Separation Anxiety in Dogs, Can it Be Cured?
(Disclaimer: I am not a licensed veterinarian or an animal behaviorist. Everything I have written in this post is from my own personal experience and research on the topic. Please consult your veterinarian first.)
Do you think your dog has true separation anxiety? Do you hate leaving your dog home alone because of the mess they leave for you to find? Do your neighbors complain about your dog barking while you’re away?
Many people believe their dog suffers from anxiety when left alone. However, most of the time their dog’s behavior stems from a lack of training. These learned behaviors can include going potty inside the house and chewing on things other than their toys. This would be considered simulated separation anxiety because these behaviors are learned. For example, “When mom leaves I can get in the trash and find some goodies!” There is a big difference between a dog having a true separation anxiety disorder and just misbehaving due to lack of structure or boredom.
If there is one thing I’ve learned about having a dog with separation anxiety it is that it is not something to take lightly. It is, however, with the right training, and, if needed, medication, possible to manage if not completely eliminate.
When I got Piper at 9 months old, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew nothing about her life before the shelter other than she had been found wandering along the side of the road and was picked up by some wonderful citizen. But no one claimed her. Did she have an owner? Was she kept outside? Did she have brothers or sisters?
What I did know after bringing her home was that she had horrible separation anxiety. I couldn’t even leave the house before she was barking and crying her head off. As I mentioned in my piece about doggy daycare, I was terrified to come home and see what she terror she had inflicted on my room. One day, I came home to the tray of her crate slid completely out and across the room, poop at the back of her crate, and her pillow torn to shreds. It broke my heart to see her so panicked.
Eventually, I was able to talk to my vet about everything and she started Piper on an anti-anxiety medication. I love it because I only have to use it when needed. This could be being home alone or going on a long trip. It really helps to calm her down and sleep most of the day! Between that, some invaluable training, and regular exercise, I’ve noticed a HUGE difference in the severity of her anxiety. It hasn’t gone away completely but it is much more manageable now.
Diagnosing Separation Anxiety
There are a few questions to ask when determining if your dog has true separation anxiety: Does the behavior…
- occur every time you leave?
- happen while you are home or with your dog?
- begin before you have even left?
If you answered yes to any of the above, your dog may have separation anxiety. However, you should consult your vet before making any kind of self-diagnosis.
True separation anxiety in dogs occurs when a dog exhibits signs of severe distress when left alone or away from its owner. These behaviors are more serious and more destructive than the usual puppy boredom behavior. They also typically occur at the time of the owner’s leaving or within 20 minutes of being left alone.
Separation anxiety can be caused by a number of factors:
- a traumatic event such as that related to weather or abuse
- loss of a pack member (either an owner or another dog)
- or even still some breeds are genetically more predisposed to having separation anxiety
Separation Anxiety Symptoms
True separation anxiety behaviors can include but are not limited to:
- defecating in the house after being potty trained
- extremely destructive behaviors such as chewing or ripping up pillows and bedding or even chewing on walls or windowsills
- constant barking, howling or whining
- persistent and intense pacing
- attempting to escape, as well as
- physiological responses such as excessive panting or dilated pupils
Prevention of Separation Anxiety
So how do you treat anxiety like this? Well, ideally, you would prevent the problem before it starts. This can be done through training (am I sensing a trend here, lol) and regular physical and mental exercise
Crate training is one the very first things you should be doing with your dog. If a dog feels safe and secure in their crate it can be an invaluable tool in the prevention of anxiety. Many dogs who are crate trained early enough see their crate as their den and usually prefer to be in there during times of rest or stress.
I cannot stress enough how important exercise is. Always make sure that your dog has done some form of exercise before you leave them at home alone. This can be in the form of…
- a short walk (which you should do anyway as it gives them a chance to relieve themselves so that they don’t do so inside)
- a romp at the dog park
- or maybe a short game of tug with some of their toys.
Playing with your dog also gives them a chance to spend time with you. This is all they really want anyway. And remember, a tired dog is a good dog! They will be more apt to take a nap while you are away.
I love using Piper’s Kong (a treat and toy in one!) for when I know I am going to be gone awhile. Usually, I will fill it full of HIGH VALUE (this is important) treats and peanut butter and freeze it. I say high value treats because I only give her the Kong when I am leaving her at home for a longer period of time. This creates a sense of excitement surrounding my leaving as it means she gets something SUPER special while I’m gone. High-value treats would be better than regular food, however, I have used her kibble in a pinch. Freezing it also makes it last longer and is great for during the hot summer months. The mental exercise of her having to get all the peanut butter out to get to the treats at the bottom can keep her occupied for hours.
Treatment of Separation Anxiety
Sometimes prevention isn’t always an option such as in the case of a shelter dog or possibly an older dog. When it comes to treatment, the two biggest ways are through desensitization training or (if necessary) medication. I will not cover the medication portion as I am not a licensed veterinarian and therefore do not have the expertise to speak on the subject.
Desensitization involves teaching your pooch that your coming and going is no cause for concern. Your dog should feel no emotion for you leaving or returning. This is hard for people to understand (especially me!). We all want our dogs to be excited when they see us. Unfortunately, for an unbalanced dog, this isn’t always a good thing.
Desensitization can be done through a few ways. The first involves creating a situation in which you are about to leave. You grab your coat and keys, put on your shoes, whatever it is that usually causes the anxious behavior to start. Right before you head out the door, sit down and begin doing something else.
At first, your dog will be very confused. Do this over and over until your dog no longer associates your picking up the keys or putting on your coat with their anxious behavior. If the act of grabbing your keys gets your dog riled up, only do that action until he is no longer excited by the keys. Then, add in putting on your coat. Continue adding actions until all the elements of your departure are now meaningless to your dog. Be patient. It will take time.
Keep your greetings short and sweet. Long goodbyes and ecstatic hellos only worsen the problem. I’m so guilty of this! Dogs are insanely good at picking up on our emotions. If you start to panic before you have even left the house, whether you think you’re showing it or not, I can guarantee you your dog already knows what’s about to happen. The sooner you start becoming a leader for your dog, the sooner you and your pup can get past this.
If your dog is suffering from true separation anxiety, I highly encourage you to talk with your veterinarian about possible treatment options for them. It could be something as simple as some training or behavior modification or it could require something more serious such as medication. Bottom line is that this is not a death sentence. It is preventable and treatable. With the right tools, you and your dog can overcome this issue and through it create an even stronger bond between the two of you. For more information about separation anxiety, Ceasar Milan has a great article on how to handle this behavior.
What are some ways that you help your dog deal with separation anxiety?