Dog Separation Anxiety is a Difficult Problem to Resolve
Does your dog have separation anxiety? Is he clingy when you’re around, constantly following you from place to place in your home? Does he start to show signs of stress when you perform departure rituals, like getting ready for work in the morning and leaving the home? Have your neighbors ever complained about your dog barking for sustained periods of time when you’re not at home? If any of those things sound familiar, your dog may have separation anxiety.
Usually it’s a two-way street. In many cases, if we look closely at the humans, there is a twinge of guilt or sadness at leaving their dog. Maybe they work long days and feel badly about leaving the dog, and when they get home at night, all they have energy for is feeding dinner and indulging the dog in affectionate cuddles.
Separation anxiety can result in injury to your dog from trying to escape his crate, a room, or even your house. It can result in damage to your home as your dog uses his claws and teeth to try to escape or soils the carpet or rugs due to his anxiety.
What Causes Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
There can be many contributing factors to separation anxiety in dogs. I’ve already discussed one, above. That being the emotionally co-dependent owner that seeks their dog’s forgiveness for perceived shortcomings. A further imbalance in the dog/human relationship, one in which the dog perceives the human to be someone that the dog controls, can also be a factor. The working theory is that it’s less that the dog is fearful about being left alone, but anxious about not being able to control his subordinate.
It has also been demonstrated that dogs from animal shelters have a much higher incidence of separation anxiety. They bond to humans in incredibly short periods of time, and once they land in a new home with a different routine than they’re accustomed to, anxiety and panic can be triggered, especially when that new human leaves.
It’s also thought that early spay/neuter may have an impact, increasing a dog’s predisposition to separation anxiety.
Regardless of what causes separation anxiety in individual dogs, there are many things you can do to try to manage and mitigate separation anxiety. Ultimately, addressing the issue head-on is best done with the help of a professional trainer that can walk you through the steps.
Tips for Managing Separation Anxiety
Here are some things you can do right away to start to manage the behavior and not make it worse.
If your dog has confinement anxiety and has trouble being crated, pick your battles. If your dog can be safely confined to a location where he can’t do damage to himself and is unable to escape or damage your property, use that space when you leave the home. Perhaps it’s a laundry room or if you have a small dog, an exercise pen. You should still work on the crate anxiety, because having a dog that accepts being crated calmly is essential for your dog’s safety and the safety of other animal professionals that may work with your dog, such as your vet, dog sitter, or groomer.
You will want to gradually desensitize your dog to his crate while you’re at home, working up to having him sleep in his crate overnight, ideally in or near your bedroom. A good, sturdy crate to use with dogs that have had success previously breaking out of and destroying plastic or wire crates is the Empire Pro Select steel cage.
Minimize your departures and arrivals. Don’t create a huge contrast between your being home and being away by engaging in extended greetings or goodbyes. Depart without fanfare and when you get home, don’t immediately excitedly greet your dog. If possible, wait until he’s calm before saying “hi.”
Work on separation when you’re at home. Practice extended down/stays and the place mat command while you move away from your dog. He will have to exercise impulse control to be successful with this, but he can learn that the sky won’t fall if the two of you are in separate rooms.
Try really really hard to not medicate your dog. Medication, anti-depressants and sedatives, should be a very last final resort after you’ve exhausted everything else, including seeing at least three different trainers with different training styles. Medicating your dog for separation anxiety is akin to saying, “I give up trying to fix this, so I’m going to treat the symptoms.” This may be the most humane option for a very old dog. But if there’s a chance your dog can be rehabilitated behaviorally, please hold off on the meds. Your dog can’t learn when he’s doped up anyway.
Setup a video camera. It can be helpful to monitor your dog’s day and see if you can catch what sets him off (barking) and when he quiets. If he whines for 30 seconds after you leave the house and is quiet the rest of the day, chances are he doesn’t have separation anxiety. Maybe the mailman just sets him off and he won’t stop barking for 4 minutes but then is quiet the rest of the day. Video evidence can be useful in accurately diagnosing separation anxiety and modifying the environment to deal with triggers.
Supplemental therapies might help. Lavender essential oil, Bach Flower Rescue Remedy, DAP diffusers, relaxing music. These may help take the edge off, though they likely won’t constitute a full fix.
General obedience training will help. General obedience training, teaching your dog a communication system and demonstrating that you will practice it with him consistently, setting expectations and following through, can have a powerful positive effect on separation anxiety as the general anxiety level in your dog is reduced. Even if you don’t tackle separation anxiety directly, an obedience program that sets your relationship with your dog right can really help.
E-collar training and addressing the problem directly. Work through a basic obedience program that includes desensitizing your dog to his crate and introducing him to low-level e-collar training. Once a dog understands low-level e-collar stimulation and responds appropriately, he can be setup in his crate with his e-collar and a video camera with a live feed or a baby video monitor. Through a gradual process of desensitization, both correcting inappropriate responses and reinforcing good responses to your departure, your dog will learn quickly what the correct expectation is and begin to be motivated to accomplish it.
It’s imperative to work with a dog training professional if going this route as you must do enough foundation training and ensure your dog is ready to do the separation work. If you move ahead too quickly or mis-use the e-collar, you could make his anxiety a lot worse.
Check out this helpful resource. The book “Latchkey Dog” by Jodi Andersen is a particularly useful resource in understanding separation anxiety and explains the role we humans play in the condition.
Teaching Your Dog to Cope with Separation
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