Separation Anxiety is one of the most complex and daunting behavioral problems a dog owner can face. Many pet parents feel overwhelmed by the thought of their fur babies suffering from anxiety, and with so much information out there it’s hard to know where to start. Bottom line – dogs experiencing TRUE Separation Anxiety WILL need the help of a professional trainer/behaviorist. There are some steps you can take at home to relieve some of the stress your dog experiences when you leave. In this article we’ll cover some techniques you can use on your own, as well as sample the steps that a professional behaviorist would take to alleviate your pup’s separation anxiety.
What can I do to help my dog with Separation Anxiety?
1. Prevent it
If you’re a new puppy owner there are some steps you can take to prevent your pup from developing Separation Anxiety. If your dog is not currently experiencing symptoms or if they have just begun acting anxious you may want to start with Teaching Your Dog to Be Alone – Separation Training. However, Separation Anxiety can occur for many reasons, including genetic predisposition or traumatic events that may be out of your control. In those cases, despite your prep work, your pup may still develop Separation Anxiety and need professional intervention.
2. Identify It
The first step is to determine if your dog really is experiencing Separation Anxiety, or a different behavioral issue that may look similar.
What is TRUE Separation Anxiety?
A condition in which a dog has a moderate to severe stress reaction when separated from their handler(s). It typically manifests within minutes of the handler leaving but can also resurface at any point during the departure or be triggered during the departure routine itself. The dog is not able to self soothe or relax throughout the separation and will not be easily distracted from their anxiety. The signs include:
- Destruction, typically at exits of the house
- Escape attempts
- Not able to lay down and relax/sleep
- Anxiety panting
- Wrinkle in forehead
- Wide eyes
3. Eliminate Alternatives
In order to diagnose and treat Separation Anxiety, you must first eliminate other potential causes. The signs of TRUE Separation Anxiety are shared with a variety of other behavior problems.
Here is a list of the most common behaviors misdiagnosed as Separation Anxiety:
- Confinement Anxiety – Whining/ howling in the crate or in any confined area (in playpens or even just behind a closed door) could just be Confinement Anxiety triggered more by the space itself and less by you leaving. If this seems like a better description of your dog, check back for a link to confinement anxiety.
- Housebreaking – Urinating/defecating in the house may happen if the dog did not get a chance to fully empty before the owners left or the dog is just not fully house broken yet. A need to potty could also cause whining/howling in the crate. Check out our 10 Commandments of Housebreaking.
- Separation FUN / Boredom – Chewing and destruction could just be your dog having a great time munching on items they normally don’t get access to (or know better than to steal) when you are home.
- Alert Reactivity – Barking may be a response to someone walking by the house or a package being dropped off at the door.
- Dumpster Diver – A garbage can knocked over could be a learned behavior. In other words, your dog has had success finding leftover chicken in that garbage before, and with no one at home they are seizing the opportunity. A dog that has never Dumpster Dove before could decide to try it for the first time when you’re gone just because they got bored!
4. Try Basic Remedies
Dogs with TRUE separation anxiety are in distress. They will not eat while you are gone, they cannot be distracted from their anxiety by toys, and they don’t care if another dog is around.
If you still aren’t sure of the cause, try the following to see if the issue resolves itself:
- Increase exercise – both in general and right before you leave (but allow them to relax before you walk out the door). Look into young pup exercise ideas.
- Provide an at-home activity – like hidden treats around the home, or an interactive toy. Here is a link to The 25 Best Interactive Dog Toys Of 2020.
- Counter Condition – to create a positive association with being alone, give your pup a yummy, long lasting (non-choking hazard) treat whenever you leave and pick it up when you come home.
- Break Up the Day – to decrease chances of your pup getting bored. Incorporate a dog walker in the middle of the day if your schedule won’t allow you to return.
- Incorporate Natural Remedies – to decrease stress in general. Many Flower Essence companies make formulas specifically designed to help with Separation Anxiety or Separation Anxiety-like symptoms – like this one from Black Wing Farms. You can also try Adaptil diffusers or collars which emit pheromones to produce a calming effect.
- Leave a Piece of You – like a shirt or pillow that has your scent. With especially young pups, straight from the litter, they may also find comfort in an item that mimics a heartbeat – like this one.
- Make leaving low key – by decreasing the farewell fanfare. Also consider decreasing the Hello Party when you return to manage the entrance/exit arousal level in general. Check out our article on Calm Greetings.
- Practice Leaving – multiple times a day. It may just be that you have been spending too much time at home with your pup and they need the chance to adjust to your new social calendar. Go through the Teaching Your Dog to Be Alone article to make sure you are covering all your bases.
When should I consult a professional?
