If your dog has separation anxiety you’ll know by their destructive, obsessive and or anxious behavior. Typically the unwanted behavior(s) begin 10-45 minutes after their human has left the home and include:
1. Excessive barking or howling
2. Crying continually
3. Digging and scratching at doors or windows
4. Urinating or defecating on themselves in inappropriate places due to stress
5. General hysterical behavior
These behaviors typically surface when a traumatic change (from your dog’s point of view) has occurred such as moving to a new home, the loss or addition of a family member whether it be human or canine, after a vacation when you and your dog have spent a lot of time together, after a stay at a boarding facility or shelter (doggie jail) or if their human is working long hours and is absent for extended periods of time.
Even though it’s not fully understood why some dogs suffer from separation anxiety and others do not, it’s clear your dog is having some sort of severe panic response to your absence. Punishing your dog for having a panic response/separation anxiety will only exacerbate an already difficult issue. You need to show your dog through training that being alone is not a threat to their safety.
Please read this information in it’s entirety before making any decisions or beginning any training and/or a de-sensitization process. You must first determine the level of your dog’s panic response before you take any action.
First, don’t get another dog to help your first dog with separation anxiety. This will not solve the problem because the anxiety is related to their human’s absence not loneliness. Don’t crate an anxiety ridden dog. This could worsen their condition. Your dog may also injure themselves attempting to escape the crate. They may howl, urinate and defecate due to their high stress level. Also, simply going to a dog obedience class will not solve the problem of separation anxiety. Training your dog is highly recommended, however it’s not a solution for your dog’s panic response.
Be certain your dog is experiencing separation anxiety by answering the following questions. If four or more answers are yes, re-conditioning is recommended.
1. Your dog detests spending time alone outside, won’t go outside without you.
2. The undesirable behavior/panic response occurs only when they’re left alone (this can be 10 minutes or several hours).
3. Your dog is overly excited, depressed or frantic while you prepare to leave.
4. Your dog follows you like a shadow from room to room when you’re at home.
5. When you arrive home, your dog is close to hysterical/frenzied when they’re greeting you.
The following method(s) are quite useful for minor cases of separation anxiety. For more acute cases, use these training methods along with the desensitization process presented later in this article.
1. When you arrive home be very calm, cool and collected. Wait 2-5 minutes before you greet and pet your dog. This will be difficult for you at first so be strong. When you do greet your dog, have a very calm monotone voice so as to add to their excitement.
2. When you leave your dog, give them a t-shirt or other piece of clothing that you’ve worn recently (the smellier the better).
3. Train your dog to know you’ll be back with a specific word or pair of words. You must use the exact same word(s) every time you leave to help assure your canine you’re coming back.
To begin training for minor cases of separation anxiety chose the word(s) you’ll be using to let your dog know you’re coming back. Make it simple like “I’ll be back” or “I’m coming home”. Next, do something simple like take out the garbage or get the mail. Before exiting, use your cue words and go out the door. At first, only be gone for very short periods of time. This is to convince your dog that you’re coming back very soon (3-5 minutes). You can also turn on the television, radio or a CD plus give them a chew toy along with the cue words to re-direct/re-focus them on something other than their anxiety.
This type of training may take only 5 times to work or it may take 25 times. Set aside time on a day off to help your dog learn that being along is not a threat to their safety. Be sure to use the same word cues and body language every time. Dogs learn through association and classic conditioning, so if you trained them with a toy, the radio and cue words “I’ll be back,” do that every single time and soon your dog will completely understand the routine thereby eliminating or at least significantly reducing their stress response.
Another way to begin work on your dog’s minor panic response is to train them to sit-stay or down-stay with positive reinforcement (this assumes your dog already knows sit or down). Choose either the sit-stay or down-stay and stick with it. Going back and forth will only confuse your dog about what you want. First, use the command “sit” or “down” (whichever one you’ve chosen). Reward your dog with a treat, belly rub or a gentle pat on the head. Next, use the command “stay” and take one step back. Reward your dog. Next, use your command “sit” or “down” and then “stay”. Take 2 steps back. Reward your dog for staying.
