Complete Guide to Understanding Separation Anxiety

This blog is meant to help owners better understand their dog’s Separation Anxiety. It is also meant to be a guide on treatment and management of the behavior. It is not meant to replace expert behavior modification or coaching.

For a long time, I have known there was a problem with the understanding of Separation Anxiety. I have heard clients, pet store employees, shelter staff, groomers, and vet techs all talk about Separation Anxiety and it’s clear that there is an overall misunderstanding about the behaviors associated with Separation Anxiety. 

I think I first notice the problem after we implemented the behavior modification program at the Humane Society. We tracked the return rates that adopted dogs were being returned to the shelter had decreased by over half once a behavior program was put into place. Oddly, there was only one behavior that we were still seeing the same trend on return rates. That behavior was Separation Anxiety.

After speaking to numerous owners who were returning dogs, reaching out to adopters of dogs with separation, and looking at the data it became very clear to me that adopters didn’t understand what true Separation Anxiety looked like. There was a major disconnect in communication. When our highly trained shelter staff said “The dog you are looking at has Separation Anxiety, are you prepared to work through that?” The owner responded with “Oh, yeah! My last dog had separation anxiety too.” Neither party was aware there was a huge communication gap. 

What was intended by the adoption consular was “Are you prepared for a dog that will have a panic attack every time you leave the house? To the point of self-mutilation and eating through your dry wall?” And the adopter was saying, “Yeah, my last dog chewed up a pillow and cried a little when I left.” 

We found the solution by having several previous adopters, some who kept their dogs and some who didn’t write up a paragraph or two of what they wish they had known before adopting a dog with Separation Anxiety. The adoption consular would now ask adopters to read the handout about what other adopters wish they would have known BEFORE filling out the application. This change allowed for both adopter and adoption consular to share the same understanding of this often misused, misdiagnosed, and misunderstood term, Separation Anxiety. 

A few months ago we got in a Wheaton Terrier to the shelter. It was a beautiful dog with a lovely, friendly, and confident temperament. The dog was an owner surrender whose owner’s living conditions had changed, causing the dog to have to spend long hours in the kennel alone. The owner had diagnosed his dog as having Separation Anxiety and had passed his diagnosis along to the staff. The staff knowing the special challenges related to Separation Anxiety sought rescue options for the dog.

Upon further research of the dog’s the symptoms of the dog’s symptoms of “Separation Anxiety” we were able to determine that this dog didn’t have Separation Anxiety.

This was a case of indoor marking, a little whining when crated, lack of exercise, and excitement when the owner came home. The Wheaton Terrier found an AMAZING home with an adopter who a professional trainer and meets and exceeds his needs.

How do you know if it is Separation Anxiety?

Take this quiz to help guide you to if it is Separation Anxiety.

  1. Has your dog been to the vet to rule out medical incontinence? Is your pet on medication that could cause excessive thirst, drooling or stress?  
  2. Is your dog anxious and other areas? Does your dog easily become stressed in a new environment? What about when storms or construction sounds are present? It is pretty rare for a dog to only be anxious in one area such as during separation. Most dogs with anxiety, much like people will have different triggers for their anxiety.
  3. Is your dog urinating or defecating only when you are gone? Is your dog lifting his leg when urinating? Is your dog going to a point of exit to urinate or defecate? Dogs that lift their leg to urinate or that urinate when you first greet your dog are typically not indicators of Separation Anxiety. Dogs that are urinating and defecating out of Separation Anxiety will typically do it if crated or if free and they will do it close to a point of exits like a door or window.
  4. Is your dog chewing and digging at the doors, windows, drywall, and door frames? Is your dog looking for an escape route? Most dogs with Separation Anxiety will fixate at points of exit such as the front door or window. A dog that chews up three or four things all over the house tends to have more of a boredom/enrichment problem.
  5. If you leave your dog with a “high value” chew bone like a raw femur a stuffed kong that your dog would normally love does he chew it when you are gone or wait until your home to start snacking? If he likes the chew when you are home, but will leave a fresh one completely untouched while you’re gone it’s a good indication of high stress and anxiety. 
  6. Does your dog start to get anxious when you’re getting ready for work in the morning? A dog that has separation anxiety will start to become stressed when they see departure cues. Departure cues are things like putting on your coat and shoes or getting your car keys.
  7. Does your dog drool more when you are away? Do you come home to find that your dog’s chest is wet from slobber? If you don’t own a mastiff this could be an indicator of stress drooling caused by Separation Anxiety.
  8. Does your dog pace from window to door while you are gone? Does he seem unable to relax while you are away? You may have to set up a webcam to monitor your dog while you are away. If you don’t have access to one you can even set up your cell phone to record or borrow a friend’s camera while you leave for a short length of time.  

