How to Cure Separation Anxiety in Dogs
There is little doubt that pet ownership can be one of the most rewarding experiences a person can have. It is full of joy, laughter, and all around good times. In fact, a study conducted by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), found that 44% of all households in the United States have a dog (1). Such a statistic reveals an obvious love for keeping dogs as pets. However, what it does not show is the number of dogs which are ultimately returned to shelters or abandoned altogether. The unfortunate truth is that this happens all the time.
The question which comes to mind is why on earth would someone abandon or give up their beloved pet? Once again, according to the ASPCA, pet behavior problems are the most common reason that dogs are abandoned or returned to shelters (2). Not only this, but separation anxiety in dogs has been identified as one of the most common and difficult to treat behavioral problems. Studies predict that between 30-40% of all cases treated by dog behavior experts focus on separation anxiety. Considering these statistics and the ultimate harsh consequences, understanding and treating separation anxiety in dogs becomes vitally important. Read along to understand how to recognize and eventually cure separation anxiety in your dog.
What Is Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
Before anything can possibly be “cured," it has to first be fully understood. This leads to the question, what is separation anxiety in dogs? What does it look like exactly?
Separation anxiety in dogs can be an extremely serious and disturbing behavioral problem which can cause anguish and concern for dog and owner alike. Essentially, it is characterized by intense and abnormal anxiety which occurs when a dog is separated from their owner. Hence the term separation anxiety. Obviously, each dog is different and those who suffer will have varying degrees of severity. Nevertheless, the following is a list of common symptoms which can indicate separation anxiety in your dog:
- Excessive barking and howling for no other apparent reason.
- Shaking and trembling.
- Chewing, scratching and destructive behavior.
- Attempting to escape from the house or crate. This can often result in serious injury.
- Self-destructive behavior such as breaking teeth or nails.
- Evacuating bowels or urinating indoors.
- Coprophagia (consuming their own excrement).
- Obsessively following the owner and hiding when signs are given that the owner is leaving (such as putting on a jacket or getting keys).
- Abnormal excitement when the owner returns which can last for extended periods of time.
- Loss of appetite.
It should be noted that while all of these can be symptoms of separation anxiety, some can be indicating something else entirely different. For example, excessive urination indoors can simply be dogs marking their territory (particularly if they have not been neutered). However, when some or all of these symptoms are looked at together, they certainly point to a dog suffering from separation anxiety.
What Causes Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
While there is no actual conclusive evidence in regards to what causes social anxiety in dogs, there are a number of theories. Such factors like changes in routines or schedules, moving to a new place of residence, or even having changes in the members of the family unit have all been put forth as potential causes.
The most significant research, however, points to genetics and a history of abandonment as being the most widely accepted cause for separation anxiety in dogs. For example, in a study which measured the anxiety level in dogs when they were separated from their human owners, the following breeds were found to have significantly higher levels of anxiety:
- Toy Poodle
- Yorkshire Terrier
- Bichon Frise
In other words, genetics and types of breed certainly matter. These dogs are all smaller dog breeds and are more prone to fear and anxiety when left alone (3).
Also, abandonment is commonly thought of as another key factor. Researchers point out that more dogs who have been adopted from animal shelters have separation anxiety than those who have not. For instance, researchers found that 26% of dogs with separation anxiety in behavior clinics were obtained from shelters, while only 8% were not (4). Furthermore, of 500 dog behavior cases, it was revealed that dogs which came from shelters were far more likely to exhibit separation anxiety than those from other sources such as breeders or friends (5).
Other than issues of genetics and abandonment, various individuals will point out that the cause of separation anxiety in dogs could very well be a learned behavior. In other words, it is encouraged by owners either in a positive or negative fashion. How many owners out there think it is cute when their little Yorkshire Terrier jumps up and down and runs around the house when they get home? Likely it is seen as adorable and the little Yorkie is quickly picked up and cuddled. However, they are probably the same people who are distressed when they are leaving for the day and have to put their trembling and shaking dog into his crate. Or maybe they are in a hurry and the cute little Yorkie has decided to hide under the couch. Scolding may occur, but this still gives the dog the attention which he is seeking. Noted dog behaviorist Cesar Milan makes such a point. He points out that there is a distinct difference between simulated separation anxiety, which is misbehavior, and severe cases of separation anxiety which are difficult to treat. However, in both cases, a consistent human owner is the key to overcoming any type of separation anxiety in dogs (6).
Treatment of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Now that we have a better understanding of the nature and causes of separation anxiety in dogs, the various treatments can be discussed. Essentially, management of the condition is comprised of behavior modification, environmental control, and medication (7). It is important to note that there will indeed be many different types of treatment as all dogs are unique. Just like people! Nevertheless, listed below are the most effective and powerful methods for curing separation anxiety in dogs.
