When left alone, does your dog bark, howl, forget housetraining, dig up the carpet, or chew on the walls and door? He is not trying to make you afraid to ever leave him again, so don’t get angry and punish him. Instead, try to figure out what is really going on. Is your dog actually panic-stricken and experiencing separation anxiety? Or is your dog just bored or in need of more training?
The following questions will help you figure out if your dog has separation anxiety:
Do unwanted behaviors occur ONLY when you are NOT around?
Separation anxiety is triggered by the absence of the dog’s “person.” Disturbing behaviors always occur when the dog’s human is gone and occur only when that person is gone. So, for example, if your dog always chews the woodwork when you are gone and never chews the woodwork when you are there, he may have separation anxiety. But if your dog chews woodwork whether you are around or not, perhaps more management or appropriate chew toys are the solution.
Does your dog show signs of distress?
In true separation anxiety, your dog will exhibit distress behaviors, such as drooling, pacing, sweaty pads, loss of appetite, impulsive aggression, or depression. Distress in your dog may begin before you leave or right after you leave him. Dogs with separation anxiety will typically be intensely upset during their first 20 to 45 minutes alone. If your dog starts frantically barking almost immediately after you leave, separation anxiety is a good bet. If your dog goes to a window and barks excitedly off and on at something outside, then that barking might be from boredom.
With modern technology, we can spy on our dogs and see exactly what they are up to when we are gone. For example, VueZone allows you to check on your dog remotely via its website or mobile apps offered for iPhone and Android.
Has there been a change in your dog’s life that would precipitate anxiety?
Changes in family members (including other pets), residence, or routine can prompt a bout of separation anxiety. Even a nice vacation that gets your dog used to your company 24/7 could start a problem. If your dog is new to your home—especially for a dog that has just experienced the trauma of being in a shelter—there is an adjustment period. Use some of the ideas in the Treating Separation Anxiety section below to help prevent an escalation of separation anxiety.
Have you ruled out a medical problem?
Accidents in the house, for example, might be caused by a urinary tract infection, bladder stones, or some other malady and not by separation anxiety. Always check with your veterinarian.
If separation anxiety seems likely, determine whether your dog has mild, moderate or severe separation anxiety. List and describe each worrying behavior. Do behaviors indicate your dog is just a little upset or frantic? For example, does your dog destroy doors and woodwork trying to demolish any barrier keeping him from you, or is he nibbling on your shoe to relieve a mild anxiety? Is your dog licking himself just a bit or obsessively? Does your dog seem to miss you just a little, or is he so co-dependent that he can hardly function when you are gone?
For mild anxiety, following the advice in the Treating Separation Anxiety section below may ease or even eliminate symptoms. Think about whether an anti-anxiety medication prescribed by a veterinarian might also be useful.
For moderate anxiety and full-blown panic attacks, successful treatment plans may involve a combination of medication and complex desensitization and counterconditioning techniques designed after consultation with a veterinary behaviorist, certified behaviorist, or positive trainer. If you end up with a trainer or so-called behaviorist who uses aversive methods, your dog’s anxiety issues could worsen. So, be careful which professional you choose.
Treating Separation Anxiety:
- Before you leave in the morning, make sure your dog has plenty of exercise. Go for a long walk or throw a ball. Do a few minutes of training to give your dog confidence and mental stimulation. If your dog is tired, he will be more likely to sleep and less likely to pine for you while you’re gone.
- Make your departures and arrivals no big deal. Ignore your dog for 10 to 20 minutes before you leave. When you get back home, just go about your business and wait until your dog is calm before you greet him.
- Do not leave your dog in a crate unless he loves being there. Otherwise, going into the crate will further stress him. Dogs with severe separation anxiety may even injure themselves trying to escape. Your dog would be better off in a bathroom with toilet paper, towels, or anything else not meant for him removed beforehand. (For crate training advice, go to https://www.apdt.com/veterinary/assets/pdf/APDT_CrateTraining.pdfl).
- Do not always leave your house after crating your dog or putting him in his safe room. Your dog will be anxious if the only time he spends in his safe place is when you are gone. Make sure he always has water, a safe toy, and a comfy bed.
- Do your best to ensure that the setting will be calm and peaceful while you are gone. A white noise machine or classical music will help disguise outdoor sounds. You might also try “Through a Dog’s Ear,” music developed to calm dogs. Go to www.throughadogsear.com.
- When you leave, place an old shirt with your scent in his crate or safe room. Sleep in it the night before. You could also try Adaptil, a DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) diffuser, collar or spray, which releases an odor like that of a nursing mother, or Rescue Remedy, which is a mixture of plant essences that relaxes some dogs. Independence Flower Essence by Arenus or Anxiety Relief by Homeopet have also helped some dogs. Even the scent of lavender can be calming. Another tool is to put a tight t-shirt on your dog to help calm his nervous system or, if it’s easier, you could try a Thundershirt, which stretches over the dog’s torso. You can read about them at www.thundershirt.com.
- If your dog plays well with others, take advantage of controlled and safe play groups. If feasible, let your dog stay with a trusted friend for a short period. This can teach your dog some independence and help him see that he can survive, and even enjoy, time when he is not at your side..
- A positive training class can help your canine communication skills and your dog’s confidence. This can be particularly important to a dog new in your home.
