Don’t leave me this way: A primer on canine separation anxiety

By Jeff Stallings

More than half of my clients bring dogs into their lives from shelters or other situations in which the dog’s history is unclear.  And a fairly large percentage of those have some sort of behavioral issue, such as fear-based aggression, barrier frustration (on leash or behind doors or gates) or, the subject of today’s post, separation anxiety.

separation_anxiety_dog

Like humans, dogs are a social species. It is in part due to the human and dog social structures being so similar that the extraordinary relationship between our species came to exist at all.  Dogs want and need to be with humans, which is great—until it’s not.  When a dog becomes unduly upset when left alone, we call this “separation anxiety”.

However, just because after you leave for work your dog tears up furniture, soils the carpet, or barks all day, it does not automatically mean he’s suffering from separation anxiety; he could just be bored out of his mind or under-exercised.  You can never leave your dog alone for hours on end having not fully exercised his body and mind without expecting pushback.

With true separation anxiety the symptoms occur each and every time the dog is left alone; destruction occurs at exit points, typically where people leave the house; and continues unabated until they return.  There are many factors to consider in determining whether your dog has full-on separation anxiety or is just bored or otherwise improperly managed.

There are two flavors of this behavior.  The most common is “isolation distress” whereby the dog simply cannot bear to be alone.  The second type is “separation distress” in which the dog cannot bear to part with a particular individual even when left with other dogs or humans.  But since the symptoms and potential treatments are similar, we tend to lump these under the catchall diagnosis of “separation anxiety”.

So that’s what it is…now what do we do about it?  It is important to understand that there are no magic bullets but that in almost every case you can work towards resolution. The key word there is “work”:  It takes time, commitment, creativity, and the patience of a saint.  Alleviating separation issues requires a combination of desensitization exercises—such as breaking your departure routine into tiny pieces and getting the dog comfortable with each, incrementally increasing the amount of time you’re gone; and management—finding ways for your dog to not be alone as you work on desensitization.

Other components of the program might include increasing exercise levels, expansion of obedience training, pressure wraps (such as the Thundershirt), and in some cases, medication. I have seen clients recoil at the very mention of medication, but sometimes it is the salve that allows all the other work to take hold.  Any such medication should never be used unless combined with a comprehensive behavior modification program.  Medications alone will never fix the problem.

If you believe your dog has separation issues, consider hiring a professional dog trainer to help diagnose the true nature of your dog’s symptoms and to establish a program to address the problem.  I also recommend an excellent book on the subject by Nichole Wilde called “Don’t Leave Me:  Step-by Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety”.

Have faith in your dog and yourself.  The situation is far from hopeless!

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About Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA

Having owned well-trained dogs all my life, I started Better Nature Dog Training to exploit decades of experience teaching across a number of fields. I am nationally-certified through the highly-respected Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and am a professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. I teach people how to effectively train their dogs by clearly demonstrating that every interaction counts when training a dog to come when called, for example, or instructing a puppy how to best get along in life. I take a scientific and holistic approach to dog training. The scientific aspect comes from understanding dog psychology from an evolutionary perspective, knowing how dogs are both similar to and distinct from their ancestors, including the grey wolf. The holistic component derives from taking into account all facets of any particular dog’s situation, including upbringing, prior training, traumatic events and—most importantly—the characteristics of his home and family life. Training a puppy or dog can be a most rewarding life experience; it can also be stressful and perplexing. One of the best services I provide is taking the guesswork out while lending a sure, guiding hand in successful dog behavior development and modification.
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2 Responses to Don’t leave me this way: A primer on canine separation anxiety

  1. Dave Bartoletti says:

    Thanks for this excellent review of the problem. Well-written and precise.

  2. Someone once told me that, “dogs spend over half their lives just waiting for their owners to get home”, this really makes me look at separation alittle differently. Thankfully, my dog has got a lot better with routine.

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