Dealing with Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Tips and Tricks From a Top Trainer

Separation anxiety is a lot more serious than the name implies.

A dog suffering from separation anxiety will become panicky every time he’s left alone, destroying things, howling or barking nonstop, and even urinating on your belongings. If it’s not addressed promptly, separation anxiety can lead to mental and physical deterioration.

Tonya Wilhelm from GlobalDogTraining.com believes separation anxiety is fixable, as long as you have a plan of action and are willing to put in the necessary work. Wilhelm is a dog training specialist, author and public speaker. She was recently voted as one of the top 10 dog trainers in the United States.

THK: What causes separation anxiety in dogs?

Tonya Wilhelm: Separation anxiety for dogs can be triggered by a variety of situations in a dog’s life. Change—such as an addition or removal of a family member, a new baby, a child going off to school or a family pet passing—is a common situation that can springboard separation anxiety.

Another common reason a dog may develop separation anxiety is a traumatic event occurring when the pet was left at home, such as a big thunderstorm, construction, fire or home robbery. Some dogs are sensitive to being left at a boarding facility, shelter, groomer or veterinarian’s office and the stress level is overwhelming. Lack of experience being left alone is another common reason a dog may develop separation anxiety. For example, if a school teacher brings home a puppy in the summer, but never teaches the puppy to be alone, when they go back to work in the fall, the puppy does not know how to deal with the work day.

THK: Are some dog breeds more prone to it than others?

TW: When I wrote [my book] Please Stay: Help For A Dog With Separation Anxiety, I scoured various research studies on separation anxiety. In those studies, there were mixed results. I think the bottom line is that any dog and any breed can develop separation anxiety. I feel the biggest factor is the dog’s personality and how they respond to situations such as change and stress. Dogs that are prone to be nervous, clingy or lack self-confidence are at a higher risk of developing separation anxiety.

THK: Are some dogs born anxious or is it something that develops over time?

TW: Currently there is a lot of research being done on fears, phobias and genetics. Although some dogs are born with more of a reservation or fearfulness, proper socialization can greatly reduce the risk of a dog developing phobias or extreme fears.

THK: Are there specific behaviors dog owners exhibit that can cause (or worsen) separation anxiety early on?

TW: Teaching a dog to learn to be alone for short and tolerable times is key. Provide the dog with a fun interactive toy, step out into the other room for two to five minutes and return. At other times, tell your dog “just a minute,” step out the door and return. A pet parent should keep comings and goings low-key (a quick goodbye and hello vs. a big ordeal).

Ignoring dogs when they are clingy or demanding attention, and rewarding them for laying quietly or playing alone with their toys, can help assist a dog in confident alone behavior.

THK: What are the most common symptoms of separation anxiety?

TW: Separation anxiety can present itself in a variety of ways. A dog may do anything including excessive barking, howling, pacing, drooling, shaking, elimination, vomiting, self-mutilation and escaping the environment. No two dogs have the exact same symptoms or degree.

THK: Is it common for dogs with separation anxiety to become destructive when the owners leave? Why is this?

TW: When a dog has separation anxiety, he is in a panic. He doesn’t know where he is going, but he just wants to go. This may show itself in the form of digging, eating door jams or window sills. He may also take to eating anything in sight, or root around in whatever is available. That excess energy from his stress needs to be relieved, and anything in the path is fair game.

©istockphoto/ROMAOSLO

©istockphoto/ROMAOSLO

THK: Is it common for dog owners to mistake separation anxiety with “bad behavior” or other issues?

TW: The first thing a dog parent should do is determine if their dog truly has separation anxiety or if he is just bored, has not learned to be alone in the house or is not fully housetrained. One of the best ways to determine this is to leave a video recording device on while the dog is left alone. Does the dog seem panicked when the owner leaves, rushing to the windows, whining, barking, scratching? Or does he settle down pretty quickly, or just look for garbage or something else fun to get into? Dogs with true separation anxiety also tend to show signs of getting anxious prior to the owner leaving. They may follow the owner room to room, pant more, eyes enlarged or seem more clingy.

THK: What can you do to help a dog with mild separation anxiety?

