Separation Anxiety: What, Why, and What To Do

What is Separation Anxiety?

In human terms, anxiety is defined as an overall feeling of impending danger or threat.  For dogs with separation anxiety, this ‘threat’ is being away from their owner.  They tend to be overly attached to their family members and follow them from room to room; rarely spending time outdoors alone.  Usually, these dogs will begin showing signs of distress as you prepare to leave (restless, shaking, salivating, refuse to eat, become quiet and withdrawn, barking/whining) and can exhibit obsessive compulsive behaviours (such as chewing, scratching, barking, and house-soiling) while you are away.  Furthermore, these dogs will be overly excited when you return; often jumping-up, barking, and storming the doorway as you enter.

What Causes Fearful or Anxious Responses?

Dogs have a sensitive period of development (age 0-3 month) when they can develop a certain level of tolerance to the stimuli (people, places, sights, and sounds) they are exposed to.  This is the time where you should try to socialize and expose your new puppy to as many new and novel (yet positive!) things/people/places as possible.  However, if during this period they never got a chance to interact with other dogs, for instance, they may become fearful when first exposed to the sights, sounds, and odors of another dog later in life.  Separation anxiety might be prevented by making sure that young puppies (especially in the first few months) have scheduled times where they learn to spend time alone in their own crates or beds.  Conversely, in some cases, dogs are actually afraid to be home alone as something bad happened once before (ie: storms, fireworks, loud construction, ect).  This is more likely a case of noise phobia and may need to be treated differently.

Tips and Tricks:

In order to build a good foundation, you should take a long weekend or a week off work when you can focus solely on ‘re-training’ your dog. 

Pre-Departure Training

  • Establish a Predictable Routine:  If possible you should prepare a daily schedule for exercise, feeding, training, play, elimination, and ‘alone/nap-time’.  Try to schedule play and alone times for when you would normally leave for work.
  • Environmental Enrichment: When you give your pet attention, make sure you are meeting all its needs for social interactions, play, exercise, training, and elimination.  Basically when the each session is over, your pet should be ready to settle down and relax.
  • Consistently Reward the Good and Ignore the Bad:  You want to reinforce the pet for settling down/relaxing/being independent and ignore all attention seeking behaviors.  Training should focus on getting your dog to ‘stay’, ‘lay-down’ and ‘go-to-bed’ on command.  If your dog seeks attention, you should either ignore it until it settles, or have your dog do a ‘down-stay’ or ‘go-to-bed’.  After a sufficient time (and gradually increasing this period of inattention), give your dog the reward it craves: your affection!  Basically you want to teach your dog that the only way to get affection is to be calm and quiet.
  • Teach Your Dog to Settle: Have your dog settle down or lay on its bed/mat before any reward is given.  Practice every day, gradually shaping longer ‘stays’ before attention or treats are earned.
  • Develop an Area for Relaxation:  Having a bed, mat, or crate where your dog can be taught to rest, nap, play with his toys alone, or even sleep can provide an area where it feels secure and settled (even when you are away!).  A favorite toy, an item of clothing with your scent, aromatherapy, pheromone therapy, or even a TV/CD left on may help to relax your pet.

Departure Training

  • Identify All Cues That Trigger Your Dog’s Anxiety:  You may notice you dog shows signs of anxiety as you grab your keys, put on your coat/shoes, start the car, ect.  You can counter-condition by exposing your dog to these cues multiple times without leaving and giving treats after each exposure.  That way your dog will associate something positive to these cues.
  • Make Sure Your Dog Is Ready To Relax:  Before leaving your dog should have had an enrichment session and is settled down in its rest area for a schedule ‘alone-time’.  You can make this time more interesting for your dog by proving food filled toys or chews (ie: treat puzzles, PB filled Kongs).  Sneak out when you dog is settled and distracted.
  • Start Small:  Return quickly at first, before the dog has a chance to get anxious (ie: before it finishes its food puzzle).  Then gradually increase the length of time you’re away.

Return Training

  • Ignore Attention Seeking Behavior: When you first get back, completely ignore your dog until it has settled down.  This may take several moments initially.  Once relaxed, give attention and affection.  DO NOT punish your dog for any undesirable behaviour that occurred while you were away.
  • Reward Good Behaviours:  If possible, sneak in a different door.  If your dog is calm or sleeping, reward your dog.  Remote treat dispensers can be handy for this practice.


What If Our Household Is Too Busy To Provide a “Predictable Routine”?

With shift-work or all the extra-curricular activities families are participating in these days, it may be near impossible for you to provide your dog with the regimented schedule it needs.  Until you can teach your dog to relax while alone, you may initially have to consider making other arrangements during the treatment period (ie:  “Doggy Daycare”, pet sitters, or taking the dog to a neighbor’s/family member’s home).

Is Drug Therapy Useful?

Drugs alone will do little or nothing to improve separation anxiety.  The most important tool is the retraining program that will help your dog regain its independence and accept some time away from you.  However, pheromone therapy (ie: D.A. P. collars and diffusors, Adaptil) can calm your dog while you are both away and home, helping to ‘take the edge off’ for those first few months of training.  There are also some nutraceuticals recently developed to help reduce anxiety (ie: Zylkene, CALM by Royal Canin).

As a last resort, you and your veterinarian may discuss some behavior modifying medications.  Often, the most suitable medications for long-term use are anti-depressants and/or anti-anxiety medications.  A full physical examination and extensive history is necessary to determine is these are appropriate for your pet.  You should also note that any long-tern drug therapy required regular physical exams and blood work (every 6-12 months) to ensure that there are no adverse effects on your pet’s organ function.

Have Patience and Be Consistent!  There isn’t a ‘quick-fix’.  This is as much about training you how to raise a calm, independent dog, as it is about your pet.  You should learn to integrate these techniques into your permanent daily routine.