Updated: May 9, 2021
What is separation anxiety?
In dogs, it's anxiety that manifests when they are separated from their person. It's one of the most common conditions - 20-40% of dogs in North America have this devastating condition. Separation anxiety in pets can be compared to emotional disorders in humans, such as phobic disorders and panic attacks. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety can display a range of behaviors, from mild anxiety to uncontrollable panic when left alone.
What causes separation anxiety?
That's not an easy answer. There's a lot of different things that can cause separation anxiety. Based on our experience, the following can predict a dog developing separation anxiety:
Multiple re-homes Death/departure of family member
Illness or malnutrition during puppyhood New family member
Singleton puppies Traumatic event
Removal from litter too early Noise phobia
Sudden long absences Seizure disorders
Old age/pain-related Genetic disposition
What does not cause separation anxiety?
Letting your dog sleep in your bed, lack of obedience training, talking to your dog like they are a person, and improper crate training are just some of the things that some people believe causes separation anxiety. In fact, none of these things do! Rest assured, you can let your dog sleep in your bed without fear that it will suddenly destroy your furniture when you leave the house.
What does separation anxiety look like?
Common signs: Epic destruction, drooling excessively, howling, barking, trying to escape the home or the crate, self-harm, indoor accidents, excessive greeting on your return, vomiting, urination or defecation, too anxious to eat, door dashing/anxiety during pre-departure routine
If you think your dog may have developed separation anxiety, a visit to your vet is a good idea. This will allow you to rule out a few other possibilities that could be causing your pet's behavior such as a medical issue, inadequate exercise or enrichment, thunderstorm/noise phobias, or insufficient opportunities to eliminate.
Can food toys help calm my dog down?
Wouldn't that be nice? Food toys are a good distraction, but they usually won't distract your dog long enough to prevent the anxiety from coming on when you leave. Once the food is gone, the anxiety will set in. Our recommendation is to not use food toys or treats to try to calm your pup before heading out the door. There are other coping strategies that we reinforce when working with dogs who are suffering. A good desensitization protocol is based on the dog's threshold, moves at the dog's pace, and teaches the dog coping skills to being left alone.
Goal: Have the dog feel NO fear, not mild fear.
So what do I do?
Our recommendation is to work with a trainer to help soothe your dog's separation anxiety. If that's not an option, suspend absences as much as possible. Have a friend or family member come over to walk or play with your dog while you're not home or hire a pet-sitter. If you ignore your dog's separation anxiety, your dog will continue to suffer and the problem will get worse.
There's no telling how long it could take for your dog to get better once you start to work on the problem. We've seen dogs with mild separation anxiety struggle for over a year, while other dogs with severe anxiety take less time than that. The worst thing that you can do is hope that it will go away on its own or that your dog will get used to being alone.
Separation anxiety calls for a desensitization protocol and here's where we can help.
Let's get started with training!
A webcam is your best friend. Set up a camera (with audio) where you think your dog is most likely to be when having separation anxiety. If they've been known to destroy the living room sofa while also urinating on the kitchen floor, multiple cameras may need to be put in place depending on how your home is arranged.
Try these "Missions"
Power up your camera and take note of these "missions" that you can do while your dog is lying on the couch. Hang out with your dog for a few minutes before diving in and make sure you take a 30-90 second break in between each mission. Do these missions daily during different times of day and take notes about your dog's behavior after studying your webcam's video.
Walk to the door, touch the doorknob, and return
Walk to the door, open the door a crack, and return
Walk to the door, open the door, step out, and immediately return
Grab keys and walk to the door, touch the doorknob and return
Go out the door, close it, wait three seconds, and return
It will take time (I mean, a lot of time) to see progress with separation anxiety. Give your dog a minimum of four weeks to start seeing even the slightest hint of progress. During those four weeks of training, suspend absences (here's where the pet-sitter comes in) and give your dog enrichment activities when you are home.
Let us know how we can help keep your pooch happy and healthy! We're happy to lend a caring ear, as well as help you find a solid trainer and/or vet. Hopefully, you'll find the training protocol helpful and it will start you on your training journey!