Originally Published 12/5/2016
Have you heard pet owners say, “my neighbors tell me that my dog barks the whole day while I’m at work,” or “my dog tore up the pillows and curtains,” or “my dog hates the crate and broke a tooth trying to escape?” These statements often reveal more than a “bored” or a “stubborn” dog and can provide insight into the behavior challenges of separation anxiety.
What is separation anxiety?
Canine separation anxiety is a clinical diagnosis made by a veterinarian. It is defined as the emotional challenge a dog faces when he is unable to be left alone due to an overly strong attachment to one or more individuals.
Separation anxiety can present in a variety of ways. Dogs may appear anxious or depressed prior to being left alone and/or when certain pre-departure cues signify that a departure is imminent. Common symptoms of separation anxiety may include vocalization (howling, whining, barking), self-injurious behavior (exaggerated licking, biting, or chewing of fur or other body parts), shaking or trembling, yawning, pacing, inappropriate elimination in the house, destructiveness and damage, or anorexia (when the dog is unable to eat while alone, even when presented with favorite treats).
The dog with separation anxiety is not intentionally behaving badly, nor does he understand that he has done something wrong. These dogs are in a state of panic and are not thinking rationally to consider the possibility of self-injury or potential problems with attempting an escape, and so on.
How to tell if it is separation anxiety
The first step in managing and resolving separation anxiety is to rule out any other possibilities. Make sure that the dog is not eliminating (going to the bathroom) inside due to medical reasons, other anxiety issues, or house-training problems. (Once it has been determined that there is not a medical condition, it is still important to work together with the dog’s veterinarian, since a collaborative, team approach is best.) Remove from the equation barking and other behaviors that occur while you are present, since these are not likely related to separation anxiety.
To start, observe and note when the behaviors are occurring. Does the dog exhibit them only when he is alone (even in another part of the home) and separated from his people? With separation anxiety, typically the anxious behavior starts within thirty minutes of the dog being left in the house by himself. Keeping a journal documenting when the different behaviors occur can help ascertain a pattern. Tracking the time, type, and severity of the behavior will aid in determining a starting point for the training. Also worth noting are the amount of time spent alone prior to an absence, the amount of exercise the dog receives, and the adherence to a regular routine.
Careful observation and interpretation of body language is critical. Stress in canines can manifest in a variety of ways. Dogs may present a “whale eye,” where the dog looks “sideways,” showing an extreme amount of the white of the eye. A dog might have a closed, pulled-back, mouth posture where lips are retracted at the corners. Lip-licking, where the dog flicks the tongue in and out outside of the context of eating, is also a stress indicator. Yawning in an exaggerated fashion that is not due to exhaustion or excessive panting when the dog is not overheated can be indicative of stress, too.
Considering the overall body posture is important as well. A stiff, hunched, or cowed position, or one in which the dog’s fur on his back or back of his neck is raised, may indicate anxiety. Dogs may also salivate excessively, escape/attempt to escape, and/or uncharacteristically urinate or defecate indoors.
Only a veterinarian can make the clinical diagnosis of separation anxiety. While there are many different labels for the behavioral problems of dogs that are unable to be left alone, separation anxiety refers specifically to the situation where the dog has become hyper-attached to one or more persons, and cannot be apart from them. Help with a behavior-based problem like separation anxiety may require referral to a veterinary behaviorist. At times, medications that lower anxiety, in combination with a behavioral-modification protocol, can yield great benefits.
What causes separation anxiety?
Family members often ask if it was something they did that caused the dog’s separation anxiety. Separation anxiety does not have a definitive cause. It may be the result of environmental changes such as rehoming a dog or the family moving to a new house. It could also be due to an alteration within the home, change in daily routine (the amount of time that the primary people are absent), or a change in the family structure (new family member or a family member leaves). Sometimes it is difficult to pinpoint at which point exactly the dog began to suffer from separation anxiety.
Some common misconceptions about how to address separation anxiety
Separation anxiety can be challenging from a financial, emotional, and logistical perspective. It affects every aspect of the family’s lifestyle. People are desperate for solutions. Working toward resolution with separation anxiety, the goal is to look at the underlying anxiety so that the dog can eventually feel comfortable being alone. This is accomplished through a slow process of gradually desensitizing absences, until minute spans of time add up to a period where the dog is not anxious about time spent alone.
Unfortunately, there are many well-intentioned, but outdated and/or ineffective— and even harmful—“solutions” readily available. While Kongs and other food puzzles are wonderful tools, with separation anxiety you need to use a protocol of desensitization to teach the dog to be comfortable being alone, not just eating alone. Using food puzzles like Kongs teaches dogs to eat alone; it does not help them be relaxed when they are by themselves. Problems commence when the food is finished and the person is not present.
Crate training, too, is a fantastic resource in positive training. However, working on separation anxiety is frequently an exception. Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety often have accompanying confinement issues.
Other stress-relieving anecdotal suggestions include using lavender oils or playing television or music while humans are absent, or offering the dog previously worn clothing, and/or adding a second dog. While these ideas may not cause further harm, by themselves they generally do not do much to help. Again, dogs are not displaying the symptoms of separation anxiety due to boredom or lack of exercise, but because they are experiencing panic.
Another common misconception is that a dog will “just get over it.” A canine panic disorder is much like a person’s fear of spiders. That fearful human will not wake up one day and feel less afraid or anxious about spiders.
An equally ineffective and potentially detrimental technique is called flooding. In this scenario, the dog is exposed to the scary stimulus without the opportunity to escape. This exercise does nothing to weaken the fear component.
