It’s sometimes impossible to live with a dog that has “separation anxiety.” A loud or destructive dog creates stress for everyone in the house, costs extra money and ruins good relationships with neighbors.
Well-meaning dog lovers aren’t always aware of a dog’s anxiety issues before adopting or fostering, and this can lead to big problems, especially in an apartment setting. I know what a difficult choice it is to return a dog, especially for a dog lover who doesn’t want to “give up on the dog.” But sometimes there is no other option. Sometimes you have to put yourself and your family before a dog.
Almost every dog I’ve fostered has had some form of “separation anxiety,” and I’m not talking about a bit of crying as the dog adjusts to her new environment.
I consider a dog to have separation anxiety if he has never been properly conditioned to being left alone and therefore goes into a frantic state of mind when her owner leaves the house.
There are a lot of loose definitions for separation anxiety, and people are too quick to say a dog has it. In most cases the dog hasn’t been given any rules, exercise or a routine so of course she’s going to bark and destroy things when left alone – he’s bored out of her mind and has never been consistently disciplined or exercised!
Another mistake is to say the dog has separation anxiety just because she cries when kenneled. All dogs will naturally need a few days or weeks to adjust to a new environment. And it does take some time for a dog to get used to a kennel.
– An unhealthy attachment to his owner, often following him from room to room and sitting as close as possible.
– Leaning into or climbing on his owner for security.
– Crying and scratching at a bedroom, bathroom or office door if she is not allowed inside with his owner.
– Nervousness at the sound of his owner jingling keys, putting on shoes, grabbing his coat, etc.
– Frantic excitement to see his owner when he returns, even if he was gone for one minute to get the mail.
– Destructive behavior when left alone, often chewing or scratching at the door or objects near the door.
– Panicking when kenneled.
– Trying to break out of a kennel to the point of damaging the kennel or injuring herself.
– Drooling, “foaming” at the mouth, panting, “smacking” his lips and pacing as his owner is getting ready to leave and while he is gone.
– Barking, crying, howling or literally shrieking when alone.
– Going to the bathroom in the kennel or on the floor when left alone.
– Ignoring very tempting goodies when left alone.
– Odd, obsessive behaviors such as licking her paws – similar to a person who bites her nails or lip when nervous.
Some dogs will show all of these signs, and some will show a few signs depending on the severity of the dog’s anxiety.
The first decision a dog owner must make is whether or not he is up for dealing with a dog that has separation issues. Unfortunately there is no quick fix, and the owner should assume he will be dealing with these issues for several months.
1. Do not coddle a dog that shows insecurity.
Insecure dogs will lean into their owners in order to feel protected. The dog may also try to climb into his owner’s lap. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a dog is to get up and move away. Do not pet him or comfort him or say “It’s OK, Baby.” No.
2. Do not reward excited behavior.
Dogs showing any kind of anxiety or excitement should never be rewarded for it. Instead, they need to learn to chill out. Owners should reward their dogs only when the dogs are calm. A dog that is pacing around the house, panting and whining should not be rewarded. I will often leash a dog and put her in a down-stay position to help her relax.
3. Stick to a routine when leaving.
Dogs learn by repetitions and conditioning, so decide where your dog will stay when you are gone, and stick to it. If he panics when left in the laundry room, he is going to panic when left in the bathroom, bedroom or kennel, so just pick one place and stick to it. Establish your routine for leaving and try to be as consistent as possible every time. Let your dog out, then put him in “his spot” and ignore himmfor a good 20 minutes while you get ready to leave. Then leave. Don’t say good bye. Don’t talk to him. Don’t even look at him. Completely ignore any crying he does and just go.
4. Adopt a dog at a time when you are able to take a week off from work.
This will help make the adjustment period easier because you can slowly work up to leaving the dog for longer and longer periods rather than “suddenly disappearing” for eight hours.
5. Condition your dog in small steps.
Slowly condition your dog to sounds like picking up your keys and putting on your coat so he eventually learns that these sounds are no big deal. Do this by randomly picking up your keys several times throughout the day without actually leaving. Once your dog is OK with this, progress to putting on your coat or shoes without actually leaving. Next, progress to jiggling the doorknob randomly without actually opening the door. The next steps could be opening the door without leaving, then leaving for 10 seconds, leaving for 30 seconds, opening the car door without actually leaving, etc.
6. Commit to using a kennel.
A destructive dog will cause a lot less damage if she is in a kennel. Most importantly, you will feel less anxious by knowing your dog is safely confined and out of trouble. There’s nothing worse than sitting at work all day or going out Friday night and spending the entire time worried about the dog!
7. Kennel the dog for short periods while you are home.
Even on days you are home, put the dog in his kennel for an hour. This will help her stick to his routine. It will also help him realize that just because he is in her kennel does not mean you are going anywhere.
8. Place a radio in the room, stock the kennel with treats and ignore, ignore, ignore.
The hardest thing to do is ignore the dog when he’s crying or barking. Some people want to scold the dog and some people want to coddle the dog. Yelling at the dog will make her even more anxious, and coddling the dog enforces his thought that there’s something to be worried about. Both yelling at and coddling the dog teach him that if he cries and barks, you will return to him. So as hard as it is, ignore him. Leaving the radio playing on talk radio and providing extra goodies like frozen Kong toys filled with peanut butter will help.
9. Ignore the dog when you return.
This is hard to do, but it is so important not to throw a party every time you come home. Your dog is going to be extremely excited to see you and probably barking, jumping, crying and wiggling. Completely ignore the dog until he settles down. Don’t even look at him for several minutes. Making a big deal out of coming home reinforces that it was OK for the dog to feel anxious while you were away and that everything’s OK now that you are back. It should not be an event when you leave, and it should not be an event when you return.
10. Increase the dog’s exercise.
I offer dog services to dozens of dogs in Vancouver and Richmond, and trust me, a dog that has had enough exercise will have an easier time relaxing. Most dogs with any kind of anxiety have a lot of pent-up energy. A long rollerblading, running or biking session in the morning before work will make a huge difference for the dog. Do not overlook this factor.
11. Apologize to neighbors.
Apologizing for the noise and explaining the situation goes a long way. Explaining that the dog is a “rescue” and still in training also helps. If your neighbors are dealing with a lot of extra noise coming from your house, why not send them a simple gift like a thank-you note or a gift card for their family to go out to dinner somewhere? You want the neighbors to support you, not report you to the police or landlord.
12. Avoid anti-anxiety medication (for the dog).
I realize how tempting it is to use drugs to calm the dog, especially when a veterinarian supports the idea. Vets see all kinds of dogs with different issues, and they know the average person is not going to follow through with training, socializing and exercising a dog. But putting your dog on Prozac or a similar drug is not solving the problem in the long run.
We fail our dogs in so many ways. Dogs develop “issues” because of our mistakes (or someone else’s mistakes), and solving the problem by drugging the dog is not a happy ending. Of course there are cases where drugs are necessary, but these cases are extremely rare. If your vet or trainer suggests drugging your dog, get a second or third opinion and trust your own judgement.
Helping a dog overcome separation anxiety is a long process, but it is well worth it in the end!