In honor of National Take Your Dog to Work Day and as part of our talks with professional dog trainer and behaviorist, Russell Hartstein, we present:
Pet parents who suspect their canine fur baby is suffering from separation anxiety often say something like “My dog follows me everywhere” or “My dog won’t stop scratching at the door when I leave.” Some pet parents think that it’s endearing and cute when their dog is attached to them at the hip but when it comes time to leave your beloved furry baby alone, stress ensues and can cause major behavioral and health problem. Studies show that cortisol levels (a steroid hormone released in response to stress) spike even for dogs who are left alone who do not display outward signs of separation anxiety. While this article deals with canine separation anxiety, note that cats can also suffer from separation anxiety, in spite of what the little darlings may be pretending to tell us…
It can take a lot of time and energy to overcome separation anxiety so set reasonable expectations and time frames to deal with it.
Signs of Separation Anxiety
As with other stress signals, dogs may exhibit the following signs of separation anxiety:
- Sweaty Paws
- Lack of interest in food or toys when you are gone
- Vocalization (whining, barking, yelping, howling, crying)
- Destructive behavior (chewing, tearing, biting, digging, destroying items)
- Follows you around like a shadow
- Excess excitement upon your return (whining, jumping, running in circles)
- Escape behaviors
- Trembling, tense muscles
- Displacement behaviors
- Repetitive behaviors
- House soiling/Incontinence
- Urination/Defecation/Coprophagia (eating poop)
If you find your dog exhibiting these types of behaviors, your dog may have separation anxiety. However, general anxieties, storm/noise phobias and other types of fears can also cause similar behavioral symptoms as well as aggression toward other dogs and/or people. Separation anxiety and your dog’s clinginess are far from cute or endearing; they are extremely debilitating, traumatic and stressful for your dog and will end your social life faster than a nun at Prom (no offence to nuns) and can cause emotional, physical and pathological damage to your pup, all of which can shorten your fur baby’s lifespan.
Why do dogs develop separation anxiety?
In order to come up with the best approach to deal with your pup’s separation anxiety, you must first understand what is causing your pup to experience separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is a disorder where the solution has a lot to do with trial and error. No two cases are the same but the first thing to do is make sure your pup is otherwise healthy and doesn’t have any medical condition which could be causing some of the behavioral symptoms (e.g. UTI causing incontinence). Once your pup has a clean bill of health, it is time to do a behavioral analysis. This is when it would be beneficial for you to work with a certified canine behaviorist or trainer.
As with other social animals, abrupt change in environment or routine and/or a sudden or ongoing lack of stability can be uncomfortable and destabilizing for your pup. Because there is no conclusive evidence pointing to “one” cause of separation anxiety, here is a list of possible culprits:
- Change in schedule. Dogs are routine animals and even slight changes can affect them greatly.
- Change in residence. This is a big change in a dog’s life and can cause stress and uncertainty. Moving to a new home upsets their routine and may trigger separation anxiety.
- Changes in pet parents due to a divorce, travel schedules, prolonged illness etc.
- Environmental stressors
- Dog’s natural attachment to people and your pup’s social nature which makes separations from you or isolation anxiety producing.
- Breeding, congenital or inherited tendencies
- Environmental stress
- Lack of systematic desensitization and counterconditioning, things a good behaviorist or trainer will work on with you and your pup.
- Also note that separation anxiety often occurs with shelter dogs, dogs you rescue off the street or those who come from a rescue organization, most of whom have experienced trauma and substantial change and instability in their living environment and their human companions. Just imagine what a dog goes through when dumped from their family car on a remote road or left at the local shelter, never to see their family again.
What is NOT Separation Anxiety
There are many behaviors that may look like separation anxiety but may not be including:
- Barrier frustration = if you’ve put a baby gate up to limit the area your pup accesses in your house and he wants no part of that limitation.
- Medical incontinence
- Urine marking
- Incomplete or unsuccessful housetraining
- Anxiety due to reasons other than separation anxiety
- Medical problems
- Contextual anxiety (e.g. fireworks, thunder storms, screaming)
Separation Anxiety Solutions
So, once you’ve determined that your pup suffers from separation anxiety, what to do? Keep in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all cure or panacea, but we can offer some tools and protocols that typically ameliorate separation anxiety and some tools that are indispensable:
- If possible, set up a video with audio to monitor your dog’s behavior while you are gone. This will give you valuable information to use in deciding what to do to alleviate the situation.
- Work with a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant on behavior modification (e.g. habituation, counterconditioning and systematic desensitization).
- Only use positive reinforcement in dealing with separation anxiety. NEVER punish or force your pup to do anything.
- ‘Employ’ your dog by having her work for rewards – this will keep her occupied, tire her out and provide valuable training and bonding experience.
- Ignore (don’t punish – just ignore) pushy demands for attention
- Reward calm behavior – when your pup doesn’t panic as you are leaving, give her a favorite treat or a new toy. This will also cause her to associate your leaving with something positive.
- Do not encourage shadowing behavior (again, don’t punish it or scream at your pup, just don’t encourage it)
- Encourage independence and perform confidence building exercises
- Desensitize your pup to departure cues. In other words, if your pup associates certain things to your departure, like you gathering your keys, putting on your jacket and grabbing your brief case, do those things even when you are not leaving and reward your pup with treats when you pick up your keys and he doesn’t freak out. Cues can include certain clothing, keys, shoes, glasses, hat, turning the alarm on, TV, lights, radio etc.
- Avoid giving your pup attention at least 30 minutes prior to departure and after arrival. This can be difficult but lessening the excitement and emotional levels normally associated with arrivals and departures will take the anxiety out of your coming and going.
- Environmental management – make sure your pup is comfortable, has toys, water and a safe place to retreat to. As with all social animals, empowering others fosters learning, comfort and calm homeostasis. Always empower your pup by letting him choose his safe area. Some dogs like to go into a closet, or under a desk or into a particular room. Your pup will tell you where he likes to go when he’s feeling stressed.
- D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) ‘Adaptil’
- Thunder Vest or one of your shirts wrapped snuggly around your pup’s chest.
- Lavender, chamomile or other calming essential oils – be sure they are safe for dogs and if you have cats, be careful because many essential oils are toxic for cats.
- For another holistic option you may want to try Bach Flower Remedies.
- Canine classical music – yes, soothing music can help.
- Regular exercise
- Use food-dispensing toys for meals and treats when not using the food for training and behavior modification protocols. This will stimulate your pup’s mind and tire him out, in a good way!
- Environmental enrichment – keep your pup entertained and engaged and he’ll be less likely to focus on the fact that you are not there.
- Treat and Train, Pet Tutor®, or other audio apps, software devices and remote dog training devices.
- Socialization (other dogs and people)
- Avoid leaving your dog alone for prolonged periods of time. Use doggie day care or a pet sitter/walker.
- Pharmacotherapy (medicine/drugs) is rarely successful when used alone. Drugs do not generally resolve the underlying issues causing the separation anxiety and will only aid in masking the behavioral manifestations of the anxiety.
The best results will come from a combination of the foregoing approaches and tools.
About Russell: Russell is an entrepreneur and a financier who traded in his Wall Street life for furry paws, wagging tails and licks. He engages in his passion for dog training, ethology, cognitive ethology and pet care and finds an abundance of satisfaction and fulfillment helping families and their animal companions. Russell is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC, Certified Professional Dog Trainer- Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) is certified through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) and the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), is a member of the Pet Professionals Guild (PPG), the Animal Behavior Society (ABS), the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals (AABP), and was awarded a Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Evaluator by the American Kennel Club (AKC) and STAR Puppy Evaluator by the American Kennel Club (AKC).
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