Action plan part 1: The contract
Resolving separation anxiety cases can be broken down into three components. The first part of the solution involves making a “contract” with the dog. You will (metaphorically) “shake” on the deal that you will not leave your dog alone for a longer period of time than he is comfortable. The dog’s part of the contract entails not barking, soiling, escaping, or destroying things.
In this figurative contract with the dog experiencing separation anxiety, you make a promise and a commitment to never leave the dog alone for longer than he can handle. This means that you commit 100% to postponing absences while working on the resolution, suspending all absences except for daily protocol practices. Even if unexpected situations or opportunities arise, you agree to figure out a way to ensure that the dog is not left alone past an interval he can handle.
While suspending absences may seem extreme or impossible, there are creative solutions that can allow you to meet this requirement successfully. Some ideas include contacting friends and family members to dog-sit, using doggy daycare, engaging in pet-care exchanges, hiring trainers, contacting veterinary offices about uncrated boarding options, hiring a dog walker, and contacting students or elderly folks who can provide some coverage.
The length of time that you have worked up to with the protocol determines the duration of appropriate alone time. This time component is critical because, along with the desensitization process, you are working to build the dog’s trust.
For example, let’s say you have gone to the post office and are due back in half an hour. At this point in your protocol you have reached the threshold where you can leave your dog alone for thirty minutes. What if at the post office you run into a friend who asks you to have lunch? You know that going for lunch with a friend will keep you away from home for longer than the total 30 minutes that the dog is currently comfortable with. But maybe you figure that it won’t be too much of a problem. Back at home, at 30 minutes the dog is okay. At the 40-minute mark, the dog is beginning to panic a bit. At 45 minutes, the dog begins to pace, bark, and whine, and at the 1-hour mark the dog is in full-blown panic mode.
In addition to upsetting the dog, the bigger issue is that now the 30 minutes of calm that you painstakingly achieved is lost. The dog no longer believes that 30 minutes is a safe absence time because, although you had an “agreement” that he could be alone and relaxed for 30 minutes, you didn’t return on time and, thus, broke the contract. In the dog’s mind, your departure duration was much longer and you can no longer be trusted to leave at all. In effect, you have reverted back to the beginning and to the second-by-second absences that you need to build from the start.
Action plan part 2: The starting point
The second part of the action plan requires you to evaluate the point where you can begin training for departure lengths. This starting point is determined by figuring out exactly how long the dog is presently comfortable being left on his own. Each dog’s starting point will be different and requires an initial assessment. To figure out just where to start, watch the dog remotely using a webcam or other camera. This absence may be very brief, since you are not looking to push the dog over threshold, but only to discern exactly how quickly the dog becomes visibly uncomfortable. This measurement lets you determine where to begin. For some dogs, this may mean leaving the house for a minute. For other pups, discomfort and anxious behavior may start with the person standing up and walking to the door of the room where the dog and person have been together.
Action plan part 3: Progress
The third part of the plan involves using a protocol of systematic desensitization to help the dog feel comfortable alone. The desensitization work is done in small, slow increments with the goal of longer relaxed absences. Create a daily plan that involves steps that increase criteria incrementally. These tiny and varied increases allow the dog to remain below threshold. But, they slowly increase the length of alone time ever so slightly until the dog is comfortable.
The daily plan includes a number of repetitions that work toward desensitizing the dog to these gradually longer absences. Moving to the next level will be determined by the dog’s body language and responses. Careful documentation of the daily plans and observable responses from the dog is important to developing systemic improvement.
In the beginning, even the person rising from a seated position may make the dog anticipate an absence and start to panic. In this situation, it might take days or weeks of slowly desensitizing to the person standing up and sitting back down, with intervals of standing or moving in place for seconds. (Yes, this approach is as exciting as watching grass grow or paint dry.)
Break down steps into tiny incremental increases; at first, you may be dealing in seconds. Possibly after days or a week, you can move to minutes. The initial steps could look something like:
• stand up
• take a step toward the door
• go back and sit down
• stand up
• take three steps toward the door
• go back and sit down
• stand up
• walk to the door
• go back and sit down
With these steps, you are helping to change the dog’s response from “panic” to “calm” by repeating the same and similar low-level exercises over and over—until the dog decides that these first steps don’t make him feel uncomfortable. You’ll see the dog’s demeanor become relaxed as he no longer needs to be on alert constantly, fearing that an absence may occur at any time.
How long does rehabilitation take?
Pet owners want to know exactly how long the rehabilitation process will take, or whether the severity of the separation anxiety correlates to the length of time until resolution. The answer to both questions is that it depends on several factors. Each dog and each situation is unique. Remember, at the start of the plan, some dogs might be able to handle the caregiver opening and/or going out the door for seconds or minutes right away. Other dogs might need to work up to that point. The individual dog will determine each starting spot. However, the severity of the symptoms (destructiveness, vocalization, and so on) does not always determine the speed of resolution.
While each case is different and individual animals react uniquely to the resolution protocols, the keys are repetition over time and a consistent, measured approach. Repetitions are a series of steps that last approximately 30 minutes and are conducted 5 to 6 days per week without exception. These steps should each have a 30-to-90-second break between them, randomly changing each break time to avoid a pattern. Adapt the steps slightly and repeat them over and over until the dog begins to feel “safe” and demonstrates that by his body language. Thus, persistence is an essential element.
Ready for departure
Helping your dog overcome separation anxiety requires patience and perseverance. The process is not difficult, but it is slow and it may be frustrating. Building trust, careful repetitions, and slow desensitization are the keys to permanent behavioral change. With a plan, over time, and working through the inevitable plateaus and regressions, your dog will begin to feel more confident for longer stretches of time until appreciable absences begin and “real-life” errands can take place.