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Separation Anxiety

Posted: Tue Apr 07, 2009 5:03 pm
by Stormi
With our ever-growing inquiries about seperation anxiety, hopefully this will serve as a resource to direct those to. I ran the whole thing thru spell check, so hopefully it caught most of my spelling errors! Keep in mind this is a pretty bare-bones basic look at separation anxiety, and, as I stress multiple times, anyone who is looking to devise a treatment plan with their own dog should seek professional assistance.

Separation Anxiety. What it is, what it isn't, how to indentify it what to do about it.

Separation anxiety is one of the most widely used terms in dog behavior, and also one of the most misunderstood conditions. A dog who destroys the house, raids the fridge, and barks while their owner is away is presumed by the owner to have separation anxiety, when in fact it’s a much more complicated issue. Hopefully this will help give a clear picture of what is and isn’t separation anxiety.

Clinical separation anxiety is a condition in which a dog experiences an anxiety attack upon the owner's departure. Its symptoms include excessive vocalization (not just barking), destruction of exit and entry points (not just chewing your shoes), blowing of the bowels, vomiting, excessive drooling, panting, pre-departure shadowing, anorexia, and other signs of extreme anxiety. Separation anxiety cases often appear after a drastic change in a dog’s life, such as moving or being boarded for an extended period of time. It is not a certainty that a shelter or rescue dog will experience separation anxiety when being placed in a new home, and most have no problem integrating into their new home.

Separation anxiety is not the just anxiety of being alone, but rather the build up of anxiety over the course of the owner’s predictable pre-departure behaviors that culminates in an anxiety attack just after the owner’s departure. This is often the case with owners who have the same morning routine in getting ready for work, school, or other activities. The alarm goes off, the owner gets up, takes a shower, puts on their left slipper then the right, goes out to get the paper, comes back in, gets dressed, puts on a coat, picks up their bag and keys, walks out the door, locks the door, gets in the car, turns on the ignition, and drives away. Predictable routine, right? Obviously it doesn’t have to entail those exact steps, but rather any behaviors that are in a sequence that predict the owner’s leaving. What occurs over time is the dog picks up on this routine and all of its steps. This is why some owners claim their dog knows when it’s the weekend vs. the weekday, because our dogs are very intuitive to our every move. They clue in to what behaviors mean their owner is leaving, and what behaviors mean its time for a walk, ect. Their anxiety builds on every step that follows the sequence leading up to the departure. Think of it this way: I’m sure at one point, all of us had a teacher or class in school, or a job that we absolutely despised. Think of the emotions you went thru leading up to the point that you had to be subjected to that situation. Your anxiety builds throughout the morning just thinking of what is to come, and, more often than not, can be even stronger than the stress of being in the situation itself. This is similar to what dogs with separation anxiety go through during their owner’s pre-departure routine. Upon every predictable step, their anxiety increases a little more. This is why owner shadowing, panting, and cowering are common signs a dog with separation anxiety will exhibit while the owner is preparing to leave. The panic attack itself occurs almost directly after the owner has left. This is where the destruction of door frames, vomiting, drooling, and blowing of the bowels occurs. A very common trait for a dog with separation anxiety, and often a deciding factor in their diagnosis, is anorexia. A dog under that level of stress will not eat, even if there is a T-bone steak with all the fixin’s left out of him. This is why the simple solution of giving your dog a peanut butter kong will not initially solve the problem.

Determining the diagnosis of separation anxiety can be a tricky process. Often, dogs are labeled as having SA when they in fact are acting out of boredom. Dogs that bark and destroy things when left home alone are more often than not simply lacking stimulation. It’s important to look at where the destruction is occurring. If the dog is eating your plants, getting up on the kitchen counters, and peeing on your bed, this is not symptomatic of separation anxiety.

