Pet parents whose dogs have separation anxiety understand that this behavior is not only challenging to deal with, it’s also heartbreaking to witness. True separation anxiety in dogs looks like a canine panic attack—the stress hormones triggered when dogs are left home alone result in behaviors that can range from agitation to extreme distress.
Couple this panic with the potential damage caused by dogs feeling anxious and you have a unique (and possibly demanding) training scenario.
There are degrees to separation anxiety severity, and pet parents with dogs that have milder cases can help them learn to cope with being alone through gentle training and behavioral modification.
Separation Anxiety in Dogs: Challenging Behaviors
For many dogs suffering from separation anxiety it’s not just being alone that evokes a nervous response, it’s also the rituals that pet parents go through prior to leaving that amp up their discomfort.
Dogs with separation anxiety learn the “pre-departure cues” that signal their person is heading out for the day, like packing a work bag or purse, putting on a specific type of shoes or grabbing the car keys. These daily rituals signal departure and trigger the beginning of the stress sequence, like panting and pacing.
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Once the pet parent has left for the day, dogs typically exhibit any or all of the following behaviors associated with separation anxiety:
Refusal to eat: Pet parents might think that a tasty peanut butter bone will occupy their dog while home alone, but dogs suffering from intense separation anxiety usually refuse to eat.
Pacing: Dogs that are panicked when their person leaves will be unable to settle down and might walk back and forth, circle or seem restless and unable to settle down.
Accidents: Dogs that are normally house trained will eliminate inside, including stress-induced diarrhea.
Drooling: Pet parents might discover puddles of drool throughout the house as well as a dog with a wet chin and chest.
Vocalization: Many dogs vocalize briefly when their person leaves but dogs with separation anxiety will often bark, howl, or cry the entire time they’re home alone.
Destruction: Dogs experiencing separation anxiety might chew up household items like remotes and pillows or resort to more large-scale destruction like tearing through drywall.
Escape: Crated dogs with separation issues can self-injure while attempting to get out, and dogs free in the house might focus their efforts around doors and windows to escape confinement.
It’s important to note that some behaviors blamed on separation anxiety might be caused by other training challenges or underlying health problems. For example, puddles and piles in the house might be due to incomplete house training or a gastrointestinal problem and excessive drool can be caused by a broken tooth up an upset stomach. Speak with your veterinarian to rule out any medical problems before starting separation anxiety training practices.
Dog Separation Anxiety Training: The Basics
Behavioral modification for separation anxiety addresses it in two ways—it helps the dog learn to be less dependent on the pet parent and encourages him to learn to relax when left alone.
This process can be especially challenging because once training has begun, pet parents should avoid prolonged absences to prevent regressions. That means households should try to take shifts so that the dog isn’t left alone during the training process or pet parents should consider hiring a dog sitter or dog daycare to help while the dog adapts.
Making progress in separation anxiety training requires dedication, patience, creativity and most importantly, time. In severe cases the initial steps of successful separation anxiety training can be measured in durations as short as seconds apart from the pet parent, which means behavioral rehab will come slowly.
Training Tips for Dogs With Separation Anxiety
Training dogs with separation anxiety requires patience and traditional dog training techniques should be altered to allow your dog time to adjust and get comfortable on his own. Use the following tools and tips when training dogs who have issues with separation.
Keep arrivals and departures calm. When leaving your dog remember to keep your goodbyes low key and do the same when you return. While this step alone won’t address longstanding separation anxiety, it can help to prevent an escalation of stress at departure time and can make your return seem like less of a notable event.
Carve out plenty of playtime. While a walk around the block is a fine place to start chipping away at pre-departure tension, it’s not enough to put a dent in the energy levels of most dogs. Consistent, pant-inducing exercise that includes both body and mind components can help to decrease some of the stress of being alone. Brain games in particular are excellent for tiring out dogs, so make sure to include activities like “find it” “hide and seek” or other scenting games prior to leaving for the day.
Use treat-dispensing toys. Pairing a well-stuff Kong or similar toy with departure time can help dogs cope with milder cases of separation distress. However, it’ll take more than just a single biscuit stuffed inside to keep your dog focused. Treat dispensing toys should be packed so that it takes your dog time and effort to de-stuff them.
Using a variety of stuffers, like different sized treats interspersed with softer goodies like cheese or peanut butter, and then freezing the toy can help slow down expert unpackers. Leaving a variety of stuffed activity toys spread throughout the house can add a “treasure hunt” element to being alone.
Behavior Modification for Dogs With Separation Anxiety
Unfortunately, the most effective way to do dog separation anxiety training is also the most challenging. This requires using behavioral modification to break down the departure process into small, tolerable intervals in order to shift your dog’s understanding of what it means to be alone.
Review and Adjust Pre-Departure Cues
Pet parents should first understand all of the pre-departure cues that are triggering their dog (which requires an understanding of canine body language) and defuse them one at a time.
If your dog reacts when you pack your lunch, try going through the process on a day you don’t have to go to work and then eating it at the kitchen table. The same goes for grabbing your keys and bag—try to imitate the process of collecting them then put them back down and do something else.
Systematic Desensitization: A Gradual Process
Of course, the primary issue is helping your dog feel comfortable when you actually leave, which requires using a method called systematic desensitization.
The training process starts with pet parents disappearing from view (usually ducking out of a room and not actually leaving the house) for a few seconds and returning before the dog exhibits stress signals. Since the dog needs to remain calm his responses dictate the speed of the training program, which might initially require departures of just a few seconds each.
The goal is to gradually increase the length of time you are out of sight while your dog remains stable—until he’s calm and confident enough to try a real-life brief departure.
Training a Dog With Separation Anxiety: When to Get Help
Longstanding separation anxiety can be difficult to treat without assistance from a dog trainer or behaviorist. Pet parents should consider seeking qualified help if:
- The dog is injuring himself when left alone
- The dog’s quality of life is at risk
- The pet parent is overwhelmed by the dog’s behavior or doesn’t feel equipped to handle the training process
- Outside complaints about the dog’s behavior are escalating
A dog trainer who specializes in separation anxiety cases can provide support and guidance, and in severe cases, a certified veterinary behaviorist can step in for additional direction and necessary medication or recommendations for calming products to work in conjunction with relaxation protocols.