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How to Address Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Updated: Apr 27

Separation anxiety is a common issue among pets, particularly dogs, and can lead to various behavioural problems when they're left alone.


What is Separation Anxiety?


Commonly we use this term to describe obvious behaviours that a dog performs when we leave the house, such as excessive barking, destruction of household items or scratching at the door, elimination inside the house, as well as pacing and panting. This is better described as abandonment anxiety, because anxiety is the thought process that something might happen. Thus far, there has never been a time that you didn't come home. But your dog doesn't know that! This is why with all separation anxiety cases, you should be enlisting a professional to assist you.


When we have a pet that performs these behaviours, we also need to determine if this is truly an anxiety related issue and if so, what is the underlying cause of the behaviour? Is this due to confinement, frustration, or boredom? While the treatment of these problems may be similar, the underlying emotions may be different.


What Causes Separation Anxiety?


Puppies who grew up in a household where they were exposed to time away from their family, that was not excessive, nor led to an event that the puppy found traumatic, tend to have a better outcome. If you understand that during the early socialization period, puppies are curious and resilient, then as they get older (around 12 to 14 weeks) they grow to fear the unknown. If part of that unknown is their pet parents leaving them for the day, this can lead to an excessive attachment. However, if the puppy was left for longer than it could handle on its own, a similar effect of abandonment anxiety may occur. This is very common in puppies who are crated and expected to hold their bladders or bowel movements longer than they are able to.




Adult dogs who have noise phobia are more likely to suffer from separation related distress (Overall et al 2001). This may be due to lack of a safe place if suddenly the smoke alarm goes off in your building and you were not there to help them.


Any dog that goes through a change in routine that they are unable to cope with can also develop separation related issues. This could be a change in ownership, a change in their environment, or a change in their human's work schedule. We all know that with the COVID-19 pandemic came a plethora of humans working from home - and then not.


How do you know if it is Separation Anxiety?


The best way to determine if your dog is suffering from separation related distress is to record their actions while you are gone. As mentioned, there may be obvious signs of anxiety, but some dogs will show more subtle signs. For example, a dog that does not eat while their owner is not home may have separation anxiety. A dog that will not or cannot sleep while their owner is gone may also be suffering. Set up your computer camera, or purchase a monitoring system that you can watch while you are gone. If they settle within 15 minutes of you leaving, then great! This is not a separation related issue. If later, they get up because of a noise or they later become destructive, they may have a different behaviour problem.


Prevention of Separation Anxiety


When you first get your puppy. Play games with your puppy, such as tossing a toy down the hall, or behind a piece of furniture that blocks their view of you. Work on building a safe place for them to stay while you are gone, but start with short durations of time. For example, provide your puppy with a lickimat of wet food, then leave the room. Slowly increase the duration of time you leave the room. When building this safe place, close the door and turn on a white noise machine to block out any noises. You can even try the Adaptil Diffuser that may help puppies adjust to their new homes (Santos et al 2020).


My Dog Already has Separation Anxiety, now what?


You would not be alone if you adopted a dog that already had a separation related problem. Many dogs who come through rescue organizations are not used to the confines of life within a home. That being said, while some folks think that the reason that their pup demonstrates these behaviours is due to prior abuse, we cannot discount that genetics plays a huge role in how our dogs behave. The genes that are passed on from the sire and dam create a new set within the puppies, then gene expression (whether the genes are turned on or off) will determine the phenotype, or how it is 'seen' in the offspring. Researchers have determined that traits such as fear and anxiety are heritable in several lines within several breeds of dogs (Overall et al 2006). Genetic expression of behaviours is far to complex for a blog like this, so I will leave that up to the researchers, but what I want to reiterate is, you were not the cause of your dog's separation anxiety! Are there scenarios that could have been it worse? Sure... but if the same scenario occurs to a dog who has resilience and does not suffer from an anxiety disorder, then I would not have yourself hold so much power.


Now that we have a dog with separation related problems, how are we going to management? The gold standard for separation related cases is to never leave them alone! But Dr. Serena - this is not realistic!!! ---- I know! So what are we going to do about it?


  • Hire a pet sitter: This will hopefully be a short term idea as you are going to work through the problem in the long term with a professional. But let's say you need to run an errand, can you have a neighbour pop over and watch them? Is there a pet sitter that you can trust? I bet you can find one in your local Facebook community group if you ask nicely.

  • Hire a veterinary behaviorist: This is going to be the biggest bang for your buck. I promise you. If you think that a dog trainer is going to be able to get you far with a separation anxiety case, while you have to go back to work because the COVID-19 pandemic is over, you are sorely mistaken. (see below)

  • Consider whether this dog is the right dog for your lifestyle: We have to think about the quality of life of the animals that we force to be in our homes. Forcing them to bend to our wishes. You got a puppy during the pandemic because you then had time for training the puppy. Now this puppy cannot have you leave their sight for one second! You cannot even go to the bathroom without the clip-clip of their claws on the floor behind you. Ask yourself if you are able to dedicate 2 years of management and training, and the dollars that come with this, to get your pup to have its welfare needs met which include the Freedom from fear and distress.


Training for Being Alone


This part is when you practice leaving the dog in its safe place. This is not real life! I will get to that. Again, you will practice leaving the dog alone. Rather than doing the "door is a bore" game at the front door, try to do this at their bedroom door. The safe place again, should be a quiet room in the house. This is not the crate in the living room! This is not free in the living room! This is any room that you can close the door, close the blinds and turn down the lighting. It is also a room that your pet will (eventually) choose to take a nap in. This could be a mudroom, this could be a den with a door, this could be in the basement, or it's your own bedroom. When you do the training part, it is similar to when you train a puppy to be on its own. First ensure that all of their needs are met: they have been outside for elimination (urination and defecation), they have had some play/exercise, they have had some attention and affection from you their favourite human, then the only two basic needs that are left are eating and sleeping which they can do in their room. Therefore, get the tastiest, longest lasting treat you can come up with. Think frozen bone broth in a Toppl. Think peanut butter filled Kong. Think frozen wet food in a maze bowl. Time your dog for how long it takes them to get through this. Say it is 4 minutes. Then you are going to leave your dog in their room, door closed, white noise on, dimly lit, and leave them with their busy food puzzle for 3 and a half minutes. When you go to open that door, do not call them out, do not draw attention to the door being open, just walk away. Then repeat this. Eventually, they will be desensitized to staying in their room, on their own, for 3 and a half minutes. Once you notice that they do not come out of their room right away, start slowly increasing duration.


Seek Professional Help


While you can for sure pay for a dog trainer that specializes in separation anxiety, I can almost guarantee you that you will get to your goal faster if you hire a veterinarian or veterinary behaviourist first.


Why?


If you have to leave them alone, you will set yourself and them backwards. In which case, you will want to ask your veterinarian, is there a medical option to allow me to leave the home to run some errands (which may or may not be cheaper than hiring a pet sitter).


When it comes to medications, as I have mentioned on my TikTok, there are soooo many options, so that advice should come from your veterinarian. BUT! There are two groups of medications: 1) as needed sedatives/anxiolytics/hypnotics/anti-adrenergics, and 2) long term anti-anxiety medications. I will say, in general, most dogs who suffer from separation anxiety benefit from having both, one long term medication that they stay on, and one as needed for while the longer term medication is building, and while you are working with a professional and/or certified dog trainer or dog behaviourist.


Which is why I would say, save your money and visit your veterinarian first. If your veterinarian is not experienced with separation anxiety cases, then please ask them for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist.


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