Practice Exercises for Home
Practice sit and down “stays” using positive training methods. Stand close to your dog at first. After your dog will stay for a few seconds while you are right next to him, begin to very gradually increase your distance away. If it’s hard for your dog to stay put because you are moving away from him, ask him to stay for less time. Help your dog to succeed. When you start working on distance, you might only be able to move one foot to the side and then put your feet back together before you can take your first real step away. The goal is for your dog to learn that he can be relaxed while you are briefly out of sight. As your dog gets more confident, make “stay” a part of your daily routine. For example, ask your dog to stay in the living room while you get yourself a soda from the kitchen and quickly return to him. Remember to give him quiet praise and a reward when you return.
At home, do not let your dog be with you constantly. Try engaging your dog with an interactive toy that releases kibble (Everlasting Treat Ball, Bob-a-Lot, Dog Pyramid, etc.) or a Kong stuffed with goodies and then frozen. When first introducing the toy, show your dog how to play with it, and make a big deal of how much fun it is. Slowly move a few steps away from your dog and then return. The goal is to be able to walk to a different room and have your dog remain interested in the toy in the room you just left, instead of following you. You want the activity to be so enjoyable to him that he voluntarily chooses to be separated from you. Go slowly. Note: When your dog is learning to like home-alone toys, stay with him at first as described above. Otherwise, the toy may become a signal you are leaving—a worry and not a joy.
As your dog becomes more comfortable with your walking away, try the next step. Go into another room and leave him outside that room with his interactive toy or Kong. Your dog will learn to soothe himself and understand that you are gone briefly, but not forever. Pick up the toy and put it away when you go back out to join your dog. Repeat in different parts of the house. Lengthen your time in the room gradually. At first, it should be so short that your dog won’t start scratching or barking at the door. If he does and you go back out to him, you will be reinforcing a behavior that you don’t want.
Simultaneously work on actually leaving the house. Start by writing down the things you typically do before you go out the door. Do all the things on your list—get your keys, pick up your briefcase, put on your shoes, or do whatever else alerts your dog that you’re about to go. Then be unpredictable! Sit back down and do not leave.
Once your dog stays calm during your pre-departure routine, begin the next stage. At random times, just step through the door (do not close it) and then go back inside. Keep repeating until your dog stays calm when you leave with the door open. When your dog shows no distress, start to close the door behind you and immediately return. Slowly increase the time elapsed by a little bit. If your dog gets anxious at any point, wait until he relaxes before you repeat the exercise. Repeat until the dog is relaxed when you leave, close the door, and do not return for a few seconds. If your door is to the outside, rather than to a garage, use a door in the house or have your dog behind a baby gate.
Pick a “safety cue” to assure your dog that you are going to leave but you will be back. The safety cue can be a word or phrase like “See you later” or an action like turning on the radio. If your dog is a destructive chewer, leaving a sturdy chew (like a Galileo Bone) can be a good choice for a safety cue. Use the cue every time you leave, whether practicing or leaving for a short absence. Even when you are only leaving to check the mail, use the cue. There is only one exception to this rule: Don’t use the safety cue when you know you will be away for longer than your dog can currently tolerate. If you do, you will “poison” the cue. And if you use a toy or chew, remember to pick it up and put it away when you return.
Practice short-duration absences. Once you can leave and close the door, start to stay outside for a minute or so and slowly build up time away from your dog. Keep using the safety cue. When you reach 5 minutes, begin doing random absence durations (e.g., 2 minutes, 5, 3, 4 and so forth). Make sure your dog has no way to predict exactly how long you will be gone. Practice lots of sessions between 1 and 10 minutes.
A remote monitoring device of some kind is not a requirement, but it can be a very useful tool to have for this stage of training. If you see signs that your dog is beginning to get agitated, you can quickly return and end the training session before the dog’s anxiety level has a chance to spiral. If you return at the wrong time—when the dog is agitated—you will be inadvertently reinforcing the dog’s worry.
Continue to build up the time away gradually. Vary the time you are gone; do not always make the “next time” longer than the last. Do not rush. Once 90 minutes is tolerable, most dogs can handle longer times possibly up to 4 or 5 hours, so keeping up the snail’s pace of gradually longer absences is no longer necessary.
If you must leave your dog for longer than he can comfortably tolerate, make the whole process as different as possible from your usual practice sessions. Give him a home-alone toy, but make it a different one. Do not use your safety cue. Remember to leave him in a safe area where he can’t hurt himself or your home.
I’ll be Home Soon: How to Prevent and Treat Separation Anxiety, Patricia McConnell
Please Stay: Help for a Dog with Separation Anxiety, Tonya Wilhelm
Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs, Malena DeMartini-Price
Instructional video for treating separation anxiety by dog trainer, Jules Nye at
“Scared To Be Home Alone,” an article by trainer and author Pat Miller at www.peaceablepaws.com
“Teaching Your Dog to Be Alone in Five Easy Steps,” Roger Abrantes at http://rogerabrantes.wordpress.com/2011/09/06/teach-your-dog-to-be-home-alone-in-five-steps/
Resources, article and blogs by separation anxiety trainer expert, Malena-Demartini-Price at http://malenademartini.com. It’s possible to arrange for a customized program with one of her certified separation anxiety trainers on the phone and online.
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This material is not intended to be a substitute for professional help when dealing with dogs with intense or potentially dangerous behavior issues. Consider consulting a positive reinforcement trainer or animal behaviorist for situations that you feel are dangerous or that you don’t feel equipped to handle. A list of recommended trainers and behaviorists can be found on our website, www.yourdogsfriend.info. If you need a referral or advice, contact Your Dog’s Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-983-5913. We have training classes and free workshops dealing with a number of issues. You can also join the mailing list at our website, so that you receive our e-newsletter with articles, resources, and events.