Separation Anxiety – Oh What to Do?

Separation Anxiety (SA) is a serious behavior problem for many companion dogs and their owners. The good news is that it can be prevented and in many cases it can be treated or at least better managed. First letʼs discuss what it is. Separation Anxiety is a behavioral condition in which the dog becomes stressed upon realizing he/she will be confined and/or left by their human or other animal companions. The stress levels may

Pitt Bull destroys kitchen floor

What does a dog do when she is bored? She redecorates of course.

be mild in nature as evidenced by whining, turning in circles, excessive licking of their paws or crate door, etc. Or it may be extreme to the point where the dog injures him/ herself digging/biting at a crate door in an attempt to escape or if unconfined chewing and ingesting items to crashing through glass windows.

Another indicator for separation anxiety is if the damage is occurring within 15 minutes of your departure. If it is occurring later and is not triggered by your departure then it is probably boredom. You can also consider your dogʼs stress levels while being watched by a friend in your absence. If your dog appears relaxed in their presence despite you being away, it is probably not SA. True separation anxiety can be caused by many contributing factors. What is more important than the causes, is what do we do to prevent it and treat it.

In extreme cases where the dog is injuring himself/herself, it is vital that you discuss the situation with your veterinarian to determine if medication would be beneficial for your dog. Just as with humans, medication by itself, to treat anxiety is not a cure all. However, it is a very important component of the overall behavior modification plan. The correct medication and dosage prescribed by your veterinarian will not “drug” your dog but instead “take the edge off” so that behavioral training can be more successful. In extreme cases of separation anxiety, medication and behavior modification together offers the best chance for improvement.

Many times, what is thought to be separation anxiety is actually boredom. For example, if your dogʼs destructive behavior is targeted toward a couch (fun to chew apart-in the dogʼs mind) versus scratching at doors in an attempt to escape, it might be boredom. If the destruction is done to non personal objects such as wooden entertainment centers or kitchen floors versus personal clothing or other items containing your scent, it is probably boredom. In these cases, the solution is usually to increase the dogʼs physical activity levels, challenge him/her with problem solving games, hire a dog walker, take your dog to a reputable doggie day care center several times per week, and teach your dog to calmly rest in a crate during your absence. To learn about fun activities to do with your dog, join Michael Burkeyʼs Canine Behavioral Training Facebook fan page where outdoor outings are often announced.

If you have implemented the above suggestions, it is a case of boredom and your dog continues to bark in your absence; then you may need to consider humane positive punishers such as a citronella bark collar or a DogTra electronic bark collar.  Having to resort to this is unfortunate but it will make your neighbors happy not to hear your barking dog as well as allow you to vacation with your dog (such as being able to leave your dog in your hotel room while you go out for dinner).The benefits of a citronella collar is that the plastic box is lightweight, it delivers a spray mist of citronella under your dogʼs chin to interrupt the barking and it can be worn for long periods of time. Itʼs drawbacks are the plastic box while lightweight is large, it uses special three volt batteries that are not available in local stores, one has to remember to turn the unit when it is not being used so the batteries donʼt drain too quickly, the spray mist has to be frequently replaced, and it will not be effective with some dogs.

While the DogTra collar utilizes electrical stimulation to interrupt the barking it is not a type of electricity which will burn your dog’s skin.  You can set the unit to operate at just the right level that interrupts your dog’s barking and convinces him/her to cease barking to avoid the mild aversive stimulation.   It is important to move the collar on your dog’s neck every few hours to prevent a rash from occurring.  The potential for a rash is not due to the electrical stimulation but instead from air not being allowed to circulate underneath the prong if left snugly in the same position for a long period of time. This would be similar to if you left a snug fitting watch on your wrist and never moved it or took it off your wrist. The pluses of the DogTra collar include: it has a pager function that simply vibrates the collar unit upon the dog barking, if the pager function doesn’t convince the dog to stop barking then you can set the unit on increasing higher levels of stimulation that always starts with the pager function as a warning, the unit is small enough for even small dogs to wear it, the unit is rechargeable so youʼre not constantly purchasing hard to find batteries and it is a very effective humane way to cease obnoxious barking.

An anti-bark collar should not be used on a dog with separation anxiety without consulting a dog behaviorist. It may appear to work as the barking ceases but all it really has done is cure the symptom (barking).  It won’t cure the underlying fear of being left alone which caused the barking.

