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Separation Anxiety


Why does my dog have separation anxiety?

First, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you see nervous behavior normally from your dog?
  • Have you noticed nervous or excessive panting?
  • Does your dog follow you constantly from room to room?
  • Does your dog go crazy when you walk in the door?
  • Would you say your dog has demanding behavior?  Do they demand attention?
  • Would you label your dog as needy, clingy, or a velcro dog?
  • Do you live with a single dog?

These are a few of the questions I typically begin with if someone has contacted me with a dog with separation anxiety.  I find the dogs that suffer from this miserable behavior have anxiety in the seed of their soul.  Many times this has been noticed in early puppyhood–excessive, whining, fearfulness, etc.

What makes this behavior worse or better is our reaction to their behavior.  Because humans are humans, compassionate, loving, sympathetic creatures when we adopt a dog with nervous behaviors we immediately feel sorry for them. We dote on our “poor, scared puppies” in an attempt to console them.  What people do not realize is that they are actually encouraging the unstable behavior!  If the puppy is extremely young, you can imprint these feelings on the brain.  In doing this we create a much more severe situation and in turn it becomes even more challenging to deal with.

The appropriate attitude to bring to any new family member is one of positive energy, “You are here now.  The past does not matter any longer!  You are here and we are looking forward to growth and stability.”

What to do if you are already seeing Separation Anxiety in your dog:

Rule #1: The first thing I recommend is cranking up the exercise.  Tired dogs accept things much easier this way when they have less energy to put into panic.  (Note that higher energy dogs need more exercise than low or medium energy dogs.)Walking your dog in what I call “Math Class” will help.  This will provide your dog with a mental workout as well as a physical workout.  Also, adding a backpack with up to 10% of your dog’s body weight inside will intensify their workout.  I recommend rice and/or beans for weight (tip: you can store the rice/beans in the freezer during summer months.  This will create a nice cold pack for your dog.)  Picking up the pace with a run or bike ride can also be great ideas for high energy dogs.  Same “math class” rules apply to accelerated activities.

Rule #2: The second thing to change in your pups life would be to put rules in place.  The first one I recommend is to not allow your dog to follow you all the time.  Dogs are pack animals and being with you is normal.  You know if your dog is incessant about it.  There should be limits.

What we are looking to do here is convey to your dog that it is not their responsibility to keep an eye on you.  If you are to leave them home alone they must first learn that you can be in a separate room.  Having said that, packs never separate.  It is part of learning to live in the human world that you must learn to be alone at times.

Rule #3: Next, I would add that you should eliminate demanding behaviors from your daily life.  This is one area that we must be clear about the difference between “Human Psychology” and “Dog Psychology”.  Most demanding behaviors occur with petting.  But not always, it could be a different behavior.

Now, I am not saying that you should not pet your dog! This is a huge reason that we have dogs and why we love them.  Not all dogs are overly demanding either.  I just want you to pay attention to your dog’s behavior.  If he is nervous, does he become more demanding for petting or jumping up?  Remember the basic premise; we do not want to encourage unstable behavior.  In your daily life, your dog should be in a calm and relaxed state, not begging for attention.  Then you initiate the love!  We tend to see petting as affection.  And it is in a way.  But think of this….Have you ever seen a dog petting a dog?  It’s not a dog thing.  It’s a human thing.  Dogs do love it and we should share it. Reward calm, stable, relaxed, non-demanding behavior.

Rule #4: When you are coming into, and leaving, your home it should be a non event.  Sounds strange to most people, however, you and all people coming into your home should ignore the dog until they calm down. You’re not being rude. You’re just making a new association. For dogs, A = B.  It’s very simple.  If you come into the house crazy, hyper and excited, your dog will be too. This is a major reason that dogs also learn to jump on people as they enter the house.

Fostering good behavior means you must calm down in order to receive attention from me.  For a dog with a separation issue this time period needs to be more extensive–say 30 minutes to an hour.  I know, this sounds completely crazy, but do you want to have a happy dog?  Sometimes we have to give up things that make “us” happy and there is plenty of time for love later.  Same thing when you are preparing to leave the house.  With practice and repetition, it will all become very natural in no time.  Training all those visitors is the hard part.  Remember, don’t take no for an answer.  Your pup needs for you.

Rule #5: Technology. It can be your friend.  Skype(tm) can be a great tool for the treatment of separation anxiety.  Be sure your dog knows a command or sound to go lay down or get on your bed.  You can observe your dog remotely.  This will allow you to gradually increase time and distance away.

Separation Anxiety is one of the most common behavior problems I see, and it is also one of the most difficult to work with.  It is going to require you, as the owner, to be very patient because this is not work that is achieved over night.  It can take months to see a big improvement.  So, be persistent, stick to your guns, don’t give up, and be consistent.  We can only help them if the rules stay the same! Also, we can’t change expectations because we get tired because it’s confusing for your dog. Dogs need rituals.

One last word, if the separation anxiety is so severe and ingrained, your pup may need medications.  Clomicalm has been proven to be fairly effective but it will not work by itself and you must include behavior modification techniques as well.  Please speak to your veterinarian before using any sort of anxiety medication on your dog.



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