Separation Anxiety in Dogs – Please Don’t Leave Me!

Separation anxiety, unfortunately, is a topic that is near and not-so-dear to my heart. My dog has suffered from severe separation anxiety for over two years now – actually, ever since I’ve had him. In fact, his separation anxiety was one of the inspirations behind I was frustrated by the lack of resources that I could easily find relating to the topic. Anyway, I have tried every – and I mean every – treatment out there when it comes to separation anxiety. I have talked and worked with dozens of trainers and tried dozens of methods. From Kongs to 45 minute runs to puppy playmates, I’ve amassed a huge amount of information on the topic.

Separation anxiety is a condition in dogs where the dog, for some reason, becomes overly attached to its owner. It is often seen in dogs who have either been rescued or have experienced some type of abandonment.

Do you have a dog who has separation anxiety? Do you find yourself scheduling your life around your dog because you can’t leave him/her alone? Does your dog go into a panic when you leave? Does your dog bark/howl/whine when you leave the house? Cause massive destruction? Pant/shake/drool when you are getting ready to leave for the day? Is your pup overly dependent upon you? Are you overly dependent upon your dog? Are you now completely and utterly anxious about your dog’s anxiety?

Dogs who have separation anxiety will often follow their owners everywhere – from room to room – and will NEVER let their owner out of their sight. The dog must always be near his/her owner and rarely seeks attention from anyone else. Author Patricia McConnell, whose book “I’ll be Home Soon” I highly recommend refers to these types of dogs as “velcro” dogs.

McConnell maintains that these “velcro” dogs are absolutely traumatized when their owner leaves them. While some dogs are destructive when their owner leaves them alone during the day (because they are bored), the true separation anxiety dog goes through a type of “panic attack.” Please watch a YouTube video for an example. This panic attack occurs within the first 20 minutes after the owner leaves. If you enter “separation anxiety” on the YouTube page, there are several examples of this. The panic attack sometimes begins to rear its ugly head as soon as the dog senses that the owner is getting ready to leave – for example, when the owner gets into the shower for work in the morning, when the owner puts on his/her coat or picks up the keys. The dog’s tail may go between its legs, it may begin drooling, or the dog may begin to shake or shiver or may try to hide underneath furniture. My dog, for example, puts his tail between his legs the second he gets it in his head that I’m leaving – and he always senses it, even when I vary my routine. He then starts to shake and tries to crawl underneath the bed.

Some owners face the tough decision of whether to crate the dog who suffers from separation anxiety. Some of these dogs do a massive amount of destruction in the house to cope with their panic. Unfortunately, many of these dogs do not react well in crates – sometimes these dogs feel even more claustrophobic and crating the dog may make things even worse. My dog, for instance, seems very claustrophobic and no matter how wonderful I’ve tried to make the crate, it makes him worse. I fear he will break a tooth one day. Since he is not destructive, I chose not to crate him.

However, leaving the dog uncrated simply may not be any option because the dog could certainly hurt itself if left uncrated by the type of damage it causes in the home.

Or, the dog may still bark/howl which is a major problem if you live in an apartment.

So how do you know whether your dog has separation anxiety? The main difference between a dog who is simply bored/lonely and the separation anxiety dog is that the usual “tricks” won’t work for the separation anxiety dog. For example, lots of exercise (while certainly important and helpful) won’t stop the panic attacks. While you must always exercise your dog, it won’t make the anxiety go away (I surmise if you stopped exercising your dog it would make it worse, though!). Giving the separation anxiety dog a Kong filled with peanut butter usually won’t work. The dog is too focused on the owner and too stressed to be able to eat.

On the other hand, a dog who is bored or lonely will be very interested in the Kong or whatever toy you give them. Giving these dogs something to do while you are away helps these types of dogs. That is why these dogs are not suffering from separation anxiety.

These toys are very useful, however, in desensitizing the separating anxiety dog to your leaving. By pairing the separation anxiety dog’s favorite treats (in a kong) with you picking up your keys and then putting your keys down can get your dog acclimated to keys being associated as being a “not-so-bad-thing.” This process, however, can take a very, very, very long time. Months. In the meantime, the dog can’t be left alone otherwise progress will be lost.

Is there hope for the separation anxiety dog? Perhaps. Some never get better, some are “maintained.” These dogs often end up back in shelters, which only reinforces their separation anxiety problem if they end up adopted. There are medications available, such as Clomicalm, an antidepressant, that veterinarians use in these situations. While Clomicalm takes the “edge off,” the dog STILL must receive training and learn how to be more confident and distance itself from its owner and learn how to be alone. These medications, on their own, will not solve the problem.

Many owners wonder whether getting another dog will solve the problem. The general answer, is “no”. Separation anxiety is not about being alone. It is about being away from the OWNER. Therefore, another dog will not change that. A good example would be to compare the situation to a first time mother who has sent her infant to day care. Consider the type of anxiety and how worried she is while her infant is away from her. The dog would be the mother and the owner would be the infant. No number of mothers (or dogs) would offer comfort or change that situation. There would still be anxiety.

Some owners, however, have experienced tremendous success with getting another dog. I would advise against running out and getting another dog simply to solve this problem. Adding another dog is a huge responsibility, and you could end up with two dogs with separation anxiety. Instead, see if you could foster a dog or if a friend could “lend” you their dog for a little while to see if that changes the situation. If it does, then that may be one of the solutions for you.

What can you do? Most importantly, as the owner of a dog with separation anxiety, there are steps you must take in order to help your dog become more independent. You must put your dog on a “you” diet – only give your dog attention when you decide to – not every time your dog wants attention or demands it. You cannot have your dog sleeping in your bed. Your dog MUST learn how to be AWAY from you. Get your dog his/her own bed and put it down on the floor next to your bed. Let him/her learn that he/she can make it through the night without being right next to you. Do NOT let him/her follow you from room to room. Do not let your dog into the bathroom when you shower, etc. Do not let your dog when your go into your room when you change.

These may seem like minor things, but they do add up. Enter into an obedience class or an agility class to give your pup even more confidence. Eventually, this should teach your dog that it is okay to be on his/her own and that you aren’t going anywhere and if you do, you will be back.