I get questions on how to fix separation anxiety very often. I wish there was a quick easy answer. However that is not the case. SA for a lot of dogs is so severe that they are losing all control. This leads to urination/defecation in the house, torn up walls/doors, puddles of drool etc.
Firstly, lets get some myths out of the way. When this is happening this is not your dog seeking revenge on you. Your dog is not doing this because he is mad at you and trying to get back at you. This is also not happening because your dog thinks he is in charge and did not give you approval to leave. (The last one sounds silly but I’ve heard that one mentioned on TV before.) It is important that we understand that is a pretty serious condition in dogs that depending on the severity can take from 6 months a year to fix.
Secondly, it is important that we make sure this actually is SA and not just a bored dog. A dog that has copious amounts of energy will find a way to get rid of it. If the human doesn’t give him a proper outlet he will find one himself. Which typically means the dog destroying something of the humans.
When dealing with moderate to severe cases one of the first things I recommend to do along with the training protocol is to get the dog on a medication to help with the anxiety. It is important to have a training protocol because medication alone is not going to fix this. I know that not everyone is a fan of the medication part of it. My response to that is the amount of stress that the dog is going through on a daily basis is not healthy at all. If we can give him something that will help remove that horrible stress and it is only there for a short period of time it is worth it. I have tried using some all natural herbal anxiety remedies and have had mixed results. From my experience they do not always work as well and are rather pricey. When I was going through anxiety issues with my dog I started off with an all-natural herbal product that was $30.00 per bottle and that didn’t even last a month. I switched to a fluoxetine and was spending $10.00 a month. It is a good idea to hire a trainer to help you with this. It is also a good idea for the vet, trainer, and owner to work together as a team in solving this.
A couple things you can try along with the fluoxetine that are natural that could be helpful are DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone), a Thundershirt, and different relaxing music.
Lets talk about how to get the anxiety to cease. The ultimate goal is going to be the human leaving the house and the dog not caring. One of the first things you can start to do is incorporate a cue that lets your dog know you will be back. I usually say, “Be right back.” This is the last thing the dog hears you say before you leave. That means the next thing that follows it in regards to you is that you are coming back. With repetition he will start to associate you saying, “be right back” with you coming back. You can do lots of repetition of this. Say your phrase, step outside for 1 second, come back in and reward him. He will start to associate you leaving and coming back with good things. Each time you do this increase the amount of time you are outside. In the beginning your dog will be very concerned with you leaving. After some repetition he will know exactly what is going on and will start to relax when you do it.
The next exercise is going to consist of some auto-shaping. For this you will need something that has a hole in it like a Kong and something awesome to put inside of it like Peanut Butter. The idea with this is to keep the dog busy and focused on something besides the human. I like to use a crate for this because we can create a place of comfort. Every case will be different though so use your best judgment. The idea is that we are going to give the dog something it really enjoys for a short period of time and we are going to stay right next to the dog. The first time you do this do it for like 5 minutes. After 5 minutes tell the dog “okay” and safely remove the Kong and PB. If you cannot safely remove it do not attempt. The next time you do this increase the amount of time that he is in the crate with the Kong, and also take a baby step away creating more distance. Remember to stay stationary during this exercise. If you move around there is a good chance the dog will notice which could result with him focusing on you and potentially getting anxious. Continue this pattern. If done correctly you will get to the point where you will be able to be out of sight and your dog will be comfortable with that. A quick tip in regards to the Kong and Peanut Butter: You can put the Kong and PB in the freezer prior to this exercise to make it last longer.
These are just a couple ideas on how to help your dog be more comfortable when you are out of sight. Remember to take baby steps to ensure your dog stays comfortable. If you try to rush this you will just end up with an anxious dog. Once again hiring a trainer could be very helpful with this process.
Remember that to fix this issue it is going to take dedication. It is going to be very important to practice protocols multiple times a day. Also remember to stay very patient.
Thanks for reading!
Kevin Duggan CPDT-KA
Kevin is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT.org) and is a Canine Good Citizen Evaluator through the American Kennel Club. He currently resides in Ohio with his dog, V, a six-year-old Shepherd/Lab mix, where he operates All Dogs Go To Kevin, LLC, specializing in helping build positive relationships between humans and their canine companions using clear communication, not pain and fear. For more training tips and tricks, and to meet his amazing dog, V, follow him on Facebook by clicking here.