Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He also trains dogs, mostly large breeds and those that suffer from aggression problems.
The Problem With Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety is a dreaded and all too common problem. Dogs who suffer from this disorder often become destructive and scratch up doors, bark continuously, chew up walls, and even urinate and defecate all over the house. It is not something I have to deal with in my own dog (fortunately!), but I deal with it a lot when helping clients. I always recommend behavioral modification rather than prescribed drugs and homeopathic cures sold on the internet.
If your dog is already showing symptoms of separation anxiety, what can you do to get the problem under control?
Tips to Train a Dog With Separation Anxiety
- Teach obedience.
- Alter your routine.
- Ignore your dog on arrival.
- Provide a special place for them with toys.
- Distract your dog then leave for brief periods.
- Leave for short periods until dog knows you're out.
- Consult a behaviorist.
1. Teach Some Basic Obedience Commands
Most of the information available on separation anxiety will tell you that this does not help. The “experts” are wrong. When your dog has learned sit/down/stay, you can leave her in a room, step into another part of the house where she cannot see you, and be sure she will be waiting for you when you come back.
Do not leave her alone so long that she becomes worried: the separation needs to be for less than a minute. You can then give her a treat and teach her that she does not need to follow you around.
2. Vary Your Routine
If your dog becomes very nervous when you put on your jacket, put on your shoes, or when you grab your car keys, do something to get her anxious and then sit down so that she will cool off. Do not let her know that the keys equal you leaving. After you have done this a few days take your car keys, step outside, close the door, and then come right back in.
3. Ignore Your Dog on Arrival at Home
If your dog is barking and excited about seeing you, even when you just step outside and come right back in, you need to let her know that this behavior is not okay. Ignore her. Sit down in a chair and read a book for at least five minutes. Most dogs will have calmed down by that time, but, if not you need to, wait even longer.
4. Provide a Special Place With Your Smell and Plenty of Toys
Make sure your dog has a safe place to relax when you leave, and leave one of your old t-shirts down there so that she can smell you when gone. I do not believe in incarcerating dogs as soon as you leave the home, but a crate is not a bad thing as long as the door is open. The dog may choose to go in and lay down.
Some trainers recommend leaving a radio on for the dog when you leave the house, especially if you have it on when you are at home. It is also a good idea to provide a toy she can chew on and an old shirt or blanket with your smell.
5. Leave Often and for Short Periods of Time
Leave the house and take a walk around the block. Some dogs find it helpful to hear something when they are alone, and the video I have included is about an hour long and will keep some dogs distracted when you are out of the house.
When you come back, do not pet your dog for at least five minutes.
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6. Leave for Short Periods Until Dog Knows You're Out
After you have given the toy and old shirt, leave the house again. The video below is about 15 hours long so even if you are delayed a little it will keep the dog distracted. (Please do not even consider leaving your dog locked up alone in a house for this long.)
When you come back do not greet her for at least 10 minutes, and if she has regressed and torn something up do not punish her. Go back to the beginning and start her anxiety treatment all over.
7. Consult a Behaviorist.
If none of these methods work for you, seek professional help. There are even drugs available if you feel your dog needs to go that route.
My Experience and How I Intervened Early
If you have a puppy that likes to follow you everywhere, gets depressed when you are ready to leave the house, and goes crazy when you get home, you may be dealing with separation anxiety in the future. I spend a lot of time with my dog, and noticed some of the signs early, so what did I do to provide her with “immunity” from this disease?
- When she was a puppy, I would leave her in the front of the house when I went back to my office to work on the computer. She realized I was home and she was fine if left alone.
- When going out, I always gave her a special treat (fat trimmings or raw chicken legs) in her dog food bowl. She learned that she only received these treats when she is alone, so it is actually a type of conditioning (behavioral modification). They take a while to consume and when she is finished and has lapped up half of her water, she is full. What better excuse to take a nap?