1. Ensure That It Is Truly Separation Anxiety
You cannot possibly cure a condition if you are treating the wrong thing. For example, a dog may bark incessantly for a variety of reasons. It is one of the methods they use to communicate. The article, what is my dog really trying to tell me, discusses this and a variety of methods which dogs use to communicate with others. It does not necessarily mean that they have separation anxiety.
Likewise, a chewing dog may simply be having dental issues. If you really do suspect that your dog has true separation anxiety, it is important to first rule out other causes of behavior. Owners should make an appointment with a veterinarian and schedule a complete physical for their pet. This will rule out other causes and ensure that an educated and thorough treatment plan is created which will address the significant needs of the dog.
2. Prepare the Environment
Before anyone can consider appropriate behavior modification techniques for their suffering pooch, the actual environment must first be prepared. Separation anxiety is typically accompanied by panic attacks and episodes of the pet engaging in self-harm or destructive activities. For example, there have been numerous reported incidences of dogs severely injuring themselves by trying to get out of their home or crate. Since proper treatment of separation anxiety will take time, the owner needs to ensure the area and environment are safe for their dog.
Precautions such as removing choking hazards, covering up outlets, or keeping the dog in a confined space such as a crate or small room should be employed. This will help reduce any type of damage to your beloved pet. Also, leaving favorite scented blankets, food stuffed toys, or anxiety relieving soft background music for your dog can be of great assistance. If even these methods are not working, then a dog daycare or sitter may be needed while the issue is being addressed.
Separation Anxiety Prevention Music for Your Dog
3. Minimize or Change Departure Signals
When discussing behavior modification techniques to address separation anxiety in dogs, desensitization is key. The pet needs to be desensitized to the human owner’s absence. One good method to achieve this is to minimize or change departure signals. Personally, I have a little Yorkshire Terrier at home who has struggled with separation anxiety. Every time I picked up my car keys or put on my jacket, he would run away and hide under the couch. Sometimes it would take over 30 minutes to finally “catch” him. Not only did this make me very late for wherever I was going, but it was very stressful for him as well. However, when I began to desensitize him to my departure the problem started to disappear.
In order to accomplish this change an individual needs to alter their set routine when they leave the house. Not only can things be done in a different order, but these same activities should be done a number of times throughout the day…but not actually followed by a departure. That way the dog will no longer associate these signals with the imminent departure of their human owner. This will, in turn, help prevent their anxiety from building up.
4. Practice Calm Departures and Arrivals
As has been specified, many experts and dog behaviorists agree that there are a variety of causes for separation anxiety in dogs. However, they also point out that in many instances it is a learned behavior which is unwittingly encouraged by human owners.
"We make a big fuss when we leave or come home which rewards the dog’s concern with our absence and then adds even more stress each time we leave." (8)
To further desensitize the dog to our absence, it is important to be very calm and matter-of-fact when we depart or arrive home. Try to remain very neutral around your pet before you leave, and when you do depart, calmly place him in his pre-prepared room or crate in a nonchalant manner (9). Likewise, when you return do not pay attention to or reward your dog until he has settled down. If he is very excited and jumping all over you, ignore him and only give attention and a reward when the dog has settled down.
5. Increase Time Away Gradually
True separation anxiety in dogs is quite difficult to overcome and takes time to accomplish. Patience is certainly a virtue in this case. It is important to understand this and then proceed in a cautious and gradual manner. It will take a while to work up to your dog being left alone for significant periods of time. The owner will need to build up to this by leaving the pet alone for short intervals. It can start with seconds or minutes, and build up to the entire workday.
It is a fact that the majority of destructive behavior which is caused by dogs experiencing separation anxiety will occur in the first thirty minutes (10). Getting past this first half hour will be a major milestone to build upon. Also, consider using a safe phrase such as “back soon” with your dog. This is vital to do as you are building up their trust in you and tolerance to your absence. By using this phrase you will begin to provide cues which will condition the dog for longer departures. Once again, it is crucial that this is all done gradually and in a manner that the dog can handle.
6. Provide Exercise and Play
Exercise and play are further behavior modification techniques which will help ease separation anxiety in your dog. Exercise provides many physical, emotional and mental benefits in both humans and animals. Indeed, it is about much more than just tiring out your dog. For instance, in a study conducted by Elizabeth Gould, a director at the Gould lab at Princeton, she points out that the brain releases neurotransmitters during and after exercise which are calming (11). In other words, exercise reduces anxiety in both people and animals.