If your dog has 2 or more of these symptoms then he probably has some level of Separation Anxiety. Separation Anxiety can be broken into three categories; Mild, Moderate, and Severe.

If you now believe your dog is bored and chewing try this article instead,Enrichment

Mild Separation Anxiety is a dog that shows some anxiety when you are preparing to leave by whining and pacing but can be distracted by a new toy or chew bone. The dog may chew a little but CAN be distracted by a stuffed Kong or Raw Bone. This dog may have good days and bad days, but destruction is minor as the dog can self-soothe. There may be pacing present, but not continue throughout the day. This can be treated by an owner who is persistent and does research on treatment. It is important to remember that a loud storm or construction work can push a dog from mild to severe anxiety.

Moderate Separation Anxiety is a dog that becomes anxious as you are preparing to leave paces and whines while the owner is getting ready and can’t be distracted with toys, treats, or new chew bones. These dogs will typically vocalize, pace, drool, or chew the majority of the time you are away and these dogs are unable to self-soothe. Behavior modification for these dogs should include a certified trainer even if training is virtual. It is important to remember that loud storms or construction work can push a dog from moderate to severe anxiety.

Severe Separation Anxiety these dogs become highly stressed at any signal you may be leaving the house, these dogs may even experience anxiety when you enter another room. These dogs cause major destruction and cannot be distracted. They may even show distress while another person is home with the dog. These dogs will more likely have wet chests from drool and may urinate or defecate. These dogs are completely unable to self-soothe and maybe out of breath when the owners come home from even a short outing. These dogs are likely to cause major damage to walls, floorboards, and carpets. 

They are also the most likely to cause themselves injury. It is important to remember that these dogs can hurt themselves on a bad day. Behavior modification for these dogs would require working with a behavior expert with one of the following certifications; CAAB, ACAAB, or Dip ACVB that can either prescribe or work with a licensed veterinarian to prescribe medication in addition to treatment.

Why do dogs get Separation Anxiety?

Dogs from certain breeds or bloodlines within breeds may be genetically predisposed to anxiety. 

Separation Anxiety can occur much later in life than you would typically see with many other behavior problems like Resource Guarding which indicates that environmental influences and life events may play a large role. 

  • Losing a home is among the most common cause of Separation Anxiety. Dogs becoming incredibly bonded to their family and being surrendered to a shelter or a rescue is extremely traumatic for any dog. Even shelters with the highest level of care. We see dogs that are surrendered and returned to the shelter that develop Separation Anxiety.
  • Changes in who lives in a home. A favorite person moving out or the chaos of a new person moving in can be a cause of Separation Anxiety.
  • Abrupt changes in schedules for the dog can certainly be a source of Separation Anxiety. When I lived in Colorado I was able to take Buck, my German Shepherd, with me every day to work. He would just hang out while I taught classes. German Shepherds tend to be more prone to Separation Anxiety than other breeds and when I moved to Kentucky and started teaching people out of their homes he had to stay home a lot more. This caused him to start to develop a mild case of Separation Anxiety that we were able to catch quickly, but continue to monitor for.
  • Changes in where the dog resides can also cause Separation Anxiety. It’s not surprising being left home alone in an unfamiliar place can cause anxiety.
  • If stressful triggers occur while the owner is away this can trigger Separation Anxiety as well. Things like a loud thunderstorm or construction work happening close to the house after an owner leaves may make associate the trauma from the scary sounds with the owner has left the house. 

What should you expect while working through Separation Anxiety with your dog?

Separation Anxiety is similar to human trauma in that it isn’t like teaching someone to memorize a math equation. Instead it a slow process that requires trust, support, and healing.

You’re going to need to expect your dog, even one with only mild Separation Anxiety to have good and bad days. True Separation Anxiety will never completely disappear. It is important to remember that while your dog will have long stretches of improvement there will be setbacks, just like their human counterparts that suffer from anxiety. Dogs with mild Separation Anxiety may completely improve in 1-4 weeks and dogs while dogs with severe Separation Anxiety may take closer to a year. I recommend my students keep a journal to track their dog’s progress. This can serve as a reminder of just how far your dog has come when your dog has a bad day. It will also allow you to spot patterns like every Friday at 2 he seems to have a setback. 

This could result in you being able to determine that the neighbor mows his lawn on Fridays and this triggers your dog’s Separation Anxiety. Being aware of these types of patterns can help you manage them.