If the signs of distress persist or escalate despite your attempts to intervene with the above tactics, it’s time to bring in a professional to both diagnose the behavior issue (whether it’s an anxiety disorder or not) and create a plan to manage and modify it.
If it turns out you are in fact dealing with TRUE Separation Anxiety, you should ideally be working with a certified behaviorist or anxiety specialist.
How will a behaviorist treat Separation Anxiety?
Once you’ve committed to seeking professional help, you may be curio us as to what steps they will take to modify the Separation Anxiety. Here is some insight into the behaviorist’s strategy:
One of the many tricks up the Professional’s sleeve is Video Monitoring. Video monitoring isn’t very helpful if you don’t know what you’re looking for. But with a professional on your team, this tool will allow them to procure the accurate information to assess, diagnose, and create a modification plan, and have easy access to information throughout the process in order to make adjustments to the plan and ensure success.
A professional will use the above monitoring aid to determine if your dog is truly stressed (by identifying and analyzing subtle body language signals) and will identify the triggers causing the stress (to determine if the triggers indicate Separation related Anxiety). Once this assessment is complete, they can diagnose.
Many unintended diagnosis errors are made without the involvement of a professional.
Your neighbor may think any amount of barking is unbearable and dramatically describe the barking as “it went on for, like, all day” when in reality it only persisted for 15 minutes. It may be that your dog only barks when a package gets delivered but no one thought to check this correlation. Perhaps your pup’s destruction was done out of fun, but no one caught the loose body language that would have proven the lack of anxiety. A specialist will have seen so many cases of separation anxiety before, they will know exactly where to look. Their involvement will speed up the diagnosis process so you can begin fixing the problem as soon as possible.
Make A Plan
Once you’ve diagnosed the issue, a modification plan will be needed.
If it turns out your pup is experiencing TRUE Separation Anxiety, a detailed professional plan is even more important.
The following is a generic plan and will give you a peek into Separation Anxiety modification. However, the differences in separation anxiety cases are VAST. A professional will take a generalized plan like this and customize it to your dog specifically, a necessary step to ensure the fastest fix and most lasting success.
What will the plan be?
Every Separation Anxiety Modification plan consists of the following:
- Setting up for Success
- Identifying the Departure Triggers
- Setting Long Term Milestones
- Desensitizing to the Departure Elements
- Preparing for Setbacks
1. Set Up for Success
- Suspend Absences – This means, do not leave the dog home alone AT ALL. Suspending absences will give your dog time to reset, relax, and ensure you are not taking major steps back after every practice session.
- Create A Village – Your pup may be fine at home with you gone, as long as you leave someone else there with them (this is a type of separation anxiety called “Isolation Anxiety”) Having someone to stay with your dog isn’t a solution but it’s an important tool to long term success. Find people to help you supervise your dog so you can still live your life. Pet sitters, daycare, family/friends, use social media like Facebook and Nextdoor app to look for neighbors who are also dealing with the same issue so you can trade dog sitting when needed. If your pup panics even when left with another person, you may need to take some extra steps to help them develop a bond outside yourself before moving forward with any modification.
- Manage Expectations – Plan to practice for 30ish minutes, 5 to 6 days a week for anywhere from a few weeks to months. Anxiety disorders won’t change overnight.
- Understand Your End Goal – The ultimate goal is for your dog to be completely calm and non-reactive when you depart. In order to achieve this goal, you will need to stay under your dog’s threshold and fully desensitize your dog to each of the many triggers involved in your departure.
A Trigger – is any event that precedes your pup’s reaction (in Separation Anxiety this could be putting your shoes on, touching the front door, starting the car, etc.).
The Threshold – is the level at which you can expose a pup to a trigger and not elicit any distress. “Over threshold” means your pup is stressed and “under threshold” they are not.
Desensitization – is a technique of frequently exposing the dog to a trigger at a very low level in order to keep them under threshold until the phobia, concern, or reaction has been eliminated.
2. Identify the Triggers: The 4 Departure Elements
The following are descriptions of the elements inherent in any departure and samples of some of the most common triggers (or cues) that exist within them.
The exact triggers for your unique case of Separation Anxiety are determined by your dog alone.
Work with your behaviorist to identify the complete list of triggers and cues for YOUR pup.
- Pre-Departure Cues (PreDQs) – This element consists of the ques that typically trigger your dog that you are getting ready to leave. E.g., holding keys, putting on shoes, putting on jacket, holding purse. If your morning routine is especially structured, some cues can start triggering your dog even earlier (like turning off the morning shower, putting on your makeup, turning on the coffee maker or anything else you only do on a day when you plan to leave the house).
