House of Dog Training

Separation Anxiety


Written by LDU Apprentice program © 2010 – All Rights Reserved

Separation Anxiety (SA) is when dogs are distressed or exhibit problem behaviors when "separated" from their owner(s). That can be when they are left home alone, if they are confined to a crate with no crate training preparation, or if the owner simply goes into a different room.

Symptoms:

Symptoms include (not limited to) barking, howling, whining, digging, scratching at doors/windows (some dogs will even jump through closed windows), destructive chewing, and inappropriate urination or defecation. These symptoms occur mainly when they are left alone and usually start right after the owner leaves. When the owner returns the dog is often frantic and excitedly greets the owner. Other signs that a dog could have Separation Anxiety are that a dog follows his owner wherever he goes (velcro dogs) or the dog gets depressed or anxious when he realizes preparations are made for the owner to leave the house.

Causes and How SA Develops:

There are many scenarios that that could cause Separation Anxiety in dogs. Dogs who are insecure due to lack of socialization often exhibit Separation Anxiety. This is frequently seen in rescue dogs insecure from re-homing. Dogs that are not exercised or trained (physically and mentally stimulated) are more likely to develop Separation Anxiety. Also, dogs who have owners that work at home or owners that are able to spend the majority of their time with their dog may develop Separation Anxiety when life changes and dog is left alone. Dogs with phobias such as thunder may associate their fear with being left alone. When dogs are not taught how to be alone Separation Anxiety builds over time. Also, owners who make a big fuss over leaving home or returning add to their dog’s Separation Anxiety.

Prevention:

When leaving your dog home alone put the T.V. or radio with calm music on to simulate noises in the home, especially if you have the T.V. on when you ARE home. Do not make a big deal out of your comings and going. Exercise your dog before leaving if possible to help ease anxiety. Give your dog a special bone that he only gets when alone or a stuffed Kong with extra special treat in it. It is also important to try to prevent your dog from following you around the house. Close doors behind you when you go into the bedroom, office, etc. so the dog cannot follow every time. If your dog stresses about you being on the other side of a door in the home, how will he be able to accept you actually leaving out the front door? Easing anxiety when you are in the home will help the Separation Anxiety when you leave. Allow the dog to spend time alone with each family member to prevent the dog from 'over bonding' to one person. You can also have other family members feed the dog its meals. Teaching your dog basic obedience will also build confidence.

Stress Checks:

Dogs will not eat when stressed, and the best way to check stress levels is food! When practicing the recommendation below use a stuffed Kong filled with great treats or a high motivating bone. If your dog will eat and focus on the Kong/bone while your working the exercises below, your dogs stress level is very low. If your dog will not eat the Kong/bone, stress levels are too high. The more you practice, the lower the stress, and faster your dog will engage. When the dog is able to engage in the Kong/bone, you know you’re making progress. Only use these Kong/bones for the exercises because soon they will become 'good-bye' gifts' for your dog.

Help For Dogs with SA And Owners Who Are Home Most Of The Time:

Practice all of the above 'Prevention' exercises. Purchase a DAP collar or DAP diffuser for the house [1]. This product is available at PetSmart, or PETCO. This product takes about 2 weeks to reach full effect, and I usually recommend it for 3 months. Crate train properly so the dog has a safe place to go when left alone and actually enjoys being in the crate. Exercising the dog physically before he is left alone Practice shutting yourself in bathroom, office, bedrooms for a few seconds and returning while slowly increasing the time that you and your dog are separated. Lengthen the separation time slowly as to not overly stress the dog. Practice leaving the house and the dog for a few seconds and returning. Slowly increase the time that you and your dog are separated. Again, go slowly as to not stress out the dog. Leave the dog lots of activities when he is left alone (puzzle feeders, stuffed Kongs, bones, toys etc.). Desensitize the dog to the owner’s routine by going through routine of leaving without actually leaving. Desensitize Triggers. Triggers are actions that predict an owner leaving the home such as showers, getting a coat, shoes, purse, keys etc. Practice going through the 'act' of leaving, but don't leave, sit down and watch T.V. or read a book, emails, clean the house etc.

Help For SA Dogs With Owners That Work Full Time Jobs:

Practice the recommendations above for 'Owners Who Are Home Most Of The Time'. With owners who work full time jobs, you will need to practice as much as possible in the evening, weekend, and/or days off. Practicing leaving your dog alone is the best policy to avoid Separation Anxiety from raising its ugly head. Avoid back sliding in order for new behaviors to be conditioned and not compromised. Your goal is to practice the above exercises/protocols combined with management (management meaning, taking your dog with you or, as a last resort, possibly leaving your dog with family/pet sitter/boarding/daycare for periods of time) to combat Separation Anxiety.

For A Dog That Cannot Be Left Alone

Daycare would be a good management tool until the dog’s stress levels come down. At least that way you know the dog will not harm himself or be destructive to the home when he has to be left alone. When the dog becomes more comfortable with being at home alone, he could move to half day daycare with one pet sitter or friend/family member visit. Eventually it will be possible to have just two pet sitting visits, and then just to one. Obviously, this is if the owner is financially capable and is prepared to invest a large amount of time.

What About Medication?

Sometimes medication prescribed from your vet can benefit dogs and help ease stress levels while applying the exercises/protocols discussed above. It is important to NOT leave your dog home alone while practicing the protocols and training, as each 'back-sliding' event will compromise progress. Remember your dog is a 'creature of habit' and it will take awhile to condition new habits.

The owner needs to be aware that with dogs exhibiting true Separation Anxiety it will take a long time, and a lot of consistency before the dog will start to show improvement. These recommendations are standard protocols and seeking help from a professional trainer is always the best policy.
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