The Mistakes Dog Owners Make About Separation Anxiety

by Dr. Becker

I think the term separation anxiety may do a disservice to dogs with the condition, because unless you suffer from significant anxiety yourself, you may not realize there's more than one dictionary definition of the word.

"Anxiety: apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness usually over an impending or anticipated ill."

After all, most of us feel a bit apprehensive, uneasy or nervous on a regular basis, triggered by fairly mundane things like driving in heavy traffic, boarding an airplane, arriving for a medical appointment, speaking in front of a group, and dozens more I could list. However, it's actually the second definition that better describes what happens to dogs with separation anxiety:

"Anxiety: medical: an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physical signs (such as tension, sweating, and increased pulse rate), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one's capacity to cope with it."

Dogs often give us a heads-up to impending separation anxiety. For example, a pup who at first just seems a bit overeager to see you can develop separation anxiety under the right circumstances. Often, before a dog has his first full-blown anxiety attack, it's easy to mistake his panting, pawing greeting every time you walk through the door (even if you've only stepped outside to sweep the porch) as nothing more than the uncondi­tional love of a dog for his human.

Another mistake dog parents often make is to assume the destruction their dogs cause during an episode of separation anxiety is misbehavior. The mistaken belief is that the bored, grumpy dog is exacting revenge for being left behind. It's important to address your dog's heightened stress when you see it occurring. Waiting until he has full-blown anxiety means you can manage the disorder, but it may be irreversible.

First Let's Establish What Separation Anxiety Is Not
If the only trouble your dog gets into while you're away is chewing up a sock or pulling a few pieces of paper from the trash, chances are she's not anxious. She's probably just bored or doing what dogs naturally do — exploring the world with their noses and mouths.

It's easy to distinguish a case of separation anxiety from doggy boredom. The behaviors that result from separation anxiety happen only when you're not around and every time you're not around. It's also likely your dog has learned your routine when you're preparing to leave the house and shows signs of anxiety before you go.

Be aware that some health conditions, for example hypothyroidism and rabies vaccinosis, can cause behavioral symptoms similar in nature to the symptoms of separation anxiety, so if you're not sure what you're dealing with, make an appointment with your veterinarian to discuss your concerns.

'Separation Panic'
If your dog suffers from true separation anxiety, she's having a panic attack similar to the kind humans have. This is a condition over which she has no control. Common behaviors in a dog with separation anxiety include:
  • Frenzied greetings, whether you've been out of her sight 5 minutes or 5 hours
  • A need to be in the same room you're in, within a few feet of you
  • A noticeable mood change when she senses you're preparing to leave the house
  • Doing things while you're away that she doesn't do in your presence

  • When left at home alone, a dog with separation anxiety will often engage in at least one and often several of the following behaviors:
    Drooling — Excessive salivation is considered by experts to be a red flag for separation anxiety when the excess drool only occurs when a dog is alone or believes he's alone.
    Vocalizing — This is typically barking, whining, or howling that starts before you leave or soon after, and continues for most of the time you're away. Chances are your neighbors already have or will soon let you know there's a problem.
    Accidents in the house — Your dog has pee and/or poop accidents in random locations around your house rather than in one consistent spot, and this only happens when he's alone or believes he's alone.
    Destructive behavior — Dogs with separation anxiety typically cause damage to doors or windows (exit points), or personal items such as clothing, pillows, or the TV remote control. Confining these dogs to a kennel or carrier often causes an escalation of the behavior and can result in self-injury.

    It's very important to realize your dog's destructive, out-of-control behavior when he's suffering a separation panic episode isn't intentional — it's the result of the very real terror he's feeling. Unfortunately, many dog parents see only the result of their pet's panic when they get home or hear from a fed-up neighbor that the dog has been howling for hours.

    Helping your dog overcome the disorder will involve dealing with his anxiety, first — not the behavior it provokes. The sooner you address the anxiety the better long-term success you'll have in managing the behavior.

    Helping a Dog With Separation Anxiety
    The goal in treating your dog's separation anxiety is to reduce her dependence on you so that she can feel safe when you're temporarily away from home. Helping her feel more self-sufficient can be accomplished with a variety of behavior modification techniques and other strategies.

