By Laura Pakis
The term “separation anxiety” is often misunderstood. True clinical separation anxiety is not common. Consult your veterinarian to get a correct diagnosis.
What is It?
Separation anxiety in dogs is the fear or dislike of isolation, which often results in undesirable behavior. Separation anxiety is one of the most common causes of canine behavioral problems.
If your dog follows you around room to room, becomes anxious even if a closed door separates you, dislikes spending time alone outdoors, and acts depressed or anxious when you are getting ready to leave the house then your dog may have minor separation anxiety.
If, however, you are having destruction of property (especially around doors or windows), howling and barking, urination and defecation, then it is probably severe separation anxiety. Prescribed drugs are sometimes used as a temporary measure along with the behavior modification program. Severe cases require a behavior modification program and desensitization to being alone. This usually takes a very long time.
When left alone, most dogs find a familiar spot and go to sleep. However, a dog suffering from separation anxiety will become extremely anxious. Separation anxiety occurs when a dog becomes distressed over the absence of other pack members - human or canine. Not understanding where you or your family has gone or if you will ever return. Your dog’s way of expressing anxiety over your absence may include chewing, barking, salivating, urinating, defecating, vomiting, self-mutilation or escape behavior such as chewing through walls, scratching through doors, busting out of cages or digging under fences (if left outdoors). In some cases, the dog simply gets sick, perhaps due to some form of depression.
Often it is the exits and entrances to the home that the dog targets for destruction. The destruction is not an attempt to seek revenge on the owner for leaving, but is actually a panic response. It can be compared to humans suffering from panic attacks. So even if the physical signs are not obvious, the psychological stress can be severe. To help your dog overcome this normal response, we need to progress gradually and slowly to minimize the stress. Your goal is to help your dog accept separation without stressing in the first place and to remain calm during prolonged separation.
What Can Cause It?
Dogs need to be properly conditioned to being left alone. Separation anxiety can sometimes happen when:
- The dog has never or rarely been left alone
- After going away to a boarding kennel or shelter
- After a change in the family’s routine such as a new work schedule, moving to a new home, a new person living in the home, or a person leaving the home
- After a long interval such as a vacation with you and your dog constantly together
Giving a dog too much or the wrong type of attention can lead to such stress related behaviors. In some cases, the constant attention and petting a dog receives when its owners are home make the stress worse when they are absent. Examples include:
- Petting the dog too much for merely existing
- Allowing the dog to sleep in bed before behavior issues are resolved
- Petting and playing with the dog when they demand it
- Petting to calm the dog down when he is scared, stressed, angry, etc.
- Excitable greeting of the dog upon awakening or arriving home
These actions can make the dog too dependent and create neediness. This neediness cannot be fulfilled when the dog is alone. If the dog is experiencing stress when left alone, he will do things that he should not do. It is important to keep a balance so that the dog does not feel as alone when you are gone.
Ways to Treat It
Treatment for separation anxiety varies from dog to dog. Here are some things you can do to assist in the modification of this behavior or the prevention of it.
Crate Your Dog
Crating your dog during your times of absence has two positive results. First, a dog who is confined to a carrier or crate cannot do damage to your home. Secondly, when properly introduced, a crate will act as a safe, comfortable den where the dog can relax. Limiting his movement also acts as an anxiety reducer for most dogs.
A dog who has to be physically manhandled into the crate has not yielded to you the authority to place him there. You’ve merely shoveled him in there with no “buy in” from the dog. I always teach the dog to load himself on command, and in so doing, the dog learns to confer upon you (the authority) to determine what space his body shall occupy. That is called submitting to the leader and teaching the dog to do it voluntarily has huge payoffs.
For dogs who self-injure, the best success for crate training is to train them to go in and out of the crate without any physical prompts. It seems too simple but it works well for this type of dog. To begin, lure and prompt to get your dog to go in and out. When the dog appears calm about doing that then up the ante and let the dog see you put rewards inside the crate and close the door. The dog should recognize the treat inside the crate and the dog on the outside. When the dog is really “fussing” to get in open the door and let the dog in. Repeat and alternate dog in crate with food in crate (dog and food separated by crate door) until the dog is able to remain in a calm state.
Stage two is closing the door for a second then letting the dog out. Third stage is getting the dog to lay down in the crate with the door closed. Then treat in the crate. Final stage is going out of sight. The process is usually one that can be accomplished in a day (about four 20 minute sessions). This technique works very well, especially on the really frantic dogs.
For the dogs that won’t give it up, cover the crate (I prefer the plastic crate for this) so the dog cannot see out. Some dogs prefer to be in a room next to a window and some do not. Some dogs feel safer in a plastic walled crate and some prefer a wire crate. Find out what works best for your dog.
Turn On a Radio or Television
Turn on a radio or television in a room you are often in (the bedroom is usually a good choice) and close the door. The dog will hear the human voices from your room and may not feel so alone. Stick to an easy listening station so as not to excite the dog or use the animal planet channel. Some clients tape record their own voices and play the recording in place of the radio or television program. Dogs know the sound of your voice all too well. And remember, since the dog is most anxious just after you leave, a one-hour recording will probably suffice. It will buffer outside noises and make the house seem less empty. Also leave a light on if it will be getting dark.
Prepare a “Bye-Bye” Chew Toy
Get a “kong” and fill it with goodies such as dried liver pet treats, beef jerky, peanut butter, cheese or other things your dog really likes. Keep it hidden and take it out when you leave each day. Place it near your dog just before you close the door. When you arrive home put the kong away. The kong only comes out when you leave. You are attempting to distract your dog with something that he will find interesting enough to concentrate on other than you leaving. Hopefully, your dog will appreciate the kong so much that he will look forward to it coming out in place of getting upset with your leaving.
