How to Deal with Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is an issue close to my heart since my dog, Buster, had horrible separation anxiety when I first rescued him. He's now 11 years old and still dealing with some low levels everyday, but it's nothing compared to the yelping, pacing, panting, shaking mess he was when I would leave a room for more than five seconds.
 He used to truly suffer from his anxiety and it was heartbreaking to watch.

If this is something you experience with your pet, have no fear! You can work on it with your pet and you can ease their fear. It takes baby steps and time, but I remember within a year, Buster was almost totally relieved of his once crippling symptoms. And within the first month or two, the worst of it had passed.

Does your dog have separation anxiety?

Does your dog:

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  • follow you around the house wherever you go?
  • display destructive behaviors while you're gone?
  • greet you ecstatically and frantically when you return?
  • get anxious or depressed when you start to leave?

If any or all of these symptoms sound familiar, your dog probably suffers from separation anxiety. Destructive behaviors might include scratching at doors, having accidents inside even though they are housetrained, howling and whining, or destructive chewing.

Maybe you just adopted a dog who exhibits these symptoms or maybe your companion you've had for years just started showing these symptoms. Both are caused by a few common occurrences:

  • Traumatic event - This can range from past abuse to a visit to a boarding facility, kennel, or vet; being put in a foreign situation can be scary for most dogs!
  • Change in routine - Maybe the dog is used to constantly being with a human but now someone in the home has a new job or relationship.
  • Major life event - Perhaps another dog companion in the home passed away, a new baby is in the home, or another life-changing event has occurred.

How to Deal

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  1. Baby steps - Pay attention to the things you do before you normally leave. Do you have a routine? When you are not going anywhere, perform this routine and secretly pay attention to your dog's behavior. Make your usual cup of coffee to go, grab those keys and your coat, and instead of leaving, sit on the couch. Desensitize this routine for your dog so that it produces less anxiety.
    Then, move on to leaving a room for a very short period of time. Go into the bedroom and close the door behind you. I found it is important that you first close off yourself rather than close off your dog into a room; this way you do not add the stress of being confined to being without you. Slowly you can work your way to leaving the home, but only for short periods of time. Eventually this will lead to a dog who doesn't mind a bit that you're leaving!
  2. Safe place - While working on the first step, begin to create a "safe place" for your dog to stay while you are gone. If your dog is not already crate trained or having major issues with the crate, this would not be a good place to start. A more open room you can section off would be appropriate. Instead of closed doors, opt for pet gates. If your dog is prone to have accidents, a room without carpeting would be best. Your dog should feel confined enough that he doesn't have a whole house to run around and feel responsible for, but not too confined that he starts to feel trapped. Maybe there is a window he can look through for fun distractions (or maybe there isn't a window in sight that he could territorially guard). Make sure there is comfortable bedding and water available in this safe place. A nice touch is to leave a "dirty" garment of your clothing or a blanket you've slept with - something that has your scent on it that your dog can have for comfort.
  3. Something to chew on - While you are gone, leave your dog in his safe place with something to do. Especially while you are leaving him alone for shorter periods of time in the first step, leave him with a high value treat. Then, when you come back and he hasn't finished, take it away. This associates your departure with a good yummy treat, while your return results in a sad removal of said treat. Now, your dog won't start to get depressed when you return since his love for you is already so strong. It simply reinforces that whether you are there or not, your dog can learn to be happy either way. Something that works well is a kong filled with a high value, smelly salmon treat or hot dog piece, surrounded by something that would take them a while to work on, like peanut butter or liver paste.
    Remember, once you get to a point where you feel like your pup has made some real progress, do not completely drop the routine of giving him this treat; you don't want your dog to fall back into his old ways. A chew is something that will keep him stimulated while your gone, which keeps his mind healthy!
  4. Quick goodbyes - It might be hard at first, but whenever you do leave your dog, do not have a crazy love fest of goodbyes. If your dog senses that you're making a big deal of your departure, he may become concerned. This reinforces his anxieties about you leaving. Instead, make your goodbye quick and simple. Don't get emotional! Choose a simple word that will be a "safe return" cue- a word or phrase that you start to say when you leave that means you will come back soon. When you work on the first step, reinforce this word with your treat. Say something like "See you soon" as you give your dog a treat, leave the room, then come back and remove the treat in a few minutes. If your dog hears "See you soon" as they get a treat, they will start to associate happy feelings with the phrase. They will start to learn that you come back when you say that, and it will help calm them as you are leaving. Dogs learn by association, so what better way to ease their anxiety than by training them to be calm and content when you say goodbye?
  5. Quick hellos - Following the last step, make sure your greetings when you return are simple and unemotional. You probably notice your dog likes to go bananas when you come back. Unfortunately, this is a symptom of his anxiety. While it feels nice to have someone miss you so much and greet you so effusively, it is actually feeding into his anxiety that you should be missed this terribly. Instead, say a quick hello, and ignore your pup for a while when you return. Continue going about your business, hanging up coats, setting down purses, putting away groceries, etc. Only give your dog a nice pet and some (calm) loving when you see they have calmed down as well. This way you're telling your dog that your relationship with him is based on calm, healthy happiness.
  6. Exercise - Make sure your dog is getting the exercise he needs daily. Especially in the morning before you leave, take him for a long walk. Research what kind of dog you have and how much exercise he needs daily. You know your dog better than anyone, but be realistic. Maybe your dog seems fine with only one 30 minute walk per day, but spend a weekend staying active with your dog to see his limits. Maybe he should really be getting two 30 minute walks and some time to play fetch. Exercise is great for enriching your dog's life, decreasing overall stress, and providing an appropriate outlet for normal dog behavior.
  7. If all else fails - Ask your vet! Perhaps there is an underlying condition your dog has that is causing his anxiety. Your vet might recommend calming supplements or in some extreme cases, anti-anxiety medication. Note: a good medication shouldn't sedate your dog; it should simply reduce his overall anxiety.
    Your dog might need visits from a dog walker while you are gone (like me!) or maybe he would benefit from daycare. If at all possible, taking your dog with you to work or on some errands would be great. This obviously is not possible in all cases.

What will NOT Help

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Punishment - Punishment will not be at all effective in treating separation anxiety. Dogs who are prone to this type of anxiety do not respond well to punishment. It will most likely make them sink into more anxious behavior and become more uneasy around you. Remember to stay calm, even if you come home and your dog has ruined your most prized possessions. Punishing your dog for something he did hours ago will NOT correct the behavior. The only effect it will have is fear and confusion. Your dog did not destroy your bed sheets out of revenge or spite for your departure. He did it out of panic. Punishment will only make the situation worse.

Positive reinforcement of calm, happy behaviors is the only way to bring your dog out of the anxiety from which he is suffering.