What if you need the Separation Anxiety solved today?

There are many reasons you may be in a situation to need to modify the behavior sooner rather than later. It causes a lot of damage to your home and barking isn’t often appreciated by neighbors and landlords. While you can’t heal Separation Anxiety overnight you CAN save your neighbors and your house with good management techniques.  

Consider the following options: Can your dog go to work with you? 

  • Even 1 or two days a week
  • Can you work from home even 1 day a week?
  • Can you have someone come to your house while you’re out for the day? Friend, neighbor, or little sister?
  • Can you drop your dog off at a doggy daycare or hire a dog sitter?

The shelter told me to try crate training. What do you think about kennels or crates for dogs with Separation Anxiety?

More confinement often causes more stress. More stress does not ease anxiety. Dogs with Separation Anxiety will often become self-destructive so if left in a wire crate will bend bars, eat through plastic and stick their heads out causing them to get stuck. 

I brought home a Cane Corso that I fostered named Muffin. Muffin came to the shelter with loads of scares and broken teeth. 

Muffin was just about the perfect dog from day one. I could walk him with two fingers, he was gentle with people and good with dogs. 

He loved being with me and going for car rides. Not being aware of his anxiety I crated him as I do all my fosters. I left him for a quick trial run (25 minutes) and came home to a broken kennel, blood all over the floor, and a stressed Cane Corso.

Poor Muffin had Separation Anxiety. I had him for about 4 weeks and was able to get him comfortable with being left for 4 hours loose in the house as long as the blinds were open, not closed. Muffin found his human soul mate in a retired Italian classic car collector who outside of the occasional doctor’s appointment could take Muffin with him to car shows and hang out at home with him.

 KENNELS DO NOT SOLVE SEPARATION ANXIETY. Kennels CAN sometimes mask the symptoms. You should NEVER leave a dog with Separation Anxiety ALONE in a wire crate or plastic crate.

If there are no other options an Impact Crate with Separation Anxiety doors ARE A SAFE OPTIONS to prevent your dog from injuring himself or damaging your house while you are gone. If you decide to use a crate make sure that you are conditioning your dog to feel safe and comfortable in the crate first. Read this article to learn how. Everything You Wanted to Know About Kennel Training Having said that it can cause the dog more stress and panic, so it may set back your behavior modification plan.

How to prepare your dog and your house for training.

Before you start working on modifying your dog’s Separation Anxiety it is important to have a management plan. Remember that management is different than training or behavior modification. DO NOT EXPECT MANAGEMENT TECHNIQUES TO SOLVE THE BEHAVIORS RELATED TO SEPARATION ANXIETY. Management simply helps set your dog up to be more successful. Here are some management tips:

  • Set up a webcam
  • Have a plan to limit the amount of time your dog is home alone; consider a doggy daycare or dog sitter. It is also essential to the training process that your dog doesn’t experience the full-blown version of what provokes anxiety during training, so these options should be considered whenever possible.
  • Get a notebook or set up a journal to keep a record
  • Leave on a TV, radio, or a recording of yourself reading a book on loop
  • Buy high-value chew bones. Pick up natural meat bones at specialty pet stores. Check the freezer section for the highest value. Give your dog the bone when you leave and take it away as soon as you come home. These bones can act as a pacifier to lower anxiety cases and can act as a measurement tool for high anxiety cases. SWITCH BONES OUT DAILY TO PREVENT BOREDOM.
  • Stay calm when you leave and limit the departure cues that your dog is seeing. Get ready where your dog can’t see you preparing for work.
  • When you get home from being gone ignore the dog and don’t create additional excitement.
  • Your dog should be exercised hard enough that they are out of breath. This will release feel-good chemicals in the brain as it does with people. Don’t leave right after your dog is exercised and still amped up, instead work on a calm exercise like down-stay OR offer a Kong while you get ready.
  • Clicker train and try your hand at shaping. Mental stimulation can be more exhausting than physical exercise
  • Try doing nose work with your dog when you are home and when you are gone. It is great enrichment and has been shown to decrease stress. Try hiding a scavenger hunt of treats and meals is a great way to help with mild anxiety. It certainly doesn’t hurt severe anxiety either. 
  • Consider trying pheromone collars or diffusers at the point of exit
  • Thunder shirts are designed to soothe anxious dogs. I have had clients try it and say they saw no difference at all and others try it and say it made a world of difference. As with many of these management techniques, it doesn’t hurt to try but will be trial and error to see the effectiveness.
  • Rescue Remedy is a natural homeopathic stress reducer. Much like thunder shirts I have had clients try it and say they saw no difference at all and others try it and say it made a world of difference. I would say that I have seen less success with Rescue Remedy than I have with Thundershirts. As with many of these management techniques, it doesn’t hurt to try but will be trial and error to see the effectiveness.

