How can I help with my dog’s separation anxiety?

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You return home from work or running errands only to find your house is a disaster. Torn pillows, deep scratch marks on doors and windows. Not so enthusiastic voicemails from neighbors complaining about your dog’s constant barking. How can this be? I left you in the kennel and I’m positive I secured the latch before leaving. You investigate further, only to find the crate has been torn apart and your dog has cuts and scrapes on his/her mouth and paws from escaping. You go into your bathroom to collect yourself, only to pick up the scent of an awful odor. Looking on the floor you notice a present your dog left. These are all symptoms of dogs who suffer from separation anxiety.

After cleaning up the mess you sit down and think to yourself how

can I help my dog with his/her separation anxiety?  First let’s start with examining your dog’s behavior prior to leaving. Is he/she panting or drooling excessively? On the slick floors do you notice sweaty paw prints? Is your dog pacing constantly and following you everywhere you go in the house?  If you are noticing some or all these symptoms this is a strong indication your dog needs help and guidance.

This brings us to how can I help my dog with his/her separation anxiety?  Let’s start with discussing the difference between separation and isolation anxiety. Isolation anxiety is your dog doesn’t want to be left alone – any person or dog will do for company. Separation distress or anxiety on the other hand, your dog is hyper-bonded with a specific person. Your dog continues to show stress behaviors in the absence of that person, even with presence of other people or dogs. Why is making this distinction important? True separation anxiety is more difficult to overcome versus isolation anxiety. Not to say nothing can be done, but more effort and time on your part will be needed to help your dog overcome and resolve the anxiety issues.

Next let’s examine your relationship with your dog. When home with your furry companion, is he/she constantly by you going from one room to another under your feet? When you are relaxing on the couch, does your dog immediately jump up to lay on your lap or cuddle next to you? If you are allowing your dog to be with you in your space constantly while you are home, leaving them is going to be that much harder. The best thing you can do is to start creating personal space. Teach your dog what we call “place” command. “Place” command is simply asking your dog to lay on a dog bed or cot and if you leave the room they must remain in their place. Think of “place” command, as doggie meditation. We are asking them to lie down and relax for long periods of time without worrying, where you are or what you are doing. Creating this distance while you are home will make it so much easier on them when you leave because they have learned to be away from you.

Another thing to focus on is your arrival and departure. Make your departures very calm, no hugging/kissing “I’ll be back” in a high pitched tone. Just calmly have your keys and head out the door. Also mix up your routine when leaving. Eat breakfast before you shower instead of after. Pick up your keys and put them in your pocket before you take your dog out for his final potty break. Make the morning as unpredictable as possible.  When arriving wait until he/she has completely calmed down. If he/she jumps all over you when you return, ignore him. Turn your back and walk away. When he/she finally settles down, say hello and greet very calmly.

Finally, the dreaded crate/kennel. Most dogs are asked to go into their crate before their owner leaves. Start asking for time in the crate even when you are home. Dogs are very smart and love routine, so if every time you leave you ask for crate they associate the crate with you leaving. Mix things up, ask them to go into their crate for 30 minutes and just hang out before you take him/her on a walk, or while preparing dinner. The crate begins to take on a different meaning. What do I do if my dog hates being in his/her crate? If that is the case, start very slow with crate. Ask them to go into their crate then immediately call them out. It is also very important to note that they are not to jump out, you need to give permission to exit. Do this over and over and over again for very short periods, we are talking seconds. For example, let’s say your dog’s name is Coda, you will give the command “crate”, “kennel”, “house”. etc.. When Coda enters the crate you will give praise. Then immediately give Coda permission to leave. We like to use “break”, as our you’re free to do what you would  like Coda. This is done very fast; “crate’ – good job Coda, “break” – good girl. Over and over and over again. Once you see your dog is entering the crate without any hesitation, slowly start adding time before you give the command to exit. Remember it’s important to work at your dogs pace, take your time and keep doing repetitions.  Another great exercise to help with a dog that hates crates, feed them in their crate. Using their food has a powerful impact, and can help them associate something they have a negative feeling towards in a more positive light.

Fixing separation anxiety is hard work. It’s all too easy to get frustrated with your dog’s destructive behavior. Remember that they are not choosing to do it out of spite or malice. It’s not fun for them either. They live in the moment, and the moments that you are gone are long and terrifying. If you are making the commitment to modify his/her behavior and succeed in helping him/her be brave with being alone, you’ll not only save your home from destruction, you will enhance the quality of your dog’s life immensely.

The first step in showing leadership with your dog and changing the power dynamic is not giving your dog these luxuries. You have to teach them and show them that you are in charge and all of your furniture is owned by you, not them. You also have to teach them that your praise, affection, and those luxuries are earned. Over time, after training and withholding these luxuries, your dog’s mind set will change and begin to see you as the leader. Once they start making better choices, you can slowly begin to give your dog a little more freedom and allow them to sleep on the bed sometimes. Praise and affection is earned, not freely given.

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