Change Your Exit Pattern
With most dogs, the hardest time for them is immediately after you leave. Their anxious (and sometimes destructive) behavior occurs within the first hour after they are left alone. It will be your job to reshape your dog’s behavior through reinforcement training. Maintain a calm presence around the dog the last 30 minutes before you leave the house so as not to excite the dog and possibly induce stress. Leave the dog out of the crate, put your coat on, and walk to the door and leave. Come back in immediately. Greet the dog calmly. Tell the dog to sit. When the dog sits, reinforce this behavior with praise or a treat the dog enjoys. Wait a few minutes and then repeat the exercise, this time remaining outside a few seconds longer. Continue practicing leaving and returning over the next few weeks. Always remember when returning to greet your dog calmly and command the dog to sit before offering a treat.
Also, do your pre-departure activities without actually leaving. For instance, pick up your keys and watch television, put your coat on and wash the dishes, or wear your work clothes while you read a book. Do anything but leave the house and do this randomly and continue whenever you can. Do only one exercise at a time and keep it brief. Your dog should begin to learn that coats or keys mean nothing at all. The important thing to remember is to not do these exercises within an hour of you actually leaving.
Catch the Dog in the Act
Set up situations where the dog thinks you are gone but you are hiding in the house. Do your normal “leaving home” routine. If you need to go as far as having someone drive your car out of the driveway then do so. When the dog acts out, run in the room, correct the dog, and return to your hiding spot. Once the dog has settled down and is behaving then “return home”. Either wait until the person with your car returns or open your front door and do your normal “return home” routine and praise the dog.
When It Is Time To Leave — Just Leave
Do not say “good bye” to the dog with hugs and kisses. In fact, ignore the dog for five minutes before you go. Paying too much attention will make the dog feel more insecure when the attention is abruptly withdrawn.
Learning to Spend Time Alone
You can help the dog learn to be comfortable away from you. This process will help teach the dog that it is ok to be left alone! It must be done slowly, paying careful attention to the dog’s behavior. The dog must not display anxiety at any time throughout the progression. This exercise can be performed during times when you are relaxed and sitting down for a period of time such as watching television or reading a book. Perform these exercises during commercials or in between chapters. It is important to NEVER TELL THE DOG TO STAY! You want the dog to decide to stay on his own. Practice standing up, and walking out of the room. When your dog starts to follow, go back to your chair and try again. Do this until the dog no longer wants to follow and is comfortable with remaining in the room by himself.
Diet and Exercise
Diet, walks, and the home environment also play a role in preventing stress in the dog. Below are some suggestions for easing the dog’s stress. It is imperative that a dog receives positive, quality attention.
- Dogs are social creatures and need play time. It is important that you as the owner set the beginning and end time for the game. The dog should not demand the game be played. Have a specific fetch toy and take it out only when it is time to play. If a dog is good for six fetches then stop at four. Gradually add a repetition on each day until the dog will do two dozen back and forth. Put the toy away when the game is over. This will ensure that the dog stays motivated and does not lose or destroy the toy.
- Have chew toys for the dog when not playing. Do not play fetch with dog’s chew toys as that will reinforce the dog demanding play at the wrong times.
- Controlling when and what to play with will put you in the role of leader as well as prevent dominance issues.
- Feed the dog twice per day. This will satisfy the dog as well as prevent possible mood swings due to possible low blood sugar.
- Calmly walk the dog twice a day for 20 minutes. On the walks you can also include some basic obedience training such as sits and downs. This also encourages the dog to keep his focus on you.
A dog that is lacking exercise is more likely to have stress and tension. Tiring a dog out with a long walk, a good run, or play goes a long way in reducing stress.
Obedience helps to structure the dog’s life. Practice a minimum of 15 minutes a day strictly on obedience and enforce any command you give the dog so the dog’s world remains black and white. This way the dog will know his boundaries. Practice long down-stays and sit-stays so the dog learns to control himself while you leave the room. Whether the dog has minor or severe separation anxiety, one of the most effective tools in your toolbox is the PLACE command. This command teaches dogs self-control which an anxious dog needs to learn.
Be a strong leader. When a dog has a strong leader, it has a calming effect on dogs. The dog feels safe and taken care of. In the absence of a strong leader, the dog feels obligated to assume that position in the social hierarchy of the family pack. Since a leader must control all that goes on, the dog’s inability to control your leaving causes the dog stress and anxiety. Obedience training is the best, organized method of establishing yourself as a strong leader.
It is important to remember that the dog is not bad or trying to make life miserable - although it sometimes may feel that way! The dog is the victim of a disorder that can be treated. Prognosis for recovery is excellent if you are willing to spend time working with the dog. Don’t give up. Patience and consistency will either correct or improve the situation.
Laura Pakis is an experienced certified professional trainer and owner/founder of Acme Canine. Laura is certified in Pet First Aid by the American Red Cross and PetSaver, is AKC Canine Good Citizen and Community Canine Evaluator, and AKC PuppySTAR evaluator. She is certified in breed selection, puppy development, assistance dog training, basic and advanced obedience, Police K-9 and protection training, tracking, E-touch training and Pack to Basics.
She has been nominated for the Woman of the Year in the Pet Industry Award, Better Business Bureau’s Integrity Award and Worthington Chamber’s Small Business Person of the Year Award. Recently her business was singled out from among several thousand businesses to be nominated as one of three finalists for the 2014 Pet Age boarding facility of the year; reflecting the skills, talents and professional reputation Laura has and continues to build in her growing business.