TW: If a dog can tolerate the owner leaving without destruction or panic, teaching that dog how to interact with treat toys while the owner steps outside for five minutes is a good start. Teaching that dog a down-stay while the dog parent leaves the room will also assist when the owner leaves the house. Exercise and mental games go a long way in building up confidence in a dog, so don’t underestimate brain games.

Make sure any physical exercise is finished at least 30-60 minutes prior to a departure so the dog can calm down. A gentle massage before leaving is a great addition to any program. Play music, such as Through A Dog’s Ear during bedtime, massage time and leaving. Calming aids such as Adaptil, Shen Calmer and Botanical Animal Independence is helpful. An energetically cooling diet such as rabbit, cod or duck along with Blood Tonics such as sardines, sweet potatoes, eggs and spinach can assist in helping a dog deal with his nervous energy.

THK: What about dogs with a more serious problem? How do you go about helping a dog deal with it?

TW: If a pet owner has determined that her dog panics or is distressed when she leaves, the first step is their veterinarian. A pet parent will need to ensure their dog isn’t hiding a medical condition that needs to be addressed first. A full CBC blood panel, urinalysis and thyroid check along with a thorough physical should be conducted. Even if it is determined a dog has a medical condition triggering anxiety, a qualified dog behavior counselor should also be called in. A good coach will assist a pet parent in what steps are needed to maximize success and decrees stress.

Separation anxiety should not be taken lightly. A dog can have a full blown panic attack and even harm himself while you are away. To allow a dog to repeat this anxiety over and over is not only disrespectful to the dog, it is inhumane.

A successful treatment plan is about teaching a dog new emotions while the dog parent is gone. It’s not about teaching him not to do something, but rather what to do and how to feel. The goal is to achieve a relaxed, comfortable dog during a departure. This is not a quick treatment plan, but one that has a very specific step by step process that takes practice, patience and kindness.

The basic plan, in a nutshell, is to teach the dog to be relaxed at small departure intervals and triggers that are associated with leaving. The beginning steps typically go very slow, a few seconds at a time. For example, hand your dog a good chew treat or filled toy, and step out of the room, but stay in sight for 10 seconds, then return and remove the toy. Another example: you put on your shoes, coat, hat and then play fetch in the house. Or, put on your work clothes, toss a handful of treats, open the door, step out, shut the door, and then enter the house. As your dog gets comfortable with these various situations, increase the duration behind the closed door.

A successful treatment plan means that your dog cannot have anxiety when left alone. This means that you will have to think long and hard at ways to prevent alone time while you are slowly building your dog’s association that you are leaving to a good thing. Call in all family members to look at schedules so that you can modify situations so your dog is not alone. If you cannot find full coverage, enlist other family members, neighbors, pet sitters, dog daycares or college students. This will be a temporary situation until you build your dog’s tolerance and time being left alone.

THK: Does exercise (or giving your dog active exercises/jobs to do) help with separation anxiety? What about puzzle toys or other things to tire the mind/body?

TW: Physical and mental exercise is important for every dog, particularly when a dog has pent-up energy. A dog that is stressed and shows his stress by acting out can benefit from exercise and games, which will help alleviate some of this energy in a more appropriate way. When a dog has plenty of appropriate physical and mental activities, this will aid in his treatment. It is not a cure, but an aid.

THK: When is medication a good option?

TW: The use of prescription anti-anxiety medications may be needed for some dogs, particularly if an owner is unable to find coverage for a specific alone time. Some dogs are in such distress that they can and will injure themselves during departures. A medication may help lessen or diminish the terror when left alone. This window also helps you work on a desensitization program and help him learn new associations with you leaving. Finding the right drug, or drug combination, may be a bit of a trial and error, so having an open conversation with your veterinarian is key.

The use of medications should not be taken lightly and must be used along with a treatment plan and not instead of one. The goal is to eliminate the use of pharmaceuticals. Long term use of medications can destroy your dog’s organ functions, which also means your veterinarian will want to do a full physical including blood work and urinalysis prior to prescribing and during treatment.

Meet the Author: Diana Bocco

Diana Bocco is a full-time writer and avid adventurer. She's gone hiking in Siberia,snorkeling in Thailand, and canoeing in the Mekong River. She also loves caves and has been known to get lost in one or five around the world. Diana's work has been published in the Discovery Channel website, Yahoo!, Popular Mechanics, and more. You can read more of her work on her website at www.dianabocco.com

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