone. However, they can't express their distress, so they show it through destructive or uncontrollable behaviors like: 

  • Following you from room to room
  • Barking,whimpering, or howling when you're gone
  • Chewing, digging, or scratching at doors to get to you
  • Destructive behavior when left alone
  • Urinating or defecating in the home despite being house-broken
  • Pacing or repetitive self-soothing behaviors such as obsessive licking

If any of these problems are followed with extreme drooling, pacing, or acting clingy as you prepare to leave, your dog is most likely experiencing separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety can be triggered by our everyday routines, so it's imperative to help ease your dog's anxiety of being left alone. This takes time and patience, and, unfortunately, there is no "quick fix" to this issue.

Tips and Training Methods:

First, Rule Out Any Medical Problems: Even a small ache or pain that we may be unaware of, can cause behavioral changes and anxiety in dogs, and the idea of being left alone with it can make dogs fearful. Our dogs can't use words to let us know they're not feeling well, so we must take these cues seriously. For this reason, it's important  the possibility of an underlying medical issue be ruled out by a vet, before we assume the problem is definitely separation anxiety.

Apply the "Nothing In Life is Free" Program: Excess physical and mental energy that goes unused can contribute to overall anxiety. To keep your dog engaged and build their self-confidence at the same time, have them earn everything they get from you: "Sit" and "Stay" to eat. "Down" to be petted and receive affection from you. "Sit" to go for a walk. Even a simple trick should be rewarded - just make sure your dog obeys a command to earn something back from you! Continue to reinforce this type of training. Practicing commands helps build your dog's confidence in their self and makes them more secure when you two are apart. As a trial run, try having your dog sit and then stay while you leave the room for a minute or two. Stagger the amount of time you are apart, so your dog does not anticipate long absences whenever you leave.

Keep Things Low Key: Dogs can sense the worry, guilt, and sadness in your voice. DO NOT make a big deal of coming home or leaving. Telling your dog in your best "baby-voice" that everything is going to be okay does NOT reassure your dog. It only makes them feel that something is wrong, and they begin to associate that feeling with you leaving them alone. Give your dog verbal cues when leaving like, "I'll be back" and say only that. Use a matter-of-fact tone in your voice, not your "baby-voice." When you return, keep it low key; ignore your dog for the first 5-10 minutes. Practice makes perfect. Keep absences that are less than 10 minutes long scattered throughout the day. After a while, build your dog up so they can handle being left alone for 30-90 minutes.

Work on Desensitization: Weekends are the best time to practice. Begin by engaging in your normal daily departure: grabbing your car keys, purse, putting your coat on, putting dog in crate, then sit back down. Repeat this step until your dog is relaxed when seeing you perform these activities. Next, perform step 1 again but this time go to the door, open it, and sit back down. Then, step outside the door, leaving the door open, then return. Finally, step outside, close the door, then return. Slowly get your dog accustomed to being alone with the door closed between you for several seconds.The number of repetitions will vary depending on the severity of the problem. If, at any time, your dog begins to show signs of distress, you have proceeded too fast. When your dog can tolerate your being on the other side of the door for several seconds, begin short-duration absences.

Natural Separation Anxiety Treatments for Dogs

  • Try using a "Body Wrap" sold and located online or at pet stores
  • Leave articles of clothing that smell like you with dog
  • Use the same toy only when you leave. This is a special toy for your dog which only comes out when you are leaving.
    • Use a Kong filled with peanut butter mixed in with your dog's food or dog treats (freeze the Kong)
  • Leave the radio or TV on to provide company. 
  • Try using one of the special "plug ins" which are sold at pet stores. They releases a chemical that is supposed to comfort a dog.
  • Check out this natural pet anxiety medicine - Anxietrex.

If the anxiety is severe and response to training is slow, consider visiting your local vet to talk about antidepressant medications or anxiety medications. Prescription medications have to be recommended by your vet and can take several weeks to start working, so be prepared and know that it's not a instant fix if you decide to try this route. Medication and training methods combined are very helpful when resolving these issues

Unfortunately this is a serious and difficult behavior to correct. Never discipline (spank, yell, or scream) your dog for being destructive while you are away, as this will only heighten your dog's anxiety issues and can only worsen the situation. Realistically, separation anxiety can take weeks or months to adjust, so be patient, consistent, and compassionate. Your dog needs your understanding during this difficult time. 

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  • I totally agree on not making a big deal out of leaving the house. We try to just depart without saying anything, which seems to be working just fine for our dog. We also use the kong filled with food and peanut butter then frozen... he loves it, and I don't think he even cares if we're there when he has that thing.

    Our boy is a pit-bull, jack russell mix, so he's definitely high-energy and can get a little rammy at times. I've found that the 'earning everything' method works great for this. He earns every meal ('kennel') and every drink ('sit... drink'). He earns every throw of the ball too ('drop it... sit'). He's not given the reward of food, drink, or throw until he's paying attention to us, typically direct eye contact.

    If he's flipping out or difficult to deal with, we offer him an ice cube, green bean, or popcorn but make him 'sit,' 'down,' or 'kennel' for it. Just saying the command word snaps him out of any crazy he's in, and the treat is always appreciated.

  • Thanks for the great Advice!

    I once had a neighbor whose dog would bark the entire time the owners were at work. It drove us crazy in the summer when the windows were down. Not wanting to offend we tried to just ignore it, but it was just too much. Finally I approached the neighbor and asked them to do something about their dog. My neighbor was shocked, they had no idea there dog was barking while they were gone. It was such a laid back dog and there was never anything out of place at the home. The neighbor made some adjustments to their schedule and brought an expert in for advice and within a matter of months there was no more barking.

    Often times people aren't even aware of the fact that their pet is distressed and being a problem.

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