Dealing with Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety occurs when dogs become anxious in the absence of their owner. A common problem among dog owners, separation anxiety can show itself in many forms, from barking, to chewing, or pottying in the house while the owner is away. However it shows itself, it’s not fun – for owner or pet, and should be dealt with so your pet doesn’t have to go into panic mode every time you leave the house. Dealing with separation anxiety will help your best friend to live a more happy and content life.

There are a lot of reasons why a dog might develop separation anxiety – a major change in the dog’s life, a traumatic event, or the loss of a family member. In my case, I’m certain my dog developed separation anxiety because of me. I coddled him to no end as a pup, carrying him here and there (seriously, I’m surprised he learned to walk), constantly doting on him and solving all of his little doggy world problems before he had a chance to figure them out himself. Combine with that, a genetic predisposition for high anxiety, and I had created a monster before I knew it…

Dealing with my dog’s separation anxiety was tough. SO tough. There were times when I just wanted to give up, and being patient seemed like a luxury I didn’t have. The anxiety that I felt leaving him at home made dealing with the issue in an objective way next to impossible. I’d call my veterinarian half in tears, asking him what I could try next (that man is a Saint for dealing with me). I’d come home to wood trim ripped off the walls, or chewed up window sills (yeah, it was bad). Crating him didn’t help either, because he was extremely anxious about being in the crate. I was in a rough spot. It broke my heart to know the trauma my guy was going through on a daily basis, just because I left the house, and I was terrified he was going to end up hurting himself in my absence. But this only made my determination to fix this problem even greater.

I went on a mission. I tried everything. I mean everything. Different anxiety medication, anxiety wraps, DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone), and the list goes on. After trying a barrage of techniques, I found a combination of things that worked best for my dog. I did a lot of reading, a lot of trial and error, and most of all, practiced a lot of patience. Below is a list of some of the key things I learned during my quest for resolution. Before we get to that, here are a couple housekeeping items to keep in mind.

Be sure your dog actually does have separation anxiety.
There could be other reasons as to why your dog is doing the things he does while you’re away. The ASPCA has a great article on separation anxiety, in which they detail different medical conditions or other behavioral issues that could be the cause of the undesirable behaviors.

Your dog is not punishing you.

A lot of people don’t recognize separation anxiety for what it is, and think their dog is “punishing” them for leaving him home. This is not the case, and I’m sure results in a lot of frustration on the dog’s side of things. Think of it – if you were that poor little guy, in a total panic every time your best friend left the house, and they come home and yell at you for God knows what, how would YOU feel? So try not to get angry. Dogs with separation anxiety will benefit much more from a little more patience and tender loving care on your part, than they will yelling.

All that said, here are some of the key things I learned that helped me get a handle on my dog’s separation anxiety.

Getting A Handle on Separation Anxiety

Don’t say goodbye.

Dogs don’t need to say goodbye; it’s a human thing. Making a big scene out of your leaving only draws attention to it, and makes the dog think that something to be concerned about is about to happen, i.e., your leaving. This part was definitely harder on me than the dog. I know it’s crazy, but I have this burning desire to shower my dog in hugs and kisses before I leave the house. I think learning not to do that helped him out a lot. My departure became no big deal, because I didn’t make it a big deal.

Don’t make a big deal about your return.

On the same token as saying goodbye, you don’t need to make a big to-do out of your return. Doing this will reinforce your dog’s belief that you being away was something to fret over. I worked with a 10 minute rule. Upon my return, I would completely ignore my dog for the first ten minutes, giving myself a chance to settle in, and him a chance to settle down. Rather than the usual ‘OH MY GOD I MISSED YOU SO MUCH’ greeting, I’d just calmly walk in and go about settling in. Once things calmed down a bit, and he went about his business, we could go about our business as usual, and my homecoming became increasingly less of something to go crazy over.

Vary your routine.