Prevention: While it is very important for your dog to bond with you and itʼs household animal friends; it is also important that your dog learn that itʼs ok to be alone and nothing bad happens because of it. Many times, well meaning parents get a second dog to keep their first dog company and to get exercise via fun romps together in the backyard. In many cases, this keeps the first dog happily occupied as well as give the parents a break from their dogʼs constant insistence for human attention.  However, prior to doing this, parents should be sure that they are satisfied with their first dogʼs level of obedience training.  If the second dog is obtained before the first one is trained, it will be much harder for the parents to devote the necessary time to train both dogs at the same time. The result will be having two untrained dogs in the home.

Assuming the first one is trained and the decision is made to add a second dog, it is important to introduce two dogs safely. Once the introductions are done, and the dogs get along pleasantly with each other, it is important to consider the amount of time the two dogs spend with each other. Dogs that are always together and never separated tend to bond so closely that they became stressed when separated. Ways to prevent this may include providing them with separate sleeping areas, short but frequent play times with each other, etc. Additionally, the dogs may choose not to listen to the human parents when asked to come inside the home as they are having too much fun playing with each other outside. To prevent this, it is vital that the parents devote individual private time (fun activities, massages, dog training, etc.) with each of the dogs so that they also bond with humans and not just to the other dog. Dogs who bond with their parents will happily come when called even though they are engaging in play with each other.

A dog who experiences fun and safe socialization activities at an early age will also be less likely to exhibit separation anxiety later in life. A dogʼs personality is usually set at approximately sixteen weeks of age. So it is crucial that you work with a professional dog trainer as soon as possible to not only teach your dog good manners but also to prevent unwanted behaviors from occurring later in life. If your dog is older than 16 weeks of age, donʼt despair. While the personality has been established, it is never too late to modify a dogʼs environment and behavior as well as teach him/her alternative life skills.

Modifying Separation Anxiety: The secret is to teach your dog that by imposing self control and remaining quiet, you will return to him/her soon. There are very effective dog training exercises that you can do with your dog to instill this lesson. To learn how to do this, contact a professional dog trainer.

Dogs who are mentally challenged with food dispensing safe toys tend to be calmer and less anxious. Kong products are an example of safe dog toys. One of their products is a hallowed out rubber toy in which food treats can be inserted. Kongs are made for various chewing intensities from puppies to senior citizens. Put some of your dogʼs dry kibble inside the kong and seal the ends with a Kong food paste. Then place it in a zip lock bag and freeze it. When the frozen Kong is given to your dog, it will last longer as it will take longer for your dog to lick out the frozen food paste. The most difficult time for your dog during your departure is usually the first fifteen minutes. Having a tasty Kong to lick when you leave, helps many dogs overcome the most difficult time of being alone.

The down side to separation anxiety is that your dog becomes stressed during your absence. The up side is realizing that your dog loves and trusts you. In the only way he/she knows how, he/she is trying to tell you, “Donʼt leave me!” So instead of seeing your dog as acting badly by barking relentlessly or destroying household property, see it for what it is. Relish the relationship you have with your dog and help him/her learn to be calmer in your absence.

About Michael Burkey

Michael Burkey is a professional dog trainer, behaviorist and owner of MichiganDogTrainer.com, a highly successful dog training company whose aim is to promote peaceful relationships between pets and families. Additionally, he is an expert trial witness, certified Canine Good Citizen (CGC) evaluator for the American Kennel Club (AKC), former Police K9 Handler, Search and Rescue (SAR) K9 Training Director and SAR K9 Handler, obedience and rally competitor and social worker. Dog training is a complex science and art requiring knowledge of behavioral science and learning. You can rely on Michael's experience, teaching methods, and integrity. He can be contacted at info@MichiganDogTrainer.com or 734-634-4152.
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2 Responses to Separation Anxiety – Oh What to Do?

  1. Ariel says:

    Do you know of any trainers in the Akron/Medina, Ohio area that can help with SA? Or any advise that I can do on my own? My Basset Hound is stressing himself to illness every time I leave his sight. I have tried the “leave for a second, return, praise for silence, repeat” method and it hasn’t helped, now I can’t get out of his sight even for a second before he is panicking. I have also tried crating him, but he just barks and howls. I tried waiting till he stops to let him out so I’m not rewarding his barking, but he NEVER stops. He literally barked, approx. one bark per second, for 6 hours straight. (I thought he’d pass out or lose his voice by then) Any new advise is much appreciated.

    Thank you

    • Hi Ariel,

      No sorry I don’t know of a trainer in Akron/Medina, Ohio off the top of my head. However, you might try doing a trainer search on http://www.apdt.com or http://www.iaabc.org.

      Sounds like you’re doing all the right things. From your description of your dog’s anxiety, I’d also recommend talking with your veterinarian to inquire if medication may be a helpful addition to the behavioral training.

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