Separation anxiety (SA) is no joke. About 13 million US dogs suffer from separation anxiety, according to dog trainer and author of Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs, Malena DeMartini. In fact, it’s estimated that about 20% of dogs are affected by some form of separation anxiety.
The impact of separation anxiety in dogs can vary a lot. Slight cases may be your dog signaling smaller but on-going or escalating signs of stress when you leave but common headlines about the condition include drastic destruction and damage. “Escape attempts by dogs with separation anxiety are often extreme and can result in self-injury and household destruction,” according to the ASPCA. Remember the movie Marley and Me? Yeah. That.
Considering it’s so common and can be truly difficult for you and your pup, it’s vital that dog parents understand what SA is and help your dog cope with it.
HOW TO SPOT IT: What does separation anxiety in dogs look like?
“Separation anxiety truly is a panic disorder about being left alone,” explains renowned dog SA expert Malena DeMartini.
This is way beyond not wanting to be alone—it’s extreme fear. Malena also thinks there is a genetic component to the disorder: “There are several potential situations that can cause separation anxiety to pop up, however my personal belief is that the dog has a genetic predisposition for this disorder. So you may not ever see separation anxiety signs until you move to a new location, but then suddenly the dog is anxious about being left alone.” Read more from Malena about how dogs develop SA.
When you’re figuring out whether your pup has SA, consider that he or she might just be bored. While some of the effect can be the same—destruction, pee and poop in the house, etc—the cause is super different. “Many dogs left loose in the house with nothing in particular to do find ‘interesting’ ways to amuse themselves,” says dog trainer Irith Bloom. Check out her tips for telling the difference.
If you’re wondering if your dog’s behavior is stemming from separation anxiety, ask yourself:
- Does your dog become agitated when you’re getting ready to leave?
- Does your dog become depressed right before you leave?
- Does your dog block the doorway or otherwise interfere so you can’t leave?
- Does your dog start barking or destructive behavior soon after you leave?
- Is your dog overly happy when you return—even if you were gone for as little as a few minutes?
When you’re out of the house, you might come back to some pretty undesirable stuff too:
- urine or feces where you really don’t want it
- comments or complaints from neighbors about your dog howling or barking incessantly (this can be super embarrassing!)
- evidence of digging, chewing or destruction around doors and windows
- evidence of escape-behavior—like your pup breaking out of his or her crate!
The ASPCA’s experts say if your dog shows any of these behaviors along with signs of anxiety, like drooling, the dog might have SA.
It’s important to talk to a local expert if you suspect SA.
THINGS TO CONSIDER: Can’t I just get another dog or use a bark collar?
Because separation anxiety is a terrifying experience for dogs, it’s important to go slowly with behavior modification instead of seeking an immediate remedy. “The behavior modification protocol for treating separation anxiety is a particularly gradual process, however, it has a wonderful success rate if followed carefully,” Malena says.
In other words, be wary of any “quick fixes”—like using a bark collar to discourage your dog from barking. This may seem to help in the short term, but can do more damage than good by adding to your dog’s fears and stress behaviors. “The shock or the spray in the face may halt the vocalization,” notes Malena in The Shocking Truth Separation Anxiety and Bark Collars, “but the collar is adding a further scary stimulus to the already frightening occurrence of being left alone.” It’s important to reduce your dog’s anxieties about being alone, not add to them.
Getting another dog to keep your current dog with separation anxiety company may not do the trick either. Separation anxiety in dogs often comes into play when a specific person is present—or absent—or when humans in general aren’t around. “The addition of a second dog for those dogs will make no significant difference at all,” according to Malena’s writing on the subject. If you’re thinking of adding a second dog to your household, read Fixing Separation Anxiety with Another Dog – Yay or Nay? first.
FIRST STEPS TO TAKE: What can I start doing NOW to help my dog?
Severe separation anxiety is usually a time for a call to your local dog trainer and veterinarian. It’s a hard one to tackle alone in its extreme state, and can cause costly damage or danger for your dog, so a pro can help you get on the right track ASAP.
Mild cases of separation anxiety, may be helped at home with a pet parent doing positive, consistent, reward-based behavior modifications over time. However, if you’re feeling frustrated or your dog’s not responding, it’s a good idea to call a trainer.
Here’s what you can start today:
- Make sure your pup gets their fitness in! A tired dog is less likely to get into trouble.
- Don’t forget mental fitness, too. Brain teasers and mental enrichment can prevent boredom and help a dog be too tired to stress.
- Don’t leave your dog alone longer than they can deal with, at first. While you’re training, find someone your dog is comfortable with to keep them company. A sitter, walker or daycare is great, but it needs to be a person or place your dog enjoys. It’ll help make your absence easier on your dog.
- Gradually increase how long you are gone at a time. Stay aware of your dog’s comfort zone and don’t extend beyond it.
- Talk to your vet or contact a behavior pro for support.
- Sarah Hodgson, who has been working with dogs for over 30 years, suggests you help your dog learn to soothe himself. Puppy pacifiers or a stuffed Kong might do the trick. Find out what your dog prefers.
- Practice, practice, practice! Practice going out the door and returning, putting on and taking off your coat over and over. “Condition happy reactions,” says Sarah. “When you’re home, condition your dog to your departure routines. List all the subtle signs you’re leaving, such as door activity, putting on your shoes, combing your hair, picking up your keys, etc. Repeat each separately as you pair them instead to the things your dog loves like toys, treats, play and attention.”
- Make homecoming happy, but not too much. Calmly give your pup a toy when you get home and say hello, but make it less of a “thing.” You want you pup to know this happens all the time.
Be sure to avoid:
- Using a shock device or special collars. These won’t successfully manage separation anxiety in the long-term.
- Crating your dog if they’re not used to it. This can compound the anxiety they already experience.
- Pushing their stress threshold by leaving them alone too long for their
- “Correcting” or scolding for bad behavior while you’re away. This will just stress your pup more.
HOW TO GET HELP: Questions to ask veterinary and behavior professionals
If you suspect your dog suffers from SA, get the conversation going with your vet and trainer to get this moving in a better direction.
Things you might ask are:
- Are there any medical conditions that might contribute to my dog’s separation anxiety? How can I best manage it?
- I am really having trouble with [name specific behavior or concern] when I leave for work. Do you have any recommendations?
- I’ve tried a lot of interventions to help my dog [name them]. I hear about possible medication to help with separation anxiety. Can you tell me more about it?
When Are You Coming Home? How to Ease Separation Anxiety from renowned trainer Irith Bloom at The Sophisticated Dog
Dog Separation Anxiety Medication from Malena DeMartini
‘Mission: Possible’ An Online Course For Guardians from Malena DeMartini
Medical Treatment and Differentials for Separation Anxiety in Dogs from the American Veterinary Medical Association
Separation Anxiety And The Modern Dog Parent’s Dilemma from Huffington Post