Prevention and Treatment

Not all dogs will develop separation anxiety even if their owner’s morning routine is meticulous down to the last detail, but it certainly a recommended prevention tool to not allow your departures to be predictable. The less your dog can pick up on your routine, the less chance they have at developing anxiety towards it. You can still do all those things you need to do, but change them up! Don’t do them in the same order every day. Don’t make a fuss as you come and go. It’s natural to want to give your pup an overindulgent hello and goodbye, but in doing so it makes these events more dramatic and can make your departure stressful on the dog. Don’t be gone for longer than your dog is ready for. If he’s a young puppy, don’t be gone longer than 2 hours at a time. If he’s an adult, you can get away with a longer time frame, but be sure he’s had some training with tolerating longer periods of being alone. Give him something to do! Chew toys, stuffed kongs, and work to eat puzzles are all excellent things to keep your pup busy while you are away. Although it can never be as fun as when you are there, try to make his alone time as stress-free as possible. Give him a special goodie before you leave that he doesn’t get at any other time, equating your departure with something good. If it’s possible, hire a dog walker or ask a friend to stop by to give your pup a pee break and a little attention. Dogs are social creatures, so being alone for extended periods of time is no picnic for them. Make sure your pup has adequate exercise everyday, and especially before you are about to leave for several hours. The more tired they are, the better the likelihood that they are to take a nap while you are away.

The treatment process of separation anxiety is a two pronged approach and works best when assisted by a qualified behavior consultant who can assess the best approach for your personal situation. Ask your veterinarian about medication or supplements that can aide in reducing anxiety for the duration of your dog’s behavior modification plan. These following suggestions are not meant to be a one-size-fits-cure-all for every dog, but rather a very baisc summary, and these steps do require professional guidance to be successful. Here’s some basic pointers to get you started:

In the process of treating separation anxiety, the dog cannot be allowed to experience a reinforcing event. This meaning, he can not be exposed to a situation that will cause another anxiety attack. In other words, he cannot be left alone except in the process of training. Any event where he is allowed to regress will undermine any attempt to treat his anxiety. This is the toughest part of the process for most owners, as most of us have jobs that we can’t afford to loose. If at all possible, find a pet sitter, friend, daycare, or anything you can think of to accompany your dog when you must be away. This will not be a permanent life change, but it is crucial during the initial treatment process. As with all advanced behavior treatment plans, management is an absolute MUST. Even one day of “I’m sorry, Fido, but I really have to go” can set you all the way back to square one.

(Disclaimer: some trainers will recommend establishing a safety cue to differentiate times you will be gone for only a short period of time vs. a longer period of time rather than strict management, although I personally do not agree with allowing the dog to continue to experience such extreme anxiety for the longer duration absences. If it’s a matter of the dog keeping its home or being dumped at a shelter, however, the option is certainly there as a last resort)

First, you must desensitize the pre-departure ritual. This means, your predictable “I’m about to leave” routine must come to not equate to panic. You can do this in two ways. First, mix up your routine. If you always shower before eating, do it the other way around. Pick up your keys, and then put them down and go do something else. Make every step that you usually take as unpredictable as you possibly can. Second, start your usual routine, and abort it. Wake up, take a shower, eat breakfast, pick up your keys, and then go watch TV rather than leaving for work. Run thru your typical “I’m gonna leave” sequence, and then don’t leave. Make this sequence not always predict your leaving. Do this at different points in your sequence as well. For one trial only do the first few steps then abort, for another trial go almost to the end and abort. Do this on the weekends or any day that you don’t need to actually leave for anything. Be sure to do it reasonably close to the time of day that you would normally depart… trying to desensitize your morning sequence when it’s dark outside and the lights are on may not translate as well. Our dogs are extremely perceptive to these kinds of tip-offs, so we have to do a little out-smarting. A dog with separation anxiety has been conditioned to your routine through multiple repetitions, so it will take multiple repetitions of these training techniques to change that association. Again, a qualified behavior consultant can help you arrange your personal desensitization process that will best suit your dog’s needs.