- I always provided something to chew on and occupy her when I am gone. (Whenever she happens to wake up after her nap, of course.) The Kong toy is great as it can be filled with peanut butter, frozen, and then your dog will spend hours trying to lick out the contents. My dog enjoys coconuts, of course, so I left some close to her and spent hours removing the husks.
- When my dog was a puppy I always gave her an old shirt to lie on. She didn’t really seem to care about this as she got older so I have stopped providing her with my old clothes, but some dogs will really benefit from this at any age.
- Besides obedience training in the afternoon, we go for walks three times a day. If your walks are early in the morning, in the evening after returning home, and at night before bedtime, they do not have to interrupt your work schedule.
Allow for Quality Time
The suggestions above are just tips. Despite what someone tells you, or what some trainer charges you, this is not an easy problem to deal with and it is not always easy to cure. Separation anxiety is the main reason dogs are dumped off at animal shelters.
A radio might help, a crate might help, and a Kong toy might help. Getting another dog, though, is not likely to cure your problem. You might end up with two dogs with separation anxiety.
The most important part of your dog’s life is the time she spends interacting with you. If your dog is overweight, unhealthy, or has behavioral problems (separation anxiety, excessive digging, excessive barking, etc) the answer is exercise. A normal sized dog needs at least thirty minutes twice a day. More is great. If the dog is a sporting or herding breed, it will need more. If it is a toy dog, it may be able to get by on less.
No matter how much you can exercise your dog, just do it. A sleeping dog will not suffer from separation anxiety!
Takeaway Prevention Tips
- Confine her away from you when still home.
- Give the dog a treat or meal on leaving.
- Provide a chew toy.
- Provide an old shirt with your smell.
- Exercise and train.
- Ten Tips to Keep Your Dog From Becoming Sad When Left Alone
If your dog is bored and lonely when left alone, try several of these tips and keep her from becoming sad, depressed, or destructive.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2012 Dr Mark
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on September 15, 2012:
The condition is so complicated that I do not think there is a book that will provide an easy answer. I really think the method I outlined above, where you trick the dog gradually and step out, then step right back in, step out longer periods of time, etc, works best. That requires you to take some time off work though, which is not always possible.
I live alone so I cannot be with my dog all the time, but have found that by feeding her a heavy meal, and leaving her very tired, she does what nature intends and sleeps most of the time I am gone.
I hope this helps. Try a heavy meal, hiding a lot of dog treats around the house to keep her busy while you are gone, and see how she does. Leave me a comment and let me know how things are going.
Christine Miranda from My office. on September 15, 2012:
Hi Dr. Mark. My dog paces the whole time I am preparing to leave, howls about every 45 seconds or so while I am gone (found that out the first day my teenager was home sick) and goes absolutely ape$hit when I come back. We got him for my daughter but he has attached himself to me. Can you suggest any good books for dealing with this? Great hub voted up & more.
Maria Cecilia from Philippines on September 04, 2012:
Drmark My dog is special, love him so much, he had undergone six surgeries so I really spoil him because of what he experienced....
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on September 04, 2012:
You must be a special person, Maria Cecilia, to make sure you are never gone too long. Your dog needs to know how much you care for him. Thanks for the comment about my dog´s feet! We were relaxing on the beach that day and I thought the pose was really special.
Wethonsedogs, thanks for your comment. It is always great to hear from you.
Maria Cecilia from Philippines on September 04, 2012:
before I comment on this, I want to say something about the photo of your dog's feet, my female 2 year old dog crossed her legs that way when she's relaxing.... looks poise and sexy to me... ok moving on about separation anxiety, my 12 years old always ran after me everyday whenever I am to leave home for work, but the good thing is he does not ruin anything in the house. I just make sure that whenever I arrived home I have something for him so that he'll get use to the idea that whenever big sis left the house, she always returns with a treat for him.... It's a different story when I am out of the country, cousin said he refused to eat but just drink water....so I really don't go out of for more than 3 days.
wetnosedogs from Alabama on September 04, 2012:
Guess my dogs are lucky to have each other and rarely one leaves without the other. What an awful thing for a dog to deal with and the owner too. I would feel so helpless and guilty. Great hub.