Not only does exercise release calming neurotransmitters in the brain, but it also produces endorphins which are the body’s natural painkillers. This will, in turn, improve the tolerance to stress and anxiety for the dog. Further, exercise stimulates the production of serotonin and dopamine which ultimately makes your pet feel better (12). Considering all of these facts, exercise should play a major role in any behavior modification plan for dogs suffering from separation anxiety.
7. Encourage Independence in Your Dog
Increasing your dog’s independence is the overall goal of the behavior modification program. It is also something that you can work on together with your pet inside and outside the house. If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, then it is highly likely that they constantly follow you around from place to place. Gradually breaking this total dependence upon you is the key.
A patient approach is needed here. You cannot possibly go from allowing your dog to be attached to you like Velcro, to all of a sudden rejecting and restricting their access. This is a recipe for a very distressed pet. Instead, start by gradually restricting access to various areas of the house. Also, encourage your dog to stay in their area or crate which you have already prepared with comfort items such as blankets and toys stuffed with food. Systematically work on increasing the time in which your dog stays in their area. Always remember to reward for independent behavior and ignore clingy or overly dependent actions. Increasing your dog’s independence can have a dramatically positive impact on eradicating separation anxiety in your pet.
8. Practice Positive Reinforcement
In the world of pet training there has been a marked shift from old style punitive methods of training to more positive means. The reason this shift has occurred is due to the fact that it is more humane . . . and it works! For example, in a study which was published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, it was shown that dogs which were trained with only positive reinforcement did far better and displayed fewer behavior problems than those using punitive methods (13).
Essentially, positive reinforcement means rewarding your dog for desired behavior, which will in turn produce more such behavior. This is a strategy which should absolutely be applied to help cure separation anxiety in dogs. As your pet completes desired behaviors, such as staying on his own in comfort areas, they are rewarded with praise and a treat. Everything about the experience is done in a positive and fun fashion. Another example could be when you come home after being away for a period of time. The dog may be overly excited and jumping all over the place. Ignore that behavior until your pet has calmed. When that occurs reward him with praise and a treat. Considering that a variety of studies have conclusively shown that punitive methods of training actually cause anxiety in dogs, positive reinforcement is absolutely the way to go!
When treating humans who are struggling with components of their mental health, often a pharmacological and psychotherapy combination approach to treatment is recommended. The same can be very true for certain dogs. Indeed, due to the extreme distress which is caused by separation anxiety, using medication in combination with behavior modification is recommended as the most successful and humane treatment (14).
The most common drugs which are given are the anti-depressant Clomipramine or Fluoxetine which inhibits Serotonin. These can typically be taken in combination with other anti-anxiety medications. While every dog is unique, and may respond differently, it is important to leave the door open to the possible need for medication as part of the treatment plan to cure separation anxiety in your dog.
There can be little doubt that separation anxiety in dogs can be an extreme and distressing condition for the pet and owner alike. However, there are a number of treatment options which can be utilized. The key is to maintain a gradual and systematic approach which is entrenched in positivity and love. When all of this is combined into one solid treatment plan, you will be well on your way to helping to cure separation anxiety in your dog!
Further Resources to Help Cure Separation Anxiety in Dogs
- Don’t Leave Me: Step By Step Help For Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety. By Nicole Wilde
- I’ll Be Home Soon: How to Prevent and Treat Separation Anxiety. By Patricia B. McConnell
- Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs. By Malena Demartini-Price
- Dog Separation Anxiety: Learn How to Cure Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety. By Beverly Hill
- Pawsnmotion: Facebook Group
- Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Pet Health Community
- Dog Chat: Pet Forum Community
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) 2016
- Some Dog Breeds are More Prone to Suffer From Anxiety Disorders. Cinzia Roeceforte. Anxiety.org
- Separation Anxiety in Dogs. WebMD
- The Dog: It's Behavior, Nutrition and Health. Linda Case
- Dealing With Dog Separation Anxiety. Martin Deeley. Cesar's Way. 2017
- Separation Anxiety in Dogs. Barbara L. Sherman
- Cesar's Way
- Separation Anxiety. Dr. Foster and Smith Veterinary Services Department. Pet Education
- Dog Training For Separation Anxiety: Teach Your Dog To Be Happy Alone. Dog Care Knowledge
- How Exercise Can Calm Anxiety. Gretchen Reynolds. Well. 2013
- Exercise Benefits For Anxious Dogs. Lucinda Glenny. Canine Campus. 2015
- Want A Well Behaved Dog? Do More Of This And Less Of That. Dr. Becker. Healthy Pets.
- Separation Anxiety in Dogs. Barbara Sherman. Understanding Behavior. 2008
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What Do You Consider the Best Method for Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
Separation Anxiety in Dogs:Tips and Resources
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.