Continue this process until you’ve exited the room (this may take 4 steps or 10 steps). If your dog gets up from their sitting or lying down position, start again from where they faltered. Don’t punish your dog for getting up. Just go back to where there was success and build from there. Your ultimate goal is to be able to get up and go into another room (like the kitchen or bathroom) without your dog having a panic response. Be sure to use the exact same command and body language every time so your dog can make the association. Work with them for 10-15 minute intervals every day or a few times a day. Soon your dog won’t budge when you get up, use your command and leave the room.
For more acute case of separation anxiety, a systematic process is required. This takes time, effort and patience. You’re training your dog to be alright with being alone when they are completely freaked out about being alone. Go slow and celebrate successes.
There are several steps to this de-sensitization process and go as follows:
NOTE: During this process, be acutely aware of your dog’s behavior. If they begin to exhibit the panic response, go back a step and repeat it until your dog is calm. If you try to move through the steps too fast, they will not work and could worsen your dog’s separation anxiety.
* Step 1: Behave as if you’re getting ready to leave by gathering items such as your shoes, keys, coat, brief case, purse. Instead of heading out the door, go sit on the couch or in a chair and put your stuff down like you’re going to read or watch television. Repeat this process until your dog no longer exhibits their panic response. This could take 5 times or 50 times depending on the severity of your dog’s anxiety.
* Step 2: Repeat step 1 except instead of sitting down on the couch or chair, go to the door you normally enter/exit from, open it and then go sit down. Repeat this process until your dog no longer exhibits anxiety.
* Step 3: Repeat step 1 and instead of sitting down, go to the exit/entry door, open it, step outside (leaving the door open), immediately return and then go sit down. Repeat as many times as necessary to squash your dog’s panic response.
* Step 4: Repeat step 3 and instead of leaving the door open, close the door for 1-2 seconds then come back in and go sit down. Repeat as many times as needed until your dog is calm.
* Step 5: Repeat step 4 and instead of having the door closed for 1-2 seconds, leave it closed for 10 seconds then come back in a sit down. Repeat until there is no panic response from your dog.
* Step 6: Once your dog can tolerate having a door separating them from you for 10-20 seconds, begin using your training phrase like “I’ll be back” or “I’m coming back” then gather your stuff, go out the door and close it for 1 -2 minutes, come back very calmly and greet your dog quietly. As long as there are no signs of distress, repeat this step while gradually increasing from 1-2 minutes to 3-4, 5-6, etc. Do this up to 10 minutes. Take however long it takes. Speed is not the goal. No panic response is the goal. Go slow.
* Step 7: Once your dog can tolerate 10 minutes of separation without having a panic response, you can now leave for a short period of time – 30 to 60 minutes. Be sure to use the exact same cue(s) you’ve chosen (I’ll be back, I’m coming home, radio on, etc.) when you leave. Once you return, greet your dog calmly and in a monotone voice.
* Step 8: While training, it’s best to combine short periods of separation (30-60 minutes) with very short periods of separation (3- 10 minutes). Be certain you use your command cue(s) every time. Stagger these separation times (1 for 10 minutes and then an hour later leave for 60 minutes). This helps to solidify within your dog that you are coming back every time.
So now your dog is able to tolerate 60-90 minutes of separation without having a panic response. This is a dramatic improvement from where you both started. Typically this means that your dog is able to handle being alone for longer than 90 minutes and often several hours. Every dog is different and some may be able to handle 1 ½ hours but not more than 2 while others handle several hours like a super star. Be patient with your dog and continue the training until they’re comfortable being separated from you. The length of time it takes to de-sensitize your dog is dependent on how acute their anxiety was from the beginning. This will take time so there’s no need to rush. If you try and push your dog into a step they’re not ready to handle they’ll panic so simply back up a step. If you push to hard, all your work has just been blown away and you need to start over.
In some extreme cases, anti-anxiety medication may be needed for the short term. This can be very helpful in taking the edge off of your dog’s panic response so successful training can begin. Prescription canine anti-anxiety medications can be dispensed by your veterinarian and are very inexpensive. There are also many natural anti-anxiety remedies available. Another short term alternative is to leave your dog with a friend, family member, take them to work with you for ½ a day or find a doggie day care.
Whatever you do, make sure it’s the very best for your cuddly canine companion. They live to please their human and showing them how to do this is rewarding beyond words. If you have questions, concerns or think your dog needs anti-anxiety medication, consult with your veterinarian.