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Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety is an emotional response, like a panic attack, that occurs when dogs are left alone. Some of the problems that manifest, due to this, are digging, chewing, howling, crying, barking and even relieving themselves inappropriately.

While the exact causes of Separation Anxiety are not completely understood, as each dog's emotional stability is different, these are some of the situations that may cause Separation Anxiety:

  • A dog that have never been or has rarely been left alone.
  • Sudden separation, like at the end of vacations, when the dog has constant companionship with their owner.
  • Following a stay at a boarding facility or shelter.
  • Following a change in the family routine or structure; from death, schedule changes, children leaving for college, etc.

Often times, dogs left at shelters or rescued from puppy mills will exhibit signs of separation anxiety. It's an emotional response to a major change. While some dogs are reacting to being left alone, others are reacting to an overwhelming fear of the unknown future. It's not uncommon for puppy mill dogs to cling to their foster families, as this may be the first time they have experienced kindness, regular meals, and positive interaction. They don't want to lose that or person that is providing it.

There are some indications that suggest your dog might be suffering from separation anxiety. As this is something that can develop into a serious and harmful situation for both you and your dog, we will list the DO NOT tips first.

DO NOT get another dog, as your dog is not needing a buddy, they are missing YOU.

Crating a dog with separation anxiety is NOT a good idea, as they can hurt themselves trying to escape.

NEVER punish a dog that exhibits signs of separation anxiety as this can make the symptoms worse. Keep in mind that a dog in panic mode, due to separation anxiety, is extra sensitive to you. They are afraid of your leaving. Yelling at them or trying to force them into situations that do not address their fears, can create an unbearable confusion, resulting in their over-reacting with barks, relieving themselves, and even growling or biting you.

Some of the behaviors associated with Separation Anxiety are the same as other behavioral problems, it is important to diagnose separation anxiety properly before attempting to resolve the emotional issue. Here are some of the things that dogs with separation anxiety may do:

  • Frantic greetings, whether you're gone a few minutes or a few hours.
  • Following you from room to room, they become a velcro-dog.
  • Exhibit some of the problem behaviors (barking, digging, etc) when you leave, regardless to how long you're gone.
  • Unwilling to spend time alone outside. Will be reluctant to relieve themselves outside.
  • Exhibit signs of obsessive compulsive activities, such as chasing shadows or reflections. These are known coping mechanisms for dogs that may also have extreme separation anxiety.

ALWAYS consult your veterinarian anytime you suspect your dog is suffering from separation anxiety. They can offer suggestions, as well as prescribe low-dose medications to help your dog work through their anxiety.

If your dog has a mild case, such as due to short-term absences or changes in the house routine, you can try these:

  • Vary your departure routine. Mix it up, so that upon seeing you pick up your keys or bag does not become the trigger.
  • Leave a piece of your clothing, that smells like you, so they have something familiar to curl up on, until you return.
  • Keep your departure and arrivals low key, in other words, ignore the anxiety reactions for a few minutes, then greet your dog calmly.
  • Not a bad idea to take them to a day care, to break up the routine and give them a hands-on diversion to your being gone.

In severe cases, you may combine these with the desensitization methods provided.

Adopting or Fostering a dog with Severe Separation Anxiety.

If a dog is removed from a situation that has isolated them from the world, they may well react to you as if 'frozen with fear'. Their body will become rigid, head back, eyes averted, and paws braced for escape. This is often the case of dogs adopted from mills, hoarders and shelters that have never been socialized with humans.

With these particular cases, the dog will become extremely bonded to the person they find trust with. It will be emotionally painful for them to be separated from you, and if not addressed, that bond of trust can manifest into more serious problems, such as territorialism (be it in the yard or on your lap). They can also experience digestive issues, as well as, self-mutilation from biting or scratching; or, they will become unapproachable by other dogs or humans.

We've seen such severe cases that the dog will literally scream, as if dying, when approached by anyone or anything unfamiliar to them. This can be very scary for a new owner, that is not aware of what causes the problem. Their immediate response is to return the dog, which only adds to their fear of being abandoned or alone.

If you suspect your new dog is suffering from separation anxiety, be patient. Let them come to you, don't force yourself on them. Dachshund, especially, will stay secluded, observing from a safe distance, or in a crate, until they feel it is safe to approach.

The most important thing you can do, in working with these situations, is be patient. Desensitizing a dog suffering from separation anxiety can take days, weeks, months and even years, to fully recover; but, they do recover.

Desensitizing Your Dog * At home process *

The process of desensitizing takes time and patience. The success is greater, if you take it slow. Remember that it may take days, weeks or even months for this process to work.

  • Start by doing what you normally do when getting ready to leave. Right before you leave, sit down. Repeat this process until your dog shows no anxiety.
  • Next, do the same routine, only this time go to the door, open it (don't leave open if no exterior door is there), and go sit down. Again, repeat this until the dog shows no anxiety.
  • Now, repeat the open door process, only this time go outside, leaving the door open. Then, come in and sit down until the dog shows no anxiety.
  • Next, do the same as the previous step, only go outside and shut the door. Open the door immediately and go sit down. Repeat this step until the dog shows no anxiety with the door closed for several seconds, then minutes. Always wait until they show no signs of anxiety (relaxed), then repeat the process.
  • Do this process several times throughout the day. Keep greetings low key and repeat when your dog shows no signs of anxiety and is relaxed.
  • Once your dog is able to handle short absences 30 minutes to over an hour, they will be able to handle longer absences without working up to in with short runs.

Once you are able to do longer periods, mingle in your "stay" command when you leave, and "leave it" command if they go for the door. Keep in mind, that they will not respond to commands if they are obsessed with the idea of you leaving. Be patient, understanding and consistent. Most of all, be patient.

Another good idea with dogs that experience severe anxiety is to slowly, but definitely, work in socialization. Meeting the world goes a long way in helping them relax with new situations, learn social skills and accept an environment without you in it.

Take them to an activity-based day care, one where they are engaged with other dogs. Most day care facilities will work with your dog, at their level of activity. But, it is best, if your dog is experiencing severe anxiety to the extent of cowering or screaming in fear of other dogs, that you take it slow.

Never force your dog to interact if they are frightened. Just as you want them to approach you, earning trust, you want them to develop the same self-confidence in public situations, as well, on their terms, in their own time.

Schedule play-dates with other dog owners, such as breed-specific meet-up groups, where you can socialize your dog gently, and also meet other people that may be going through or have gone through what you and your dog are experiencing.

Outside: Using similar methods as the inside process, slowly allow your pet to see you leave the yard. Maybe mix it up and return through another door, coming out where they don't expect you.

DO NOT leave a dog unattended, for long periods of time, outside. This is a process that should only be done when you are home, and not when you leave the property.

If your dog chases shadows or reflections, engage them in playing. Try to make a game of their obsession, so that you can slowly wean them away from it altogether.

Often times, this activity is more of their coping with change, as an addition to dealing with separation anxiety. They may even do it with you in the room, as they may not have the skills to appropriately acquire attention from you. And, sometimes it's a reaction to light movements that trigger that fear. So much is yet to be learned and understood about separation anxiety, and anxiety in general.

We do know that in all levels of this emotional issue, it can be resolved with patience and consistently working with your dog, based on their level of fear and needs.

Always contact your veterinarian if your dog's anxiety is to the level of physical harm to themselves, others or you. And, never physically restrain a dog that is in panic mode, you could get hurt. Consult a behaviorist if you have any doubts or concerns when dealing with separation anxiety, at any level