- Walk Out – This element consists of the actions in the departure process that get you from inside the door to outside the door. E.g., getting up, walking to the door, touching the door, turning the knob, opening the door, walking out, closing the door.
- Stay Out – This element is the amount of time you stay out of the house. Each additional minute (or sometimes second) can be an additional trigger to the dog.
- Post-Departure Cues (PostDQs) – These are the ques that typically trigger to your dog that you are leaving for a LONG TIME (i.e., more than just taking out the trash or getting the mail). E.g., locking the door, walking out the security gate, unlocking the car, starting the car, driving away.
3. Set Milestones
The Separation Anxiety modification process is loooong.
It’s easy to get lost in the day to day. A list of Milestones can be used to organize an overall plan or to provide achievable objectives to celebrate along the way to the end goal
Your list will be created by your behaviorist so it can be customized to your dog’s specific manifestation of Separation Anxiety. The milestones may be changed, reordered, and adjusted over and over again throughout the process but will help you stay focused on the end result.
4. Desensitization Protocol
This protocol is a SAMPLE step by step plan that can be used to reach a milestone, and eventually achieve the end goal.
- Choose Your Element – Follow your behaviorists list of goals to determine which Departure Element to work on first. Usually this will be the “Walk Out” element.
- Choose a Trigger/Cue – Pick an item from the chosen Departure Elements to desensitize your dog to. Always choose the FIRST item that elicits even minor stress in your dog. E.g., in the Walking Out element, many dogs begin showing stress with the trigger “walking to the door” BUT if your pup doesn’t show signs of stress until you actually touch the doorknob, you can start there. You may be missing your dog’s stress signals! This is yet another reason why a professional should be involved.
- Enact the Trigger/Cue – Practice physically walking to the door, putting on shoes or whatever item you are currently working on. Make sure your pup stays under threshold.
- Return to Neutral – Return to your resting state and wait for your dog to relax. They may still be alert but should not look stressed. This can take anywhere from 5 seconds to 90+ seconds.
- Repeat – Steps 3 and 4 over and over for approximately 30 minutes. The exact timing will vary from dog to dog and change from practice session to practice session based on your results.
- Practice – Steps 3-5 once a day for 5-6 days a week. 1-2days off will allow the dog to rest and grow. This phase can take anywhere from one week to a month as you wait for the last trigger or cue you included to be fully desensitized
- Stay Out – At the end of the 30-minute practice session, ONLY if you have already desensitized to the “Walking Out” Departure Element and ONLY if your dog is completely calm, begin desensitizing to staying outside the closed door. Have an initial goal of 1 minute. If you have already reached the 1-minute goal AND have desensitized to some or all your PreDQs, consider taking one step back in order to take a larger step forward. Remove your PreDqs momentarily while you focus on increasing time alone. Increase the “Stay Out” time very slowly, potentially by only a few seconds per practice session. After you reach your specific “Stay Out” milestone, add back in any removed PreDQs one at a time.
- Add Another Trigger/Cue – Incorporate the next item from the Departure Element category you are working on. This will only be possible once the previous trigger has been somewhat to completely desensitized. You may need to decrease Stay Out time temporarily until the new trigger is less intense and add your Stay Out time back in. See below for other normal and expected Setbacks.
- Fade Out Practice Session – DO NOT attempt this step unless you have fully desensitized to all 4 Departure Elements AND have reached at least an hour of Stay Out time.
- BONUS! Outfit and Time Changes – Many dogs can be ok with you leaving the home for work but that second exit (for drinks with friends or a dinner date maybe?) is a problem. Do your practice sessions at different times of the day. Also, incorporate different types of clothes. Careful not to only desensitize your dog to your work outfits or your pajamas. Do some practice with gym clothes, soccer gear, date night outfit etc. to make sure you didn’t miss a trigger there.
5. Prepare for Setbacks
It is typical to have plateaus where you feel like you are stuck in the same spot of your training for longer than you expected. This is normal and you’ll work through it. Don’t forget that you can take a day off.
There will also be setbacks along the way.
Don’t lose hope! Our dogs recover from these setbacks much faster than they originally did because of the previous work we have done. The most common ones listed below:
- Relocating – to a new room in the house, to a new house, to a new city.
- New Roomies – or when a new family member is added or leaves the family dynamic.
- Trauma – or tragic events for the human or dog.
Ultimately the best thing you can do for your dog’s separation anxiety is to consult a professional. Many dogs experience some mild stress when their owners leave the house. But if you’ve tried some basic remedies and are not seeing improvement, seek help! It may seem like an overwhelming process, but with a professional by your side, breaking the goals down into bite sized achievements, you CAN alleviate your dog’s anxiety!