A lot of dogs with separation anxiety become attuned to their owner’s habits and routine. For a dog with separation anxiety, that routine can become a nightmare of overwhelming anticipation. Oh no, she’s putting on her coat, she’s getting ready to leave. Uh oh, here comes the travel mug, etc., etc. Varying your pre-exit routine can break up that building anticipation, and help to curb it a little. Some things you do before you leave are impossible not to do just before you leave, so it can help to do those things when you don’t need to. For example, I always put on my coat and grab my keys before leaving the house. So, when I was home and not planning on going anywhere, I’d put on my coat and walk around with my keys and do laundry, or cook dinner instead. That way those triggers become less of a trigger, because they are not always an indication of what’s about to happen next.

Give your dog a reason to enjoy alone time.

This one is key. Giving your dog a reason to want to spend time by himself will be your best friend. With this, you have to find what motivates your dog most. Maybe it’s a certain toy, or a particular kind of treat. Leaving your dog with something he absolutely goes crazy for will help take the focus off of your departure, and put it onto something he loves. For me, it was chicken. I’d buy a roast chicken from the store once a week, eat off of it for one meal, and then shred the rest for stuffing a Kong toy. Every time I left the house, we played a little game. I’d show him the stuffed toy, and then make him stay where he couldn’t see what I was doing. Then I’d hide the toy, and just before I shut the door on exit, yell “Find it!” (Find it was a game he knew already). This turned my leaving into a fun game. Leave so I can go find my toy and eat that chicken! This worked so well, because it not only took the focus off of my leaving, but it also tired him out mentally (having to find the Kong, and then working to get the food out), so he would take a nap afterwards. I know this because I would also frequently videotape him upon leaving to see our progress.

When you use this tactic, you’ll want to keep a few things in mind:

  • This should be something that your dog only gets when you’re gone. If he gets it the rest of the time, what’s so special about it? When I first started doing this, Berkley would leave the toy until I got home, and upon my return, go and get it. But, I would take it away, so he quickly learned that if he wanted to eat that chicken, he was going to have to do it while I was gone, or he wouldn’t get any.
  • If your dog’s number one motivator is something he shouldn’t be left unsupervised with, you’re going to have to find something else. Don’t be leaving your dog with something like a rawhide or something that could cause him harm unattended.

Practice when you have the time.

One nice thing about separation anxiety, is that you have the ability to control the stimulus (i.e., you leaving), so it’s something you can practice when you have time. For me, my dog got anxious even if I was just behind a closed door, so I’d have “alone time practice” when I had time. I’d put him in a room by himself with a really yummy treat. When time’s up, the treat goes away. You never want to put your dog under major duress to do this. The point is to do it to a point where he doesn’t get too anxious, and then keep increasing the time so he gets increasingly more able to deal with your absence.

Tire him out!

A tired dog has less mental energy for worrying. Leaving your dog good and tired can do wonders for curbing separation anxiety. Get up earlier and have a good play session, or work on tricks you’re learning together. I used to take Berkley for a half an hour walk before work, where we’d practice all his healing commands and whatnot. I knew this really tired out his brain, and was a great way to start the day for him.

Talk to your Veterinarian.

Speaking with your vet or a behaviorist is a must, especially in extreme cases. Plus, they most likely know your dog a lot better than you think, and will probably have some good tips to offer. So don’t be afraid to tell them what you’re dealing with and ask for their expert opinion! I don’t know what I would’ve done without the guidance of mine.

Be patient.

Out of everything, this one’s the toughest, but believe me, it’s worth it. After a lot of hard work and patience, I can now leave the house with the confidence of knowing that it, and my dog, will be in one happy piece when I return.

Separation anxiety is rough, and one tough nut to crack. But it’s not impossible. With the right attitude, and a whole bunch of patience and determination, it won’t be long until your dog barely notices that you’ve left the house.


12 Comments on Tips for Dealing with Separation Anxiety

  1. I love what you’ve written about working with separation anxiety! This is a fabulous resource. I am going to encourage clients and friends to read what you’ve written. I love how you gave training tips for humans as well as dogs.

