Separation Anxiety

Dogs with true separation anxiety exhibit behaviors that result in extreme destruction to property and often injury to themselves when they’re left alone. Many more dogs suffer from separation problems than from true anxiety disorder. Typically, they’ll have a dramatic anxiety response within a short time (20-45 minutes) after their owners leave them. The most common of these behaviors are:

Why Do Dogs Suffer From Separation Issues?

We don’t fully understand exactly why some dogs suffer from separation issues and, under similar circumstances, others don’t. It’s important to realize, however, that the destruction and house soiling that often occurs with these dogs are not the dog’s attempt to punish or seek revenge on their owner for leaving them alone, but are actually part of a panic response. Separation reactions sometimes occur when:

How Do I Know If My Dog Has a Separation Problem?

Because there are many reasons for the behaviours associated with separation anxiety, it’s essential to correctly diagnose the reason for the behaviour before proceeding with treatment. If most, or all, of the following statements are true about your dog, he may have a separation problem:

What to Do If Your Dog Has a Separation Problem

For a minor separation problem, the following techniques may be helpful by themselves. For more severe problems, these techniques should be used along with the guidance of a dog training professional. Begin with the desensitization process described in the next section.

Desensitization Techniques for More Severe Cases of Separation Anxiety

The primary treatment for more severe cases of separation anxiety is a systematic process of getting your dog used to being alone. You must teach your dog to remain calm during “practice” departures and short absences. We recommend the following procedure.

Begin by engaging in your normal departure activities (getting your keys, putting on your coat), then sit back down. Repeat this step over several days/weeks until your dog shows no distress in response to your activities.

Next, engage in your normal departure activities, building up to going to the door and opening it, then sit back down and ignore your dog until they are calm and relaxed again.

Next, step outside the door, leaving the door open, then immediately return.

Finally, step outside, close the door, and immediately return. Slowly get your dog accustomed to being alone with the door closed between you for several seconds, always be sure to return before your dog shows any signs of stress.

Proceed very gradually from step to step, repeating each step until your dog shows no signs of distress (the number of repetitions will vary depending on the severity of the problem). If at any time in this process your actions produce an anxiety response in your dog, you’ve proceeded too fast. Return to an earlier step in the process and practice until the dog shows no distress response, then move on to the next step.

When your dog is tolerating your being on the other side of the door for several seconds, begin short-duration absences. This step involves giving the dog a verbal cue (for example, “I’ll be back.’), leaving and then returning within a minute. Your return must be low-key: either ignore your dog or greet them quietly and calmly. If they show no signs of distress, repeat the exercise. If they appear anxious, wait until they relax to repeat the exercise. Gradually increase the length of time you’re gone.

Practice as many absences as possible that last less than ten minutes. You can do many departures within one session if your dog relaxes sufficiently between departures. You should also scatter practice departures and short-duration absences throughout the day.

Once your dog can handle short absences (30 to 90 minutes), they will usually be able to handle longer intervals alone and you won’t have to work up to all-day absences minute by minute. The hard part is at the beginning, but the job gets easier as you go along. Nevertheless, you must go slowly at first. How long it takes to condition your dog to being alone depends on the severity of his problem.

Teaching the Sit-Stay and Down-Stay

Practice sit-stay or down-stay exercises using positive reinforcement. Never punish your dog during these training sessions. Gradually increase the distance you move away from your dog. Your goal is to be able to move briefly out of your dog’s sight while they remain in the “stay” position. The point is to teach them that they can remain calmly and happily in one place while you go to another. As you progress, you can do this during the course of your normal daily activities. For example, if you’re watching television with your dog by your side and you get up for a snack, tell them to down-stay, and leave the room. When you come back, give him a treat or quietly praise them.

Interim Solutions

Because treatment can take a while, and because a dog with separation anxiety can do serious damage to themselves and/or your home in the interim, some of the following suggestions may be helpful in dealing with the problems:

What Won’t Help a Separation Problem


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