Dealing with canine separation anxiety sucks.
My dog Carter had a pretty bad case and it was heart breaking to watch. He’d panic every time I left the house, and that panic continued well after I was gone. I felt absolutely helpless.
I read every book and article I could get my hands on, and although I’d see a slight improvement on occasion his anxiety kept getting worse. Unable to get control of the situation on my own I reached out for help.
Finally with the help of a wonderful trainer I was able to start managing his anxiety. For me the biggest difference was understanding that management had to be done in small parts, and understanding that progress takes time.
Here’s what I learned, and how I ended up managing my dog’s separation anxiety.
The Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Does your dog get anxious and panic when you leave? Do they bark, whine or howl anytime you’re out of sight? Do they try to follow you out the door as you’re leaving? If so they’re exhibiting signs of separation anxiety.
Keep in mind not all problem behaviors are the result of separation anxiety. If you come home to find that your dog has chewed up your shoes it may be due to boredom and not knowing of a better way to keep himself entertained. Issues that are caused by separation anxiety happen when you leave, in your absence and sometimes as you’re getting ready to leave.
Typically dogs with separation anxiety exhibit these troublesome behaviors as you’re leaving, but depending on the severity of your dog’s anxiety those behaviors can continue for hours. The most common symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs include:
- Barking, whining, howling
- Trying to follow you, sneak out the door
- Destructive behaviors such as chewing, digging
- Defecating, urinating in the house
- Excessive drooling
- Excessive panting
- Hyperactivity or aggression as you’re leaving
- Hiding when you leave
- Not eating
It’s not fully understood why some dogs suffer from separation anxiety and others don’t. But remember, your dog’s behaviors are part of a panic response. Your dog isn’t trying to punish you! They just want you to come home! – Humane Society of the United States
Why Separation Anxiety Needs To Be Managed
Separation anxiety in dogs is like any other anxiety issue — it’s a fear based behavior. If you or anyone you know has suffered from anxiety you know how exhausting and serious it is — especially when left untreated.
Dogs with separation anxiety panic when their owner leaves, and sadly that panic can continue for hours. That’s a terrible way to live, and it has serious implications when it comes to their overall well being.
Unfortunately our dogs can’t tell us exactly why they’re so anxious, and they’ll continue to panic until the issue is addressed. For most dogs separation anxiety is progressive, and it will continue to get worse over time. If you’re able to intervene early we can stop the behavior before it gets that serious.
Assess The Severity Of Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety
Before diving in for treatment options it’s important to take a step back and assess the severity of your dog’s separation anxiety. Does your dog exhibit signs of extreme panic when you’re gone such as trying to escape or howling for hours? If so your dog has a severe case, and those are tricky to manage.
Because severe cases are so hard to treat I recommend getting help from a professional behaviorist or trainer. Separation anxiety can cause long periods of extreme panic in dogs, and in severe cases like that you likely need professional help to make it manageable.
Does your dog try to sneak through the door as you’re leaving or whine for a few minutes after you leave before setting down? That’s moderate separation anxiety, and makes it more manageable. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it is doable. However, if your dog’s anxiety seems to get worse over time please seek out help — these issues get worse over time if not properly addressed.
5 Tips For Managing Canine Separation Anxiety
Bad news first. Separation anxiety is a behavior that won’t just get better on it’s own; without management it will worse.
Dogs that have had separation anxiety for some time will need counter conditioning to get rid of all the negative associations they have with being alone. It’s important to understand that managing separation anxiety will take a lot of time and commitment on your part; it can’t be cured overnight.
At this point you may be wondering why I’m pointing out all of these negatives. Well, when I was looking for help dealing with my own dog’s separation anxiety the articles I read never addressed how difficult managing it can be. So when I didn’t see results overnight I assumed it was because I failed. Turns out treating anxiety isn’t that simple.
So I’m not going to sugarcoat this. These tips will work, but they take a lot of commitment on your part. Step by step, repeating the same things over and over. It will get tedious, but with time you will start to see improvements.
Now let’s move onto the good part. You can help your dog with proper management. My previous dog Carter had a pretty bad case of separation anxiety, and these tips (along with some patience and understanding) helped make it manageable. Here’s 5 steps for managing canine separation anxiety.
1. Keep Your Dog Calm As You Practice Getting Ready
Dogs know our routines just as well as we do, and for many the routine of getting ready for work causes our dogs to start getting anxious before we even step out the door. To help manage you dog’s separation anxiety it’s important to keep them calm while doing your getting ready routine. Your getting ready routine includes all of the things you do before going to work such as taking a shower, getting dressed, doing your hair/makeup, putting on your shoes, and grabbing your keys/purse.
Dogs are smart. They know that once you’ve showered and start getting dressed in the morning you’re getting ready to leave. And if your dog has separation anxiety every little thing you do in the morning acts as a trigger, causing them to start getting anxious. To help manage their anxiety your goal will be to turn those parts of your routine into a positive (or at the very least neutral) experience for them. And to do that you’ll need to work on some counter conditioning and desensitization with your dog.
Pick a time when have some extra time to work with your dog. Then start practicing keeping your dog calm while you do one of the activities from your getting ready routine.
Keep in mind each dog is different — and the part of your routine that you’ll want to start with is one that causes the least amount of anxiety in your dog. For example, the act of putting on your shoes may cause a lot of anxiety in your dog because it’s probably one of the very last things you do before you leave. Start with a part of your routine that doesn’t make your dog quite so anxious.
Once you’ve chosen a part of your routine it’s time to work on keeping your dog calm while you practice it. This is what the goal of counter conditioning and desensitization is — changing your dog’s emotional response to something. Now it’s easier said than done, but with repetition and proper management you can change the way your dog reacts to situations or stimuli.
How to Keep Your Dog Calm As You Get Ready
For this example let’s say you’ve chosen to work on keeping your dog calm while you brush your teeth — an activity that causes a little bit of anxiety in your dog, but not to the point of being unmanageable.
The easiest way to turn the act of brushing your teeth into a more positive experience for your dog (rather than an anxiety inducing one) is to use food. As your dog is watching you get ready to brush your teeth toss a treat their…