    I think it’s important to acknowledge what comes up for the human when they leave. Becoming aware of our routines and needs around goodbyes is valuable. I know I find it really difficult to leave my dogs at home. I am fortunate that I can bring them to work with me fairly often, but then it seems extra hard when I have to leave them at home. I’ve joked with my co-workers about MY separation anxiety.

    I think the need to say goodbye is pretty big for humans. Can you imagine leaving the house without telling your children that you’re leaving, where you’re going, and when you’re coming back? I think it would be odd not to do so. However, this is a human trait, and not so important for our dogs. I think it’s a good example of how our behavior as humans sometimes creates problems for our dogs. (I’m not saying we create separation anxiety, but that if it’s there, we may unintentionally be exacerbating it.)

    Thanks for putting this together!

  2. Thanks Kirst! I really appreciate your feedback! I completely agree that a lot of what we do creates problems for our dogs, unbeknownst to us.

  3. Hi there! I’m currently working with a trainer for our dog’s seperation anxiety. You mentioned the anxiety wraps and pheremones. I was just curious how those worked for you?

    • Hi, thanks for your comment. I didn’t have any luck with the pheremones (DAP). I also did not have much luck with the wraps, but a lot of people swear by them. I think it just depends on the dog. Also, I believe they don’t recommend leaving the wraps on the dog unless you’re there to supervise, so they are not really an option for when you have to leave your dog alone. Best of luck!

  4. I want to take time to think you for such a good article on separation. I too have spoiled my dog to the hilt. We lost our older dog a few months ago and my Maggie Mae suffers from separation anxiety now. Every time me and my husband (both retired) want to get away for the day my dog does not want to stay in the cage by herself. I have read so many things and try different things and nothing seemed to work until I applied the tips in your article. You definitely shared from personal experience. I filled her kongs with peanut butter and treats in one and hot dogs in the other. I didn’t even say buy to her and greet her when I came home. I also added a 1/2 ProSense
    calming tablet. Finally it all worked she didn’t panic and was quiet when we left and when we came home. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I just can’t thank you enough.

  5. Hi,
    Thanks for the tips. Yes, we are working on that here, times 2. Adopted one then, just about got past that, and adopted another little rescue, and now they feed on each other!
    So, we are back to working on this.
    Tried the treats scattered around, really does help. Soothing music, some old clothes with our smell. They both are really compulsive about it.
    First time I left my little girl, with my old gal, she tried to rip the door frame off. Fashioned a plexiglass gate for swinging across the door to stop that. I did not at that time really realize it is in fact a panic attack, but I remained calm, and just tried to figure out how to not let that happen again.
    The Dog Whisperer says he rehabilitates dogs. BUT he trains people!
    Still a work

  6. I have a 9 year old Bichon who came to our family as a rescue from the dog shelter in our area 4 years ago. We were told Donovan was found abandoned. I am home every day with Donovan.Donovan has been suffering from separation anxiety since he joined our family. My veterinarian is aware and has given us many things to try like not saying goodbye and not making a big deal when we come home. Also we’ve tried the thunder jacket as well. He urinates on everything when we left, so we have started putting a dog wrap on him that he wears while in the house. .And the worst part is he chews on himself causing huge sores and expensive veterinary visits. He only chews himself when I have needed to leave him overnight. Even though I make arrangements for people to come to the house, feed him and walk him, when I come home he either has started or he begins chewing on himself. I have also tried antianxiety medication that seems to make him worse. What do I do ???? I only need to leave him a couple times a year, we are together all the time. I have a new grandaughter now that I would like to visit out of State, but what is going to happen to Donovan ?.

    • Thanks for sharing. It can be a really long, tough process, but one that is well worth the wait in the end. Keep working with your vet and don’t lose hope. Good luck!

  7. Thank you so much for sharing this! My pup and I are struggling so much at the moment. We recently moved house and my schedule has changed and she is just not adjusting. I have been trying to ‘practice’, putting on my coat and shoes, leaving and coming back after short times, shutting doors so she can’t see me while I’m in the house.

    It is just so great to know someone else has been through what I am going through! Thank you for your great words of advice!!

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