When left alone, does your dog bark, howl, forget housetraining, dig up the carpet, or chew on the walls and door? If your answer is yes, 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 your dog is alone?
If your dog has separation-related anxiety, disturbing behaviors always occur when the dog is alone and only then. So, for example, if your dog always chews the woodwork when alone and never chews the woodwork at other times, your dog may have separation anxiety. But if your dog chews woodwork whether or not anyone is around, 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 howling, whining, barking, 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. 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.
Could a change in your dog’s life cause anxiety?
Changes in family members (including other pets), residence, or routine can prompt a bout of separation anxiety. Even a 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?
Separation anxiety could be partially or completely caused by physical discomfort, increasing your dog’s reactivity to confinement or being left alone. Even problems as minor as itchiness or arthritis can cause your dog to become fearful and anxious. Veterinary behaviorists recommend treating suspected pain or other medical issue to see whether it helps to improve behavior. 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 first.
Is your dog’s anxiety mild, moderate, or severe?
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, or is he nibbling on shoes to relieve 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’re 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 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. Check Your Dog’s Friend’s list of positive trainers and veterinary behaviorists.
Treating Separation Anxiety
Exercise & Mental Stimulation
Increase your dog’s physical and mental stimulation. Certain dogs, especially energetic ones, require a great deal of exercise and fun, stimulating activities on a regular basis to help them relax when left alone. If you can also take time to throw a ball, play with a flirt pole, do some training, or give your dog a food dispensing toy before you leave, you will help tire your dog, and a tired dog is more likely to sleep and less likely to pine for you while you’re gone. Use a variety of chews, positive reinforcement based dog training activities, frozen food treats, scents, sounds, and foraging toys, so your dog doesn’t become more frustrated over time when left alone. See our previous webinars on enrichment activities.
A Safe Haven
Even if your dog loves the crate, leave the door open. Going into a closed crate will magnify separation problems because it introduces an additional barrier, causing increased frustration. Dogs with severe separation anxiety may even injure themselves trying to escape when the door is closed.
Start feeding your dog out of treat dispensing toys in the safe haven space, so that he starts to associate it with good times, and make sure it’s always available to your dog, especially when alone. A white noise machine or classical music will help disguise outdoor sounds. You might also try “iCalmPet,” (formerly known as “Through a Dog’s Ear”), music developed specifically to calm dogs. Have these on when you’re there and when you’re not; the sameness may be comforting to your dog.
You can also use Adaptil, a DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) diffuser, collar, or spray, which releases an odor like that of a nursing mother, or Bach 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. These scents can be in the room, but do not over-saturate your dog’s safe haven with them, as it can become unpleasant. For some dogs, a shirt with your scent will be a comfort, or try a thundershirt that wraps tightly around your dog (like swaddling a baby).
Teaching Your Dog to Relax
When we want to help dogs overcome separation-related problems, we have to teach them how to relax first when they are getting ready to be left alone and second when they are actually alone. Your dog would be better off in a larger space with a comfy bed, safe toy, and water in a dog-proofed room, rather than in a closed crate or small bathroom. This decreases barrier frustration, giving your dog more autonomy, and it may even solve the problem entirely for dogs with mild separation problems.
Dogs feel less anxious and safer when what will happen is predictable. Using safety cues during training, including planned departures, and emergency cues when you have to leave home for longer than your dog can comfortably handle, may help your dog feel more relaxed and give your dog some sense of control.
When you start your training session, always put out a safety cue first. A safety cue is a unique object that tells your dog that you will be training and will only be doing activities, including leaving for a few seconds or minutes once you’ve worked up to it, for a period of time that your dog can comfortably handle. Put it out as the first thing you do when you start your departure training and the first thing you put away when you end your training for the day. Train 3-5 times/week for between 20-40 minutes each time. We usually don’t use food in this training, because we want the dog to learn how to cope with you moving away, rather than not paying attention because of the distraction of the food.
Figure out what most bothers your dog. Is it your taking steps toward the door, the door closing, or three seconds outside? This will help you know what to repeat the most in practice. Repeat each step in your routine enough times that your dog no longer alerts to those things or alerts very little. Repeatedly come back to sit with your dog after each small step in your dog’s training, so he learns that although he’s not getting active attention from you at this time, you are returning to be with him after every time that you move away. Most dogs find this very reassuring, which helps to build that relaxation. However, when you come back, don’t interact with your dog. Just be there.
Start with simply getting up and back down on the couch. Then, practice the departure cues associated with leaving, starting with putting on and taking off your shoes, and, after a few days with your shoes, add other accessories in your departure routine. For example, pick up and put down your keys once your dog seems comfortable. Take steps toward the door, open and close the door, take a step outside for a second, then for longer, etc, increasing the level of difficult only when your dog has relaxed during the previous step. Don’t rush! Your dog may raise his head to watch you, which is fine, but you want to see more and more relaxation through the repetitions. As your dog becomes comfortable, you can increase the time by seconds working up to minute time frames. When you reach 5 minutes, begin doing random absence durations (e.g., 2 minutes, 5, 3, 4 and so forth). Don’t increase the duration every time, and alternate easier sessions with more difficult ones.
