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Yes, separation anxiety in dogs is complicated and can be time consuming to treat, and yes, there is hope!
If you’re reading this guide, it may be because you're one of the many pet parents with a dog who, despite your best efforts, struggles to be alone. Maybe you’ve tried things in the past to help your dog cope or maybe you aren’t sure where to start. You're not alone. Many hundreds of thousands of other dogs share your dog's anxiety, your dog's behavior, your dog's separation anxiety/distress, as they suffer from separation-related issues every year.
Let’s get into separation anxiety step-by-step & the root of your dog's underlying anxiety...
Separation Anxiety (SA), also known as Isolation Distress, is a panic disorder in dogs. Have you ever had a panic attack? They're awful. Heavy chest, heart beating 1000 times a minute, shaking, dizzy, room spinning - PANIC.
Dogs with separation anxiety quickly fall into a state of panic when they are left alone, or when they pick up on your departure cues and realize they may be left alone soon. They are not in control of their distress behaviors after that moment just like someone who is afraid of heights is not in control of the terror they feel when in a tall building and need to escape or someone who is fearful of snakes who has just come across a garden snake.
We may not understand it, but to that person and DOG the fear and panic is very, very real. It won't stop until they feel safe again. When the threat has disappeared, in this case, being alone.
Okay, but tell me more...
Dogs cannot process you are just running to the mailbox or that you come back every time you leave for work. With separation anxiety, your dog's mind doesn't work that way; logic simply does not apply.
Your dog's emotional state has taken over and his/her system is flooded with cortisol and adrenalin. The amygdala (the emotion center of the brain) is running the show.
If panicking, your dog is now at his/her stress threshold - maybe your dog's anxious behaviors start the moment your dog picks up on your impending departure, maybe when you pick up the keys, or put on your shoes, or open the door or 2 minutes after you leave the house... that's the thing, every dog is going to be a bit different and show signs of separation anxiety a little differently, just like us.
Dogs are not robots we can program.
Is your dog's behavior actually due to separation anxiety?
But wait, maybe you’re unsure if your dog suffers from separation anxiety. Maybe your dog is new to your home, or a puppy. Maybe you've had a few neighbor complaints of barking on rare occasions or your dog has ALWAYS been ok being alone, but something is different suddenly.
How to know if your dog has separation anxiety
This is where useful gadgets come in. Technology is amazing these days, right? The very best way to truly find out if your dog has separation anxiety is to observe your dog when you are away.
Set up a tablet, laptop, cell phone or security camera and observe what happens when you leave the house. For most dogs, the panic of being left alone will set in almost immediately upon the owner's departure, or within a few minutes.
Signs of dog separation anxiety to watch for...
Some common signs your dog may not be feeling ok when left alone are:
- vocalization (excessive barking/howling)
- excessive salivation/ drooling
- escape attempts
- scratching at doors or windows
- destruction (especially near exits)
- refusal to eat (anorexia)
If your dog is crated or confined you may see other signs like biting at the bars of the crate, digging in the crate, or clawing at the crate door.
Any of these anxious behaviors may go on for the entire time you're away or on and off for short periods, but if these behaviors exceed a few minutes and get worse before getting better, there is a chance your dog may be suffering from separation anxiety. Even if your dog shows just one of the signs listed above.
You've watched your dog, and saw what you hoped you wouldn't - now what?
What to do if your dog has separation anxiety
My first recommendation, is to try to find a way to leave your dog home alone less often. This doesn’t mean just with another dog. Though some (not many) dogs will find comfort with another dog, most dogs need a human. The good news is many dogs who have separation anxiety are ok with just about any human around!
So if you work full time, maybe try to find a dog sitter or dog walker a couple of times a week. Maybe doggy day care where they are supervised by humans, a neighbor or friend who can stop by? This won’t solve the problem, but for your pup, it will greatly reduce separation anxiety and stress levels and that is a big deal!
When you are ready to start training, the less stress and anxiety your dog is feeling daily about being alone, the better!
Get specifically trained support in separation anxiety
Next, find help. Certified Separation Anxiety Trainers (CSAT's) are the best place to start. We have studied the in's and out's of separation anxiety and know how best to treat it. There is a lot that is still unknown about separation anxiety but we are the leaders in successful treatment, and work together as a whole to continue education, research, data gathering and more so we can continue to help dogs successfully heal. We can work with clients anywhere in the world, as all work and training sessions are done remotely!
Another type of professional trained to work with dogs suffering from separation anxiety is a CAAB, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, as well as a Veterinary Behaviorist.
Speak to your veterinarian
With any potential behavior problems, you want to have a vet check to rule out any medical problems. If all is well medically, then sometimes, but not always, behavioral medications can be extremely useful in the treatment of separation anxiety.
Behavioral medications should be supported with a behavior modification plan and in my opinion, shouldn't be a last resort. If you or a family member were suffering from daily panic attacks, couldn't live a normal life, or function under specific circumstances - there is a good chance you would want to speak to your doctor to see if there was anything they could do to help, right? The same should apply to our pets.
Why does separation anxiety happen?
You may be asking, why did this happen to my dog? Unfortunately, we just don’t know for sure. There are some things that may make a dog more prone to developing separation anxiety. There are even some genetic discoveries being made as we speak, but we do know one thing. IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT.
Here are some common links we’ve found through years of study of dogs who develop separation anxiety:
- Multiple rehoming/moving episodes
- Air shipping (especially during puppyhood)
- Illness or malnutrition during puppyhood
- Singleton puppies
- Death/departure of a family member
- Sudden introduction of a new family member
- Traumatic event
- Seizure disorders
- Genetic predisposition
Here's what didn’t cause your dog's separation anxiety:
- Sleeping in bed with you
- Too much attention/affection
- Eating from the table
- Being allowed on the couch
- Too much attention when coming home or leaving
Why there's no quick fix for separation anxiety
No other behavioral issue has the impact on the household that separation anxiety does. Pet parents often feel trapped in their house like prisoners, isolated from friends and family, guilty for leaving, worried about what they will find when they return home.
To successfully start to heal, our dogs need to learn slowly, through gradual desensitization. We teach them that coming and going, and coming and going (always at a rate they can handle) is boring. Your dog learns your home is a safe and secure environment where he/she can be calm and happy whether you are there or not.
Who can help
The process is fairly straightforward, though not always easy, which is why trainers like myself and the other CSAT’s exist. We are specially educated under the amazing Malena DeMartini, who is the world's expert in treating separation issues in dogs. It is an easily misunderstood disorder in dogs, and many (well intentioned) trainers often give advice that may delay if not hurt the process.
Don't be afraid to ask for help
If you think your dog is suffering, please get help.
If you know your dog is suffering, please get help.
If you've tried other things that haven't worked, please get help.
If you've given up ever leaving your dog alone, please get help.
There is hope.
Next up in the Anxiety Channel on Dogly
Now that you have a basic understanding of separation anxiety, you're ready to learn how to set your home up before you leave your dog with separation anxiety. Continue to the next Separation Anxiety guide here or jump to other step-by-step guides in the Anxiety Channel and learn how to help your dog stay calm outside of the house.
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 Noise Sensitivity, 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!