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The first step in successfully treating separation anxiety is understanding separation anxiety in dogs.
And the first thing to understand is you are not alone. Separation anxiety can be hard on both your dog and you, but I'm here for you!
This is the first in our 3-part live discussion support series on separation anxiety - focusing on education and connection for all things separation anxiety and answering your questions, through my experience as a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer and dog mom.
(If you would like to watch the recorded live version of this discussion with Q&A from dog parents like you and detailed explanations of these aspects of separation anxiety, you can register to watch the recording above.)
What exactly is separation anxiety/separation distress?
The specific clinical definition for separation anxiety is distinct from separation or isolation distress. Both share the distress behavior signs, but with true separation anxiety, dogs can only remain calm with the presence of their one person or maybe their human couple (dog parents/guardians) - a more rare occurrence.
Most dogs who show anxious behaviors can be calmed and comfortable with any caring human present (friend, dog sitter, etc) - a much more common scenario that dog owners face.
For purposes of simplicity and meaningfulness to more pet parents, we're using the term "separation anxiety" for the broader definition here.
What separation anxiety is...
- A behavior disorder describing dogs experiencing anxiety and/or distress in relation with being isolated or being separated from their guardians
- Similar to anxiety disorders such as panic attacks in humans
- Dogs in a behavioral crisis with the implications of this important to consider as early as possible
- Best managed by suspending alone time (& then working gradually with your dog)
- Best treated by a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer or Behavior Consultant
What separation anxiety is NOT...
- Anything your dog can control
- Anything you've done to create
- A problem that will resolve on its own
- Something that should be punished
- A dog acting out of spite
- Something confinement, exercise, obedience, or structure will "fix"
And a little inspiration for something all of us who are separation anxiety pet parents can relate to and use:
"Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in & day out." ~ Robert Collier
How to identify separation anxiety in your dog
With separation anxiety, dogs tend to show common alone time distress behaviors. This isn't an exhaustive list, but here are some separation anxiety signs to watch for in your dog's behavior:
Pre-departure anxious behavior signs include:
All of these behaviors and more can appear in your dog during your departure routine such as gathering keys, putting on shoes, walking toward the door... whatever you tend to do when you get ready to leave. Your dog learns "cues" that usually precede his or her beloved owner's departure.
Note: You may see some of these signs in your excited dog who does not have separation anxiety. If you have a dog who loves to go on walks, for example, it's not unusual to have an excited, happy dog vocalizing/shadowing/pacing around at the first sign of putting your shoes on or whatever looks like walk time. You'll be able to spot the emotional difference - and it's what happens AFTER you leave that is vastly different.
Time of/during absence signs of distress include:
- Following to door
- Excessive barking/ whining/ howling
- Frantic escape attempts
- Destructive behavior (near doors & windows)
- Panting, drooling, excessive salivation, elimination/submissive or excitement urination/accidents from a completely house trained dog, self-mutilation (severe separation anxiety or confinement can involve leg chewing or other harmful chewing behaviors)
- Inability to settle/relax
- Loss of appetite/ anorexia
Upon return/post departure anxious behavioral signs to watch for are:
- Excessive greetings
- Inability to relax
- GI upset
- Increased overall stress
- Decreased ability to recover from stressful events
Why some dogs develop separation anxiety and other dogs don't
There is still no known direct cause for separation anxiety in dogs and how dogs develop separation anxiety despite being one of the most researched canine behavior disorders. We do know many of the influences though...
- Pain, discomfort, gastrointestinal issue, underlying health issues/ medical problems (75-80% of my separation anxiety clients have GI issues.)
With any behavior issue, it's important to rule out health issues before undergoing behavior modification. See your veterinarian for a detailed check-up including bloodwork before you begin treating separation anxiety so you know if health issues could be the root cause of your dog's anxiety. You could save a lot of effort and money by doing a medical check first!
- Life-changing event: loss of family member, companion animal, divorce, child moving away
- Traumatic events
- Often co-exists with sound sensitivity
- While not entirely understood, we have id'd genetic elements that play roles in many dogs suffering with separation anxiety
- Helps explain alone time issues in puppies
Previous learning history
- Past traumatic experiences while alone
- Extended alone time while in panicked state (why it's good to address early, increases over time)
- Use of punishment in attempt to modify behavior
- Age vs alone time history
Common myths & misconceptions about separation anxiety
- Separation anxiety isn't treatable.
- You need to use crate training in separation anxiety training to crate your dog/puppy (especially if they exhibit destructive behaviors).
- Puppy separation anxiety doesn't exist - puppies can't have separation anxiety. Just let them "cry it out."
- Attention/access to your bed, furniture - you cause or prevent separation anxiety by letting/not letting your dog sleep with you.