What about prescription medications for your dog? Medication is not for dogs with just a little fear or anxiety. Anti-anxiety medication for dogs isn’t meant to replace training, exercise, or enrichment.  

Behavioral medication should be reserved for dogs that are having something comparable to a full-blown panic attack. These are not misbehaving dogs, but dogs that are struggling with the quality of life due to the level of stress hormones flooding their brain.

As Dr. Jen, a veterinary behaviorist who is an expert on the subject wrote in her blog on behavioral medications,

 “The brain chemistry of a dog who responds to every stranger or novel object as a terrifying threat is fundamentally different from a dog who accepts these things in stride. The same is true for a dog who panics every time his owner leaves – his heart rate soars, he salivates uncontrollably, and his system is flooded with adrenaline. These are real, physical changes that preclude any kind of learning until we can get them under control.”

Some behavior medications can lower inhibition and tranquilizers do not reduce stress. Tranquilizers like Ace work by making your dog unable to move or exhibit any other outward signs of their fear and anxiety. Ace is a kind of “chemical straightjacket” which can cause fear and anxiety to worsen in the future. A good vet and good behavior consultant can work together on a plan of what will work best for your dog.

What about getting a second dog?

Imagine that you are on foot taking a tour of the Serengeti. 

The tour guide mentions that tourists were attacked by a lion in the area a few days prior. You are walking through shrubs following the line of tourists when a tourist out in front, screams, and runs. You don’t have to see the lion for your heart rate increase and at least momentarily feel certain that a lion is lurking in the bushes, right? Dogs operate much in the same way. If you bring home a dog that panics into the home your Separation Anxiety dog could cause your other dog to needlessly panics. More often than not the result is two dogs becoming destructive instead of just one. Instead of jumping in all the way consider fostering first. Some dogs DO benefit from having another dog so set up your webcam and a short trial separation to see if your dog finds this soothing or stressful.

Treatment of Separation Anxiety is often as misunderstood as the diagnoses for Separation Anxiety.

A long time ago it was standard procedure to recommend that the owner practice habituating their dog to departure cues. In other, words go get your car keys and then go sit back down, go put your coat on then sit back down, etc. Unfortunately, while it is still commonly recommended by vet techs, animal shelters, and even some outdated trainers it simply doesn’t work very well. It doesn’t work because there have been over 400 identified departure cues that you would have to desensitize your dog to. Besides, this process requires hundreds of reputations there often results in a phenomenon called spontaneous recovery. Spontaneous Recovery is when a dog had been habituated and re-exposure to the same event, but the dog begins to act as though it had never been habituated in the first place.

Instead, I recommend teaching one cue that means, “I’ll be right back.” I call this method Safe Scent training.  

For Safe Scent training, I like to use an odor to indicate that this is training. It should convey to your dog “You are safe and I’ll be right back.” Before you begin training you should select a non-seasonal scent in either an aerosol form or essential oil like myrrh, cedarwood, bergamot, or another non-citrus scent. If you choose an essential oil add water and put it in a spray bottle to make a mist that you can smell when sprayed. Be sure it isn’t a scent that your family will have in perfumes or deodorant. Also, make sure you can get more if you run out. Try to keep each session 20 minutes long and don’t worry about re-spraying your odor once per session is plenty.

Step 1: First I teach dogs to associate the Safe Scent with relaxing while I move towards the door. To do this I spray the scent in the air at the very start of the training session then put the dog in a down-stay, on a comfortable fluffy mat if I have one. 

I practice down stay and take one step to the door and walk back to the dog and offer a treat between the front paws while he is still laying down. I don’t want to encourage my dog to stand in between reps and I want to encourage relaxation. I’m not going to get excited when I reward my dog. I will continue reputations until I can walk over to the door while my dog stays relaxed then each time I walk right back to my dog and put a treat between his paws. If he seems stressed, breaks positions is yawning or flicking his tongue then those are all indicators that you are moving too fast and need to slow the session down.

Step 2: Once you can approach the door while your dog stays laying on the mat relaxed you can reach out and touch the door and bring a treat back to your dog. 

