How to Assess and Manage Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Separation anxiety is one of those terms thrown around all the time when it comes to dogs and dog training.
Misdiagnosis of Separation Anxiety
The truth is, I believe that 90+ percent of people who are convinced that their dog(s) have separation anxiety are actually WRONG.
The majority of those people have dogs that lack impulse control, don’t like being alone, have been given too many privileges, and are excessively spoiled.
Lack Of Impulse Control
What is impulse control?
Impulse control is the ability to control your desires to take everything that you want.
I mean, just because I want a pair of shoes at the mall, doesn’t mean I get to just snatch them and take them.
And, likewise, just because your dog wants what you are eating, or what you are playing with, doesn’t mean that he should be able to just snatch it and take it.
And, as you could assume, if your dog can’t even control his basic impulses for things he wants, how is he going to be able to function alone in an environment when his people leave and there is no one to cater to him?
Chances are, he is going to destroy things… because it is fun to shred and destroy (if you are a dog), and getting your way is what you do!
Doggy ADHD is not separation anxiety!
Hates Being Alone
How many dogs have owners that actually foster independence?
I mean, have you ever taught your dog to enjoy being alone?
And, how many people understand that crating their dog while they are home is even more important than crating them while they are away?
The first thing in helping avoid and resolve separation anxiety issues is to recognize that crate training is crucial.
Crate training gives your dog a safe place, and it keeps your things safe from his teeth and nails.
It also prevents your dog from killing himself while you are away.
Dogs chew on electrical cords and swallow inedible items when they are left to their own devices, and both things can cause death.
I like knowing that my dog is safe when I am gone from home.
I also like knowing that I will come home from work and still have a couch, a bed, my computer will be right where I left it, and my dog will be alive.
But, you can’t just put him in his crate and leave all of the time!
You owe it to him to give him shorter sessions in his crate and to condition him to the idea that you might be home.
If you always leave, of course he is more likely to panic.
If crating equals 4+ hours in the crate and his friend leaving, he isn’t going to like it.
If crating equals him being left in his crate for 15 minutes to lick some peanut butter out of a Kong while he can hear you shuffling around the house, he is much less likely to panic!
The last thing you want the crate to equal is your leaving or him being left for hours overnight…that isn’t very positive.
That’s right, being home overnight while you all sleep does not count!
Ironically, as I write this my dog has crated herself and is taking a nap with the door open. 😉
If you do it right, your dog will love his crate.
Once he is comfortable being in his crate, and you are crating him while you are home each day, it is time to foster independence in other places.
My dogs aren’t especially fond of being outside for long periods of time.
However, my dogs need some time without ME.
So, both of my dogs have times during the day where I will send them outside for an hour or more with an elk antler, or a stuffed bone, or something else that will entertain them.
Once they begin to enjoy some time outside alone, just the act of laying in the sun, or chilling outside, is rewarding for them.
I don’t want my dog to think he is going to DIE without my company.
If you don’t teach this, you are inadvertently fostering separation anxiety!
Any healthy relationship should have some alone time!
And, yes, you owe it to your dog to foster a healthy relationship.
I am always a little surprised at how many owners actually set their dog up for separation anxiety because they want to be loved, or they want to spend every waking moment with their dog.
That isn’t a healthy thought process, and you are doing more harm than good!
Too Many Privileges
Dogs should earn their privileges!
I wouldn’t leave a 3 year old toddler at home alone.
I am not going to leave my dog at home alone and out in the house if he hasn’t earned that privilege.
I am flabbergasted at the amount of destruction a dog can do in a short period of time.
Not only can they ruin thousands of dollars worth of things, as mentioned earlier, they can eat things that will kill them.
You could quite literally lose thousands of dollars and your best friend!
Again, I am a huge proponent of crate training.
If my dog is ruining my things, or suffering from separation anxiety, I would prefer to confine him to a smaller space where he can’t hurt himself.
They make crates, typically made for police K9s, that are nearly impossible to break out of. They can be expensive, but so is buying multiple crates, or having to replace carpet, furniture, or walls!
Your Dog is Excessively Spoiled
Okay, I have a slight addendum here. My dogs are excessively spoiled by some people’s assessment; the difference being, that my dogs have rules and are obedient.
I don’t care if you get your dog a golden dog bed, as long as you are teaching him obedience and spending time with him.
The problem is that people today think that buying their dog (or their kid) “stuff” and not giving them rules is a way of showing them love.
They don’t spend time with them, but the house is littered with “stuff”.
Rules and attention are somehow seen as a “bad thing”.
But what your dog really wants is your time and your willingness to teach him new things.
There is only so much that mindless toys can do to entertain your dog.
Your dog can’t read, he can’t play on his new iPhone, he can’t watch TV, or build a following on social media.
All your dog has is YOU.
It is your responsibility to entertain his mind and his body!
I think the happiest dogs on earth are “working dogs”; police dogs, guide dogs, and service dogs all have the best lives because they are working and learning, and are constantly mentally stimulated.
Take a hint from those dogs, and understand that teaching him and setting up rules is something that he yearns for in his life.
Although, he might balk at the idea of rules at first.
Rules are critical to his higher thinking.
Imagine if you had no rules and no school when you were a kid? It would be like being completely feral.
Your dog’s life will change once you give him what he needs!
How to Manage True Separation Anxiety
Dogs with “true” separation anxiety can’t function without their person.
These dogs will self-harm trying to chew out of crates, hurl themselves out of windows, and chew through walls.
There are ways to figure out if your dog truly has separation anxiety. The dog can be tested by a boarded veterinary behaviorist and bloodwork can be run to rule out that and other conditions.
After diagnosis, behavior modification can be used to help the dog find some comfort.
- Exercise your dog before you leave. I am talking about REAL exercise, not a stroll around the block! An exhausted dog is less likely to be bothered by you coming and going.
- A few minutes before you leave, give him an extra good snack, like an elk antler, Kong stuffed with peanut butter (frozen lasts longer), or anything that will keep the dog engaged for several minutes or longer.
- Defuse the stress that your dog feels when you grab your keys or put your shoes on (i.e. examples of rituals that denote to the dog that you are leaving). If you do them all of the time, they begin to lose meaning and then the stress that your dog feels can dissolve.
- Make your departures neutral and without any emotion. No hugging, kissing, or baby talk. Just put him in his crate with his chewy and ignore him.
- Leave music on when you leave. So many people don’t realize that the average dog isn’t used to complete silence. Households are busy, noisy places, so by leaving him all alone and in silence, his panic can be worse. Leave the TV on, or some music, to help him feel more normal and to keep him from hearing every sound that goes on outside.
- Try a plug-in pheromone. Pheromones have been proven to help relieve anxiety and stress. These can also be sprayed on your dog’s collar and in his crate to help relieve stress.
- Get a dog walker. Sometimes having someone come in mid-day will help your dog feel better and less alone for long periods of time.
- Take him to doggy day care. Even if you only take him two to three times a week, it can help him be more tired on his days home!
- Consider working with a boarded veterinary behaviorist that can give you specific work for your dog.
- Try a natural supplement to aid in calming your dog. Using a natural calming supplement, along with proper training, can be effective in managing separation anxiety symptoms in your dog.
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.