    What you absolutely never want to do is yell at or use physical punishment with your dog if you arrive home to destruction or a mess on the floor. It's very important to remember that these are not signs of misbehavior, but clinical anxiety, and your dog isn't in control when she's doing them. Punishing her, especially after the fact, will only increase her anxiety level.

    When you're at home and going about your day or evening, train your dog to assume a calm, relaxed demeanor during "separations" when you're in one room and she's in another. First, move a short distance from her (while you're in the same room) and then return and reward her with a treat.

    Repeat this step at the same distance until you're sure she's very relaxed, and then gradually increase the distance until you're almost out of the room, making sure to give praise and treats when she stays relaxed and in place.

    Once you've increased the distance until you're out of your dog's sight, you can begin to gradually increase the time she's in one room and you're in another. If the minute you're out of sight your dog comes running, she needs more time to work up to that level of separation.

    This can be a weeks or months long process, but it's often very effective. If you don't feel your dog is making good progress or you need guidance, I recommend consulting your veterinarian, a positive dog trainer, or a specialist in canine behavior.

    Most people with dogs who have separation anxiety have been told by veterinarians, trainers, and other knowledgeable people to ignore their pet for a short period before they leave the house, and also when they return. This approach is intended to make comings and goings a non-event by ignoring the anxiety rather than potentially reinforcing it by giving the dog attention.

    However, a recent small study of dogs without separation anxiety brings this strategy into question. The goal of the researchers was to determine whether gentle petting before the owner leaves for a brief period affects dogs' behavior and physiology. The results of the study showed that petted dogs were calmer and less stressed their owner's absence. The researchers concluded:

    "This pilot study suggests that petting a dog before a brief separation from the owner may have a positive effect, making the dog calmer during the separation itself. Further studies are needed to analyze more in depth its effectiveness, especially in dogs affected by separation anxiety."

    We really need to wait for additional research on how these study results apply to dogs with separation anxiety. Once dogs develop anxiety this interaction may exacerbate their stress, we don't know. My educated guess is that it depends on the dog.

    A soothing touch before leaving isn't harmful in all cases and might be beneficial to temporarily calm mildly stressed animals. As I noted earlier, this approach is contrary to conventional wisdom on the subject, but it may turn out to be a case of "now that we know better, we can do better."

    More Recommendations
    Fortunately, there are many additional steps you can take to help minimize anxiety in in your dog, including the following.

    Engage your dog in at least one rigorous exercise session daily. I can't stress enough how beneficial intense exercise is for not only anxiety, but boredom and behavior problems as well. Go for a strenuous exercise (or ball playing) session before you leave. A tired dog gets into less mischief when left alone.
    Consider enrolling your dog in a nose work class, which is a great way to help him build confidence.
    Treat-release toys are a big hit with most dogs. There are chewing-type toys that can be filled with moist food that is gradually released as your dog chews. You can even fill one up and put it in the freezer, which is especially useful for keeping a dog occupied for a longer period. There are also remote cameras and treat systems that let you talk to your pet while you're out of the house and dispense treats via an app.
    Invest in a pheromone diffuser, such as the Adaptil diffuser for dogs. Species-specific pheromones are chemical substances that can positively affect an animal's emotional state and behavior.
    The essential oil of lavender has also been proven to reduce pets' stress response. I recommend placing a few drops on your dog's collar or bedding before a stressor occurs, if possible, or diffuse the oil around your house for an overall calming effect.
    Talk with your veterinarian about homeopathic, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Bach Flower Remedies that might be helpful in alleviating your dog's anxiety. Products I've used, always in conjunction with behavior modification, include homeopathic aconitum or Hyland's Calms Forte, Bach Rescue Remedy, Solutions Separation Anxiety, Green Hope Farms Anxiety, or other similar remedies.
    Also talk to your integrative vet about calming nutraceuticals and herbs such as valerian and rhodiola.
    If your dog's separation anxiety is severe enough that he's very destructive when left alone or you're concerned he might hurt himself, you'll need to make other arrangements for him while you work to resolve his issues.

    For example, consider taking him with you if possible. Alternatively, you can leave him with a caretaker — perhaps a friend who works from home or a retired neighbor or relative. Depending on your budget, you can also hire a dog sitter to stay in your home during your absence or enroll him in doggy day care. With time, patience and persistence, most dogs with separation anxiety can be relieved of the worst of their troubling symptoms.