As a dog trainer, separation anxiety is one of the more common behavioral issues I get calls about. It doesn't take a lot of time for me to help clients learn how to manage it and treat it, but it can take a long time and a lot of patience and work for dog owners to address. The following are some of the key talking points I share with owners when I meet them.
1. Does My Dog Suffer from Separation Anxiety?
A dog that chews furniture or eliminates in the house while left alone may not have separation anxiety. They may just be bored, or not fully housetrained, or simply left inside for longer than they can physically hold it in. Signs you have a dog with true separation anxiety include:
- Whining, pacing, sweaty paws, and panting as you are about to leave and when you return
- Destructive behavior at the point of exits (damage to the door where the dog sees you leave from)
- Vomiting or self-mutilation (excessive licking of paws)
- Lack of interest in high value food left behind when you leave (the dog does not eat the steak filled Kong you left behind until after you return)
2. What Causes Separation Anxiety?
The causes for separation anxiety can be extremely varied. Ultimately, why it happens is not important, as the treatment plan is the same. But to satisfy our human need to know "why", here are some:
- Lack of experience with being left alone as a puppy or an adult (i.e. people who work from home a lot and rarely leave their dogs alone)
- Moving to a new home
- Changes in the family unit (a family member moves out and leaves for college)
- Traumatic experiences while alone (i.e. something falls off a bookshelf while you are gone, spooking the dog, or someone tries to break into your house)
- Changes in the dog's health and well-being (i.e. medically ill)
It is typically not caused by a lack of obedience training (although this can help improve a dog's overall well-being, because obedience training is great mental exercise).
3. Managing Separation Anxiety
First, let's define management. Management is the process of reducing harm and damage to the dog while you are treating it. Management does not improve the condition of the dog - it simply is meant to keep the dog and your property safe. Management is an extremely important part of any behavioral treatment plan. Every dog, family, and home is different, but here are some ways you can keep your dog safe when you have to leave them alone.
- Using dog walkers and dog daycares to minimize or eliminate alone time during treatment.
- Crating your dog while they are left alone, as long as they are crate trained and are comfortable in their crate.
- Alternatively, confining them to a dog proof area in your house - although, doors, moulding, and other things can be damaged - this should be considered very carefully.
4. Secondary Treatment Strategies for Separation Anxiety
There are dozens of little things you should do as part of a separation anxiety treatment plan. Here are the top 5.
- Focus on improving the overall health and well-being of the dog. This includes addressing all outstanding medical and health issues through working with your vet, working with a nutritionist to ensure the diet of your dog is compatible (poor diet is the cause of many behavioral issues), and ensuring the dog has a comfortable and quiet place to rest.
- Obedience training using positive reinforcement (leash corrections and punishment only increase stress in a dog) will help a dog use it's mental faculty and tire them out - consider taking a basic obedience training course and moving into dog activities like Rally Obedience, Agility, Tricks, Flyball, or any other activity that gives your dog a job. Physical exercise also helps reduce overall anxiety.
- Holistic and non-medicinal treatments can help reduce anxiety. This might include using products like Rescue Remedy, DAP Diffusers, Thundershirts, or all-natural anti-anxiety supplements. Also, don't rule out the use of prescription medications from the vet to assist during treatment.
- Crate training your dog (teaching them to love to be in their crate) can make it a safe and comfortable place to stay while they are left alone.
- Puzzle toys and boredom busters left behind (i.e. Kong Wobblers, Sir Bob-a-Lots, and other food puzzle toys where a dog must work to release the treats) can preoccupy a dog while they are alone. For many dogs, this should be the only way they get nourishment so that every calorie goes to good use.
5. Primary Treatment Strategy for Separation Anxiety: The Planned Departure
Planned departures can help almost every dog get over separation anxiety. Here's the truth about them: It takes a lot of time and effort on the part of the owners, and a lot of owners are just not willing to put the time into doing them.
In brief, a planned departure is a "fakeout", where one goes through all the steps of leaving home (including going out the front door), but returns home before the dog has a chance to become stressed to the point of panic. For some dogs, this might mean leaving home and coming back within 30 seconds. Each time you leave and return and the dog manages to remain relatively calm, you are desensitizing your dog to the experience of being left alone and also teaching them that you always come back. As a dog develops a tolerance for being left alone for a fixed duration of time (i.e. 30 seconds), you slowly start increasing that duration (perhaps to 45 seconds). Each time you are about to leave the front door, you can leave a yummy treat (or a food stuffed kong) behind so that the dog associates pleasant things with your departure.
It may take a few hundred repetitions over multiple days and weeks as you build duration and tolerance for being alone, so it does require tremendous patience and time, but it works.
In summary, once you've determined that your dog is actually suffering from separation anxiety, it's your job to ensure they are safe when they are alone, and that you invest the time to help them get over their condition. The suggestions listed above are generic, and as each dog, family, and home is different, working with a trainer or behaviorist that uses science-based, punishment-free techniques is highly recommended. A tailored management and treatment plan is the best way to ensure the time and effort you put in is effective.
About the Author:
Andre Yeu, head trainer and owner of When Hounds Fly! is proud to be Toronto's first Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA CTP). When Hounds Fly! is conveniently located in Downtown Toronto West, and offers puppy socialization, basic obedience, and private lessons to dog owners in our community. For more information, visit www.whenhoundsfly.com