- Greeting before & after arriving home will make separation anxiety worse
- Behavior medication will leave your dog a zombie/change their personality/should be a last resort
(For more on myths & facts of separation anxiety, you can find my myth-busting guide here. It helps to separate real information from misinformation when you're helping your dog with something so central to your dog's life and wellbeing!)
The 3 keys to separation anxiety in dogs...
#1. The most vital key to dog separation anxiety success: suspending absences your dog can't handle.
What does that mean? It means that while you're in the process of behavior modification for your dog's separation anxiety, you will not be leaving your dog alone for any period of time he/she cannot handle. This is your number one, necessary first step.
It's vital because if you leave your dog when they are still anxious and cannot cope with being left alone, you will inadvertently reinforce their panicked state by returning to them in this state. In other words, you will accidentally reward their anxiety by coming back to them when they're anxious.
This may mean making some lifestyle changes for a few weeks or months while your dog's separation anxiety is being treated, but it will be well worth it in the long run. It's only temporary, and your dog will be so grateful to you for making things easier on them while they're going through this tough time.
Maybe your dog can't handle even very short periods, maybe it's not even a minute alone or maybe it's a half hour or an hour... whatever it is, watch your dog (video camera, phone, etc) and determine what that time is to know your base comfort zone. For now, suspend any absences beyond that as we begin to work with your dog.
There are a few different ways to manage your absences so your dog doesn't become overwhelmed. You can start by breaking up your absences into very short periods of time (1-5 minutes) and gradually increasing the duration as your dog becomes more comfortable. Or, if your dog does better with someone else present, you can have a friend, family member, or dog walker come over to spend time with your pup while you're gone.
This is the most important part of helping a dog with separation anxiety - making sure they are not left in a state of anxiety. It may seem like a pain at first, but it's so worth it to help your dog feel better!
#2. Why suspend absences your dog can't handle?: Trust the science
You may be thinking, "Why can't I just crate my dog or leave him/her in a room by themselves for a bit so they can get used to being alone?" The reason is that dogs with separation anxiety are in a state of panicked fear when left alone - it's not the same as your dog being bored or needing mental stimulation.
Crate training or confining your dog when they're already anxious will likely make their anxiety worse, not better. This is because being in a small space (like a crate) can increase their feeling of claustrophobia and being confined can increase their feeling of being trapped.
It's also important to note that crating, confining, or putting your dog in another room will not teach them to enjoy being alone - it will only teach them to be anxious in a different location.
Okay, but tell me more...
The best way to help a dog with separation anxiety is to use behavior modification techniques to change their emotional state from panicked fear to relaxed confidence when they're left alone. Some of the benefits for your dog (and you) will be:
- Immediate reduction in stress
- Trust between you and your dog and your dog's confidence/comfort starts to rebuild
- Cues that indicate leaving become less salient and less likely to trigger separation anxiety
- Much higher success rate with gradual desensitization protocol as your dog's underlying anxiety lessens and your dog learns to be alone comfortably
This takes time, patience, and consistency, but it is possible!
#3. Find a qualified trainer & speak to your vet
If you're not sure where to start or how to proceed, it's best to seek out the help of a qualified trainer who specializes in separation anxiety. They will be able to assess your dog's individual situation and put together a treatment plan that's tailored specifically for your pup.
Find a CSAT/SAPRO (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), CAAB (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist), CBCC-KA (Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed), or Vet Behaviorist (Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist). Feel free to reach out to me in the Community discussion in the Anxiety Channel here on Dogly if you need help finding the right resources.
You should also speak to your veterinarian about your dog's separation anxiety. They may be able to prescribe medication to help your dog relax and feel more comfortable when they're left alone.
Talking to your vet doesn't mean you NEED to use an anti-anxiety medication, but it shouldn't be the last resort. Why have your anxious dog suffer needlessly if your vet, in consultation with you, recommends helping your dog cope by getting a baseline of comfort to deal with panic and be ready to learn to handle being alone? It's worth having a conversation about drug therapy with your vet to decide what's best for your individual dog.
Check with insurance about covering separation anxiety training (many now do cover it partially with the proper trainer/behaviorist). You can also ask the behaviorist you're working with if they offer payment plans.
Next up in the Anxiety Channel on Dogly
Now that you've learned how to support your dog through separation anxiety, you're ready to learn how to best arrange your environment for success and how to suspend absences and start desensitization in the next guide.
Hop over to the Anxiety Channel if you'd like to ask any of the Dogly Training Advocates who are all certified dog trainers a question in the Community discussion or start any of the step-by-step guides in Environment Anxiety, Crate Anxiety, or Understanding Anxiety.
And if you ever need more personalized training help, please reach out to work with me one-on-one here on Dogly!