Second, is the alone training. Alone training builds up your dog’s tolerance to the length of time he is comfortable being alone. Alone training works wonderful for any dog to get them accustomed to being left alone comfortably, as well as dogs with separation anxiety. Start by placing your dog wherever you are likely to have him when you are gone. Your first step is only going to be a 1 second absence. Leave for only one second, return, and reward. These small increments may seem a little silly, but they are important to the process of slowly building up your dog’s tolerance. If your dog is comfortable at 1 second, try 2 seconds. Once you get to 5 seconds, start increasing by 5 second increments. Once you hit 1 minute, start increasing you away time by 30 seconds. Continue to throw in some short, 5-30 second absences in the mix even once you’ve worked up to longer time frames to keep a variety of durations in his training. Be sure to reward calm, quiet behavior upon your return each time, and if at any point your dog shows signs of being uncomfortable with the duration, don’t be afraid to take a step back to a shorter away time. Keep the training sessions reasonably short: not longer than 15-30 minutes until you have reached durations longer than that amount of time.

Again, if you feel your dog is showing signs of separation anxiety, please contact a qualified behaviorist to assist you in treating it. You can do a trainer search through Keep in mind, especially when dealing with separation anxiety, confrontational or forceful methods will only serve to hinder your dog’s learning. Anxiety should never be punished.

Books that deal with separation anxiety:

“I’ll Be Home Soon” by Patricia McConnell, CAAB
“Oh, Behave!” by Jean Donaldson (chapter on SA)
“Good Dog 101” by Cristine Dahl, CTC (chapter on SA)

(if anyone has any additional reading material, please feel free to share!)

Posted: Tue Apr 07, 2009 6:28 pm
by purpledoggy
Thank you for taking the time to write this up, this really helped me alot.

Posted: Tue Apr 07, 2009 10:16 pm
by JenLeigh

this should be a sticky.

Posted: Wed Apr 08, 2009 8:19 am
by NewOrleansSaint
Thanks for typing this Stormi! :clap I know it will help many people.

To everyone who reads this who is dealing with true separation anxiety: don't give up! It's a long process, but your pup is worth it and they need your help!

**Someone please make this a sticky :thumbsup: **

Posted: Wed Apr 08, 2009 9:44 am
by 1lila1
Great post! :thumbsup:

I've been keeping an eye on Angels behavior when I leave the house (OK, that didn't sound right, lol) because my fiance says he will bark and howl and just sit and stare at the door. He tries to interact with him, give him treats, play with him, etc. The only think that works is taking him out to the back yard. But he says when they are in the house and I'm not there the barking and howling occurs. He also, if he's in his crate when I'm home will bark and cry when I go upstairs. But with that I think he's learned that because I don't go upstairs for very long usually, his barking always brings me back downstairs. He only does this tough in his crate. If the gate is up on the stairs he just sits and waits by the gait.

So I guess he doesn't have clinical SA but something is definitely going on. I can't leave him with a Kong because he gets frustrated with them and will bark and growl at it but I do leave him with one chew toy and a squeaky fun toy. I'm not sure really what to do since he doesn't have the symptoms of clinical SA. Do you think these behaviors could intensify or worsen and develop into SA eventually?

Posted: Wed Apr 08, 2009 10:01 am
by airwalk
Blowing the bowels is the only sign Magic didn't show when I first got him 2 years ago.

It is a long process but it can be managed. It requires dedication and "tuning in". Some of the things your dog sees as cues you may not even realize unless you tune into their growing anxiety.

Posted: Wed Apr 08, 2009 12:03 pm
by Stormi
1lila1 wrote:Do you think these behaviors could intensify or worsen and develop into SA eventually?

Maybe, maybe not. You're right, it doesn't sound like SA, especially if your fiance is there with him. He may just see that his source of all things awesome has left him, and he's a little stressed about it. Do you put anything in his kong? I always suggest some frozen peanut butter (or frozen anything that he likes) to keep your pup busy. Works like a charm.

Posted: Fri May 08, 2009 6:17 pm
by Brina Baby
Great post Stormi!!!

Brina is the first dog we've ever had that had separation anxiety. And your post covers all the symptoms and possible ways to help your dog deal with the separation anxiety. It would have been great to have your post 2 years ago. lol


Posted: Thu Jun 18, 2009 11:16 am
awesome post thanks

Re: Separation Anxiety

Posted: Mon Jul 27, 2009 11:04 am
by Stormi
For anyone who is interested, James O'Heare is soon to publish a book on separation anxiety... here's the link:

Re: Separation Anxiety

Posted: Fri Oct 30, 2009 11:14 pm
by Misu
Thank you stormi. I was just reading something about this last night

I have to find that link again...

reading your post helped me understand what I read even more!


p.s. my eyes hurt!

Re: Separation Anxiety

Posted: Tue Feb 09, 2010 10:21 pm
by sookies_mama
Is there such a thing as borderline separation anxiety, Sookie barks at the door when I leave, eats the couch, eats the trash, growls at the cat and roomate (which she doesn't do when I'm there) she used to have diarrhea but hasn't in a couple weeks. I just got her from a rescue, and I suspect she was previously abandoned. I'm hoping that when she see's I always come back she will calm down. I just don't have the time to train her the way described, I work 4 days a week and go to school full time, and have guard drill one weekend a month (when I have to leave her with friends and the diarrhea gets worse). I would just kennel her all the time, but she has a bladder infection so she can't hold it the whole 7 hrs I'm at work and I don't want her to have to sit in her own urine that long. Does this sound like SA or just a shelter dog adjusting to a new home? Any suggestions?

Re: Separation Anxiety

Posted: Wed Feb 10, 2010 11:29 am
by Stormi
It sounds as though there may be some anxiety present in her behavior, but it doesn't read as separation anxiety, and here's why. A dog doesn't experiance separation anxiety when someone else is still in the home. You mentioned she growls at your roommate while you are away. There's very likely other motivations behind that behavior - could be fear, could be guarding - seeing as you just got her and are unfamiliar wit her past it could be a variety of tihngs - but its not separation anxiety. Also, a dog with separation anxiety is highly unlikely to scavange thru the trash. Food is the last thing on a dog's mind who is experiancing a severe panic attack. How long have you had Sookie? How much exercise does she get per day? What kind of stimulation does she have while you are away?

Re: Separation Anxiety

Posted: Wed Feb 10, 2010 6:03 pm
by sookies_mama
Probably not enough exercise, I take her outside for fetch/zooming and what not for about 10-15 min 3 or four times a day, with the occasional run thrown in (maybe a couple times a week) of course thats at my pace which is significantly slower than mine, I'm thinking about getting a bike so I can run her faster lol. She's not super high energy and when I'm there is good with couch cuddling time. She does however have lots of toys, kongs, bones, usually stuffed with frozen goodies, which she is great about playing with when I'm there, but then again maybe I just am there to direct her to them instead of say the plastic cup that was destroyed when I came home last night. I've had her about a month now, and her history while unknown, does contain a period of stray street dog, where I'm sure she learned her trash rumaging. Which is why the trash now gets left on top of the refrigerator! I'm learning!

Re: Separation Anxiety

Posted: Mon Mar 08, 2010 12:32 am
by Grinsomx
Sounds a bit like Laica when we first got her (without the destruction), she whines and cries, scratches the door (for about 5 minutes), starts following us around when she sees us picking up keys or a coat. stops eating when she's alone, but she can be alone for a while after she's had her 5 minute cry.
when we get home and she's been good, she gets a treat and playtime in the park.
so far we only came home once to find a pile of destroyed dvd cases,we put her apart for 15 minutes while cleaning up her mess.
she never did it again, except with toilet paper. we never put her in a bench, she goes crazy in there and hurts herself.
she might have a mild case of SA, i dont know for sure.

I've had her about a month now, and her history while unknown, does contain a period of stray street dog, where I'm sure she learned her trash rumaging. Which is why the trash now gets left on top of the refrigerator! I'm learning!

you might want to try a similar tactic as one described in the first post.
take a garbage bag, fill it partially with things that cant harm her and leave the room for a short while.(say 1 minute to begin with)
stay behind the door so you can hear her, if she starts going through the trash correct her gently and repeat.
if she leaves the garbage bag alone walk back in, praise her and give her a treat.
rinse, repeat and slowly increase the time alone with the bag.
do make sure there is nothing in the bag she can eat, that would be reward.
it takes a little time but should work.