Thursday, January 13, 2011

Preventing and Treating Separation Anxiety

We discussed the symptoms of separation anxiety in a previous post.  There are many steps and techniques that can be used in treating separation anxiety.  We will not discuss all of them here.  Instead, I will talk about the steps that apply to the widest range of dogs and significantly help most dogs with moderate separation anxiety.

The steps outlined below will help prevent and treat separation anxiety for most dogs:

  • When you first bring a puppy or new dog into the house, practice building positive associations with a crate or small, dog-proof space that you can leave him in when you are gone (read the post on crate training for detailed suggestions). 

  • Practice consistently confining your dog in his crate or area when you are at home so he doesn’t learn that being in that space predicts that you will leave him home alone (practice several times a day for short periods of time).

  • Practice leaving him in his crate or space while you leave the house for short periods of time (ideally starting with several minutes at a time and work up from there) from the first day.

  • Most dogs and puppies are fairly stressed and shut down when they first come in to your home.  Setting up a consistent routine involving confinement and separation from the first day will help them adapt better than if they spend the first several days with you all the time and then you have to turn around and leave them alone when you go back to work. 

  • Keep your coming and goings very low key.  Of course you love your dog but you don’t need to make a big deal of it when you leave the house or come home.  Being overly emotional will encourage your dog to be overly emotional.  Walk in the door, spend a couple of minutes doing other things, quietly greet the dog and then take him straight out to potty.  You can be more excited and rambunctious later when he comes back inside.  

  • Follow a Nothing in Life is Free (NILIF) program (search online or look for a future post) and exercise your dog well before you leave him alone.  These two things alone won’t fix separation anxiety but they can help.  NILIF allows dogs to be more relaxed and confident while a tired dog is more likely to go to sleep and less likely to engage in destructive behavior.   

  • Make sure you have a well defined program for housetraining and teaching your dog not to chew.  Dogs may develop separation anxiety after being repeatedly punished when their owner has come home to housetraining or other accidents.

If there has been an accident, chewing or destructive behavior while you were gone – ignore it.  Punishing the dog when you get home won’t teach him that the behavior is wrong, it will only cause him to be more anxious when you come home.

  • Dogs with separation anxiety tend to fall into one of two categories – some dogs are more relaxed if they are crated; other dogs panic more if crated.  If your dog becomes more anxious when crated, you may need to find another way to confine him in the house – shutting him in the kitchen or a large bathroom is a common solution.  If housetraining isn’t an issue, you may confine him to a bedroom or other larger room.

  • Generally, keeping the dog in a part of the house that he is used to and normally spends time in is better.

  • Try to protect the dog from outside stimuli – he doesn’t need to see traffic, pedestrians or other dogs outside the window.  This sort of stimulation usually only makes the situation worse.  You may want to cover or block windows if you can’t prevent his access to them.

  • Help him feel good about being alone.  Provide high value, constructive chewing options when you confine him in his space (Kongs, marrow bones and interactive treat dispensing toys are all good options).

Remember, these dogs frequently will not eat if left home alone so start by making it really yummy, really easy to eat and practice putting him in his space with a great chewing options when you are home.  Gradually, work up to leaving the room and finally leaving the house while he is chewing.

If you have the time, you can initially only leave him alone for a short period time.  Return before he is done with his goodie and take it away from him.  This will cause him to think “Hey, I wasn’t done with that!  Go away so I can finish!”  Obviously, do not do this if your dog guards food or toys.

  • Dogs with severe separation anxiety may need additional work including a desensitization program and possibly anti-anxiety medication.  If your dog has severe separation anxiety, talk to your vet or trainer to develop a personalized treatment plan for your dog.  

  • For more information on separation anxiety including a detailed explanation for desensitizing your dog, check out Patricia McConnell’s pamphlet "I’ll be Home Soon!"  It is available online and at 

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