Dogs are very social animals, and they see themselves as part
of the human pack. Unfortunately some dogs can become so attached to
individuals in the pack that if left alone, they get extremely stressed
and anxious. These dogs will often try to escape from their crate or
confinement, causing great destruction and self-injury. It is not fully
understood why some dogs suffer from separation anxiety, while others
under the same circumstances don't. However, there are a few risk
factors that you should be aware of, especially if your dog tends to be
a bit anxious in general.
- Guardianship transition, such as being surrendered to or adopted from a shelter.
- Change in the dog or family’s routine.
- Moving to a new environment.
- Household members moving in or moving out.
- Reduction in the amount of time spent with the dog, especially if the dog has become accustomed to having more time with the family, such as during a vacation.
- After events that could be stressful to the dog such as hospitalization or boarding.
- Dogs that have separation anxiety will often exhibit all or some of the following signs when left alone:
- Barking, whining and howling.
- Inappropriate elimination.
- Destructive behavior such as excessive chewing and digging.
- Self-injury, such as scraped paws and nose, broken nails, and even broken teeth.
- Excessive drooling.
- Pacing back and forth excessively on a specific path.
- There are three main intervention modalities that can be used to address separation anxiety. In severe cases, all of these need to be used at the same time. :
- Behavioral modification:
- Minimize the emotional energy you display during departures and arrivals. Be very low key any time you leave your dog, and especially when you return. Make a very gradual transition around these times and force yourself to ignore your dog shortly before you leave and when you come back.
- If possible, get your dog used to a crate in the hope that he or she will instinctively feel more secure in a smaller den-like environment. However, for some dogs the crate can increase anxiety, and if this is the case try confinement to a room or an area using baby gates.
- Give your dog something special they like to occupy them when you leave, creating a good association with your departures. You can use special chew toys, food puzzles, and frozen KONG® toys stuffed with something really tasty like peanut butter or cream cheese. Make these treats special, and only use them when your dog is left alone.
- Increase the amount of playtime and exercise that your dog gets. Physically and mentally demanding activities that involve running, fetching and agility are especially helpful. A tired dog is a happy dog!
- Ideally you will work with a professional to help develop a program of desensitization and counterconditioning allowing your dog to be left alone. This type of program typically consists of a few weeks of exercises simulating your arrival and departure, slowly increasing the time you are physically away from your dog. Be patient as this process can take time to work. You can see sample training exercises below.
- When looking for professional help, watch for these titles: “Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist” (CAAB or ACAAB), “Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists” (Dip ACVB) or “Certified Professional Dog Trainer” (CPDT).
- Anti anxiety supplements and gadgets:
- Pet stores are full of anti-anxiety products such as soothing jackets, nutraceuticals, supplements, special diets, probiotics, and calming pheromones.These products are unlikely to be enough on their own except in extremely mild cases, but may contribute to a larger effort.
- CBD has become popular for treating many conditions, but there is anecdotal evidence that CBD is not very helpful for canine anxiety. More research is needed on this subject.
- Medical treatment:
- Drug therapy can be very effective especially when used in conjunction with behavior modification. It can greatly help the dog progress through the behavior modification program. In severe cases drug therapy should be started at the same time as behavioral modification.
- There are many safe anti-anxiety drug options for dogs. Consult with your veterinarian about which one will be best to use, and what is the appropriate dose and frequency for your dog. You may need to try a few medications to find what works best, so don’t give up if things don’t improve right away.
- While some dogs will require a long course of medical treatment, even lifelong in some cases, other dogs can with time and training be weaned off anti-anxiety medications.
- Punishing your dog for behavior related to separation
anxiety is unproductive and may make things worse by making your dog
even more anxious. Your dog's behavior is not the result of
disobedience or spite, but a pure distress response to being anxious
and scared when left alone.
- Engage your veterinarian as soon as possible if you suspect that your dog has separation anxiety. Medical causes are not common, but should be ruled out. Untreated anxiety can also snowball and become much more difficult to treat.
- This behavioral issue is very common, and most veterinarians have a lot of experience treating this condition. You don’t have to handle this alone!
- Anti-anxiety drugs are not always the first treatment option. However, do not feel guilty about using them to help your dog before the issue becomes unmanageable. Pets parents often wait too long to incorporate these drugs into the treatment plan.
- Some dogs will do better in a crate with a clothing item that smells like you, as well as leaving the radio or TV on. You might also want to try to cover part of the crate to make it feel more like a den.
- Getting another pet to keep your dog company is unlikely to help reduce your pet separation anxiety. However, it is unpredictable and there are cases in which it can help. Consult with a professional before making the decision.
Sample Training Exercises
This is just one example of an anti-anxiety training routine. You are highly encouraged to work with your veterinarian and a professional behaviorist or trainer.
- 1st exercise: Dogs will express “pre-departure anxiety” associated with certain clues related to your departure, such as getting your coat and car keys. Expose your dog to these cues a few times a day without departing. For example, put on your shoes and coat and jingle your keys, but do not leave the house.
- 2nd exercise: Make sure your dog is watching you, and pretend to leave but stop short of opening the door. Once your dog is calm, give him or her a treat. Repeat this several times a day. If your dog suffers from severe separation anxiety, you might have to start these exercises at an internal door before graduating to an exit door.
- 3rd exercise: Repeat the 2nd exercise, but this time open and close the door while remaining inside with your dog. Open and close the door a few times while observing your dog, and give a treat once he or she relaxes. Repeat this exercise a few times throughout the day.
- 4th exercise: In this exercise, progress further by leaving your home and closing the door behind you. Return immediately. Reward your dog once he or she relaxes.
- 5th exercise: Once you are able to close the door behind you with your dog remaining calm, slowly increase the amount of time the door is closed, and begin to move farther away. Try to return while your dog is still calm so that you may reward their behavior with a treat.