by Steve Dale
Dogs love us unconditionally. But can they love us too much? That’s what happens to dogs with separation anxiety. In part because of the dogs’ hyper-attachment to family members, these pups simply don‘t have the confidence to stay home alone. It‘s a sad irony that sometimes because a dog loves too much, he or she might be euthanized. Really, bark too much and the neighbors may lose patience and so might the landlord. Or eat through a wall, and the object of all that love (that’s you) might lose patience as well.
If you’ve ever seen a video of a dog with severe separation anxiety or distress, it‘s heartbreaking. Clearly, these pets are suffering; their emotion is palpable. The good news is, separation anxiety — even the most awful cases — can be treated. While professional therapy and medication may be required, there is also a host of products and behavior modification techniques that can help these dogs. Over time, anxious dogs can learn to be home alone!
Do get help for your dog. Ignore the problem, sorry to report these dogs typically don’t just get over it. In fact, the separation anxiety typically worsens without intervention. So, what’s really going on and why? Well, to some extent no one knows. We do know that dogs don‘t think vindictively, like “I’m going to show him when he gets home and chew through the sofa.” That never happens.
Indicators of separation anxiety (also called separation distress):
- A history of dysfunction, such as being adopted from a shelter or rescue, or bouncing from home to home may be more predisposed.
- Separation anxiety dogs may follow owners everywhere in the home; doesn‘t seem to have any independence, a “Velcro dog.”
- Appears overly anxious before owners leave the house.
- Vocalizes (whines, cries, and/or barks) when the owners leave the house.
- Urinates and/or defecates after the owner leaves the house.
- When left alone, destroys objects in the home (such as ripping apart the sofa).
- Self-mutilates, injures himself or herself in the owners‘ absence.
- Attempts to escape by biting at crates (for dogs left in crates), doors or walls when the owners are away. Crate training is overall wonderful, but many dogs with separation anxiety suffer even more in a crate, and can more safely be left behind gates in rooms.
- Doesn‘t eat when the owner departs.
- Over-enthusiastically greets owners when they return.
Just as heart disease is diagnosed, or diabetes, ideally a professional should diagnosis separation anxiety. A video camera is a great tool. First, that professional will have to discern if the dog merely is a little crazy when left home alone because the pup never learned appropriate behavior when the family isn’t present. Over time, with training a crate is very helpful as puppies learn what not to do when their owners depart. But some dogs are never given this opportunity.
Some dogs are merely under-exercised and/or bored. When owners report really giving a good workout to their pal before they leave, and food puzzles that remain untouched in their absence – separation anxiety may be likely. And sometimes, it turns out, that dogs with presumed separation anxiety because they are leaving puddles, have for whatever reason lost house training, have a urinary tract infection, diabetes or another condition, or older dogs may have cognitive dysfunction.
Resources for Separation Anxiety Treatment
Once diagnosed by a professional, getting professional help for our dog’s separation anxiety is a good idea. Here are the best resources for treating your dog’s separation anxiety (your own veterinarian may be able to counsel, but some veterinarians aren’t as expert in behavior):
- Veterinary behaviorists: www.dacvb.org
- Veterinarians with a special interest in behavior www.avsabonline.org
- Certified dog behavior counselors www.iaabc.org
Now what do you do? It’s not like there’s one magic pill – though often psycho-pharmaceutical intervention is extremely helpful. The anti-anxiety drug works to calm the dog enough (not dope up the dog) to learn, so behavior modification can be implemented. Two drugs are approved, Reconcile and Clomicalm (the latter may be temporarily difficult to obtain due to a supply problem). Other very useful tools include the Adaptil collar (which emits a calming pheromone); Anxitene and/or Harmonease (both nutraceuticals with proven science). Behavior modification isn’t an exact science when it comes to separation anxiety. What works for one dog may not be as effective for another. So to some degree this is trial and error – but make no mistake – dogs with separation anxiety can be helped!
Things for you to try
Graduated comings and goings. Take a weekend, and pretend to be your favorite actor – I mean this will take an Academy Award performance. Pretend as if you are about to go. Your dog will first get nervous observing the cues (if you’re doing a good job at acting), and literally walk out the door and go nowhere. Sit down and read, watch TV or back to housework – and 10 or 20 minutes later repeat. And again don’t go anywhere, just act as if you might. And repeat until your dog looks at you like you’re a little crazy. Now, do leave for 30 seconds. Over and over again, working your way up to five minutes, 10 minutes, etc. If your dog acts nervous, back it up. The downside of this method is before your dog is “cured,” you will likely need to depart for several hours, which slows this method’s effectiveness. With some dogs this does work.
Ignore your dog. Pick a few hours each day and totally ignore your dog. This doesn‘t mean you love your pup any less. The problem is that your dog is likely hyper-attached to you, and learning independence is helpful. Train your dog to do a sit/stay for a few minutes out of your site. Give your dog a chewy in another room, shut the door and leave. If your dog barks – your pup isn’t ready for this advanced therapy quite yet.
When you really are leaving the house, don‘t be dramatic about it. Just calmly go without offering a heartfelt speech about how much you‘ll miss your dog. Most important, when you return, wait until your overly excited dog calms down before acknowledging. When you say “hi,” your dog will go bonkers all over again, and again withdrawal attention until the dog calms down.
To learn lots more, check out Chapter 10 in my eBook, “Good Dog!,” available wherever eBooks are sold iTunes version demonstrates with embedded video, $4.99).