You can either work with a trainer who specializes in separation-related problems or try working on your own. If you choose to work on your own, make sure to work at a pace where your dog remains resting most of the time. You can use your laptop to see your dog’s reactions when your back is turned. Point the laptop camera at your dog, and join through Zoom or Google Meet on your cell phone to watch as you get up and move toward the door.
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 your dog a safe toy or chew that you only use during these times. Put up a different cue, an emergency cue, to differentiate your leaving from the safety cue you use during training. The emergency cue can be a scarf on the doorknob or a piece of paper taped to the door. Unlike the safety cue, the emergency cue on the door lets your dog know that he will need to cope with being alone for a longer period of time than he’s ready for and that it may be difficult for him.
When you do leave home for extended periods of time, you can see exactly what your dog is up to while you’re gone. For example, VueZone allows you to check on your dog remotely via its website or mobile apps offered for iPhone and Android. Wyze cameras are another popular tool to see what your dog is doing while you’re away.
Building Confidence at Home
At home, encourage your dog to be independent. Try engaging your dog with an interactive toy that releases kibble (Everlasting Treat Ball, Bob-a-Lot, Dog Pyramid, etc.) or a frozen Kong stuffed with goodies. 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.
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, a few seconds even, that your dog won’t start scratching or barking at the door.
Medications and Supplements
Using a longer-acting, anti-anxiety medication that builds up in your dog’s brain over time can help your dog feel more optimistic about departure training and learn faster. There are also situational medications and supplements. As we said earlier, Your Dog’s Friend has a list of veterinary behaviorists. If the veterinary behaviorists are booked for months, your veterinarian can often consult with them to get your dog started on medication earlier. You can generally find a supplement and/or medication that works for your dog, even if the first one doesn’t. There are a variety of different options, and just like people, not every one will work the same way on every dog. Dr. Amy Pike of Animal Behavior Wellness Center presented a webinar, “The Six M’s of Treating Any Behavior Problem” that mentions various possibilities. Dr. Meaghan Ropski, who now works at Friendship Animal Hospital, presented a five minute talk on medications and supplements that could be helpful too.
Experiences While Training
While still training, do your best to prevent experiences that will cause unpleasant emotions while you’re away. Recovering from separation-related problems can take time, and if your dog is continually left in situations where he feels extreme frustration or anxiety, your dog will have a much harder time learning how to be comfortable when left alone. Instead of leaving your dog distressed, you can use these alternatives:
Pet sitters can be the perfect solution for dogs who don’t get along well with other dogs. You can advertise in college forums and often find students who are willing to study at your house or let you bring your dog to theirs. Also talk to high school guidance counselors and college student services departments.
Retired neighbors or even residents in assisted living may offer other options. Use your neighborhood listservs and community bulletin boards to help your search, and contact the events coordinator at your local retirement home. Having a few pet sitters is very helpful in case one isn’t available at the time.
Try leaving your dog with a trusted friend for short periods of time. 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.
For dogs that do well with other dogs, daycare is a good exercise and socialization opportunity, and there are daycares that often have more structure and one-on-one attention for more fearful dogs. Be choosy when looking at daycares. These settings should be controlled and safe with the staff trained to recognize body language and understand dog behavior.
Think about whether some of your errands can be done at home. For example, online delivery services for groceries and drug store items can cut down on time away. Or arrange for outdoor pick-up and take your dog with you. Familiarize yourself with dog-friendly restaurants, and take your dog along.
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. Learn about dog body language, so can read what your dog is saying.
Ideas in the Treating Separation Anxiety section are from the webinar, “Home Alone – Understanding and addressing separation-related problems” by Alexandra Dillay of Home Alone Canine, specializing in training for separation-related problems.
“Beyond COVID – Helping Your Pup Prepare to Be Left Alone”, a webinar by Tracy Krulik, retired from Separation Anxiety & Beyond
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
“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/
“Healthy Body, Healthy Mind – physical issues that can affect your dog’s behavior”, a webinar by Dr. Amy Learn of Animal Behavior Wellness Center, Richmond campus
Pain’s Effect on Behavior, an article by Jessica Hekman in “Whole Dog Journal”
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. Alexandra Dilley of Home Alone Canine
also offer 1/2 hour free consultation by phone and separation anxiety training in a class and privately.
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Still Need Help?
Your Dog’s Friend has an online Separation Anxiety class providing support and coaching to give you the tools you need to develop a plan that will help your dog feel more comfortable when home alone. You can also contact Your Dog’s Friend for behavior advice.
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 [email protected] 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.