Gradually increase the difficulty by touching the doorknob and then going back and giving your dog a treat. If successful try wiggling the doorknob, turning the doorknob cracking the door, putting one foot outside, and then eventually stepping out of the door. Between each step return to your dog and calmly set a treat between his paws. Once you can step out of the door without your dog breaking the down add three seconds to every repetition coming back in and giving your dog a treat calmly between his front legs. 

Remember your dog shouldn’t be getting up in between repetitions. Repeat this until you can be outside the door for a full minute. Don’t forget to be paying attention to make sure that your dog seems relaxed throughout the process. If he isn’t relaxed you need to go back a few steps.

Your dog will determine how long you spend on each step, so make sure that you are watching for any sign that your dog is stressed or struggling.

Step 3: Next you are going to restart a session with your spray. Once you spray your Safe Scent place your dog on the mat in a down stay and put your shoes on then set a treat between your dog’s front legs.  

Repeat steps one and two making sure that your dog feels comfortable. Do this same progression starting from step 1 this time just wearing your shoes. Later you can try with your coat on and then another progression where you pick up your keys. Keep practicing until your dog can stay calm while you are outside for two full minutes while holding your car keys and wearing your coat. Once your dog can stay relaxed anytime you go to the door even if you have your shoes on, your wearing your coat, and have your keys in your hand you are ready for the next step.

Step 4: Start this step the same way, spay your Safe Scent in the air for one good spray. Then place your dog on his mat in a down stay. This time give him a new bone that is high value. Something like Tucker’s Raw Natural Frozen bones is excellent for this. We are switching to a bone because he can have something good without us having to come back inside to give him a treat every few moments. Once you have given him the bone step outside for 20 seconds, then 30 seconds, then 60 seconds. Each time coming back in offering your dog a treat and checking to make sure your dog is still calm and relaxed. Each time you come back in he can have a high-value treat in addition to his bone. If he breaks down stay on the mat or seems stressed try going back to the beginning of step 2. If he does well continue to increase the time until you can get to 3 minutes. Once you hit three minutes end the session on a positive note, come back in calming. Put his mat away, treats away, and then put his bone in the freezer until the next session.

Step 5: This is going to be exactly like step 4 except your goal is to be gone 5 minutes start for a minute and gradually work up monitoring your dog’s level of stress. End your session at 5 minutes if you can end on a good note. If you have success with this duration you can increase your next trip to 8 minutes, then 11 minutes then 15 minutes, then 20 minutes, then 30, then 40 until your dog can handle you being outside for an hour.  

How do I progress this to real trips where I can go grocery shopping and go to work?

Depending on your dog you may have to do each step for several days or you might find your dog is doing very well and you can progress multiple steps in a single session. Every dog is different and that’s okay. This has to be based on what your dog is telling you about his comfort level is.  

Before moving to real trips consider all factors that might trigger your dog’s Separation Anxiety. Do you go out of a different door? Do you open the garage door? Your dog will hear your car door close so make sure you practice getting your dog used to the sound of your car door closed before you leave. This is often a big trigger for a lot of dogs. I typically recommend an owner spending a full session on letting the dog feel the comfortable opening and closing their car door. When you start practicing for real trips spray Safe Scent in the air before you walk out of the door. Always give a high-value bone.

 Remember to start with small steps don’t make your first real trip be an 8-hour workday, instead consider a trip around the block. Dogs with Separation Anxiety improve faster with the smaller steps and are more likely to have big setbacks if you skip steps or increase the time you are gone too quickly. 

What if we are only up to an hour of Safe Scent training and I have to leave for an 8-hour workday?

That’s okay. Don’t spray your “Safe Scent” if you are leaving longer than you trained for. 

Remember the Safe Scent tells your dog “You are safe and I’ll be right back.” If you break that there is a good chance you will have to start over with a new scent. Instead try to find any option possible for having your dog stay with someone, daycare, or worst-case scenario just leave without spraying the Safe Scent and use the other management techniques. 

What if my dog isn’t responding to training? 

It could be a timing error, it could be mechanics or your dog might be struggling more than you were aware. Most dogs with mild to mild/moderate separation anxiety will respond; however dogs with more severe anxiety will likely need to consult with a CAAB, ACAAB, Dip ACVB or CCPDT certified expert to help you treat and diagnose.  

Separation Anxiety is a challenging behavior. It can cause damages to the home, test your patients and cause you to second guess the thought of having brought a dog home. I find that dogs with Separation Anxiety are incredibly loyal and once the training processes have gotten rolling the owners are left with a wonderful dog who is incredibly devoted to the dog. It may be helpful to keep a journal, so you can remind yourself how far your dog has come or talked to a professional trainer or virtual dog trainer to help coach you through the hard days.

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