Separation anxiety is one of the most debilitating dog problems I see as a canine behavior specialist in Los Angeles.
In addition to the many dogs suffering greatly from this condition, it is also frustrating for an owner who is afraid to leave their dog alone for any period of time. This is out of fear their dog will harm themselves or destroy the home when they are gone. I even saw a case where the dog was so overwhelmed by his anxiety that he thought crashing through a window would be a better option than being left alone! Fortunately this dog was amazingly unharmed!
However, despite the severity and widespread problem of separation anxiety in dogs I find its root cause is still misunderstood by many dog owners and professionals in terms of it being treated in a way that at times makes the problem worse or mistakenly views the dog as untrainable.
Separation anxiety is often interpreted by dog trainers and behaviorists as the dog “missing their owner” or “just being anxious by nature” and take approaches to dog training that do not directly address the causality of the anxiety by trying to build up time duration and object permanence skills or rely on confinement and devices alone. Even worse sometimes are veterinarians who immediately medicate a dog out of pure misunderstanding of why the problem exists before even looking into a behavior and lifestyle change for the dog and their owner as the possible solution!
By taking a more thorough multi-faceted approach, I have had great success with cases of separation anxiety by following my 3 part program that addresses the actual cause of the problem from the ground up by consistently applying the necessary Security, Safety, & Supplements in a dog’s daily life.
1. Structure + Awareness = Security
The bottom line is that some dogs have a greater potential for anxiety than others. This has far less to do with a dog’s breed than individual levels of misdirected drive and the makeup of their sensory/nervous systems. Because of this, many dogs are raised with an incorrect perception that they are getting through the day and getting their resources (food, shelter, attention, etc.) by keeping track of the everyday life us, humans are creating around them in terms of the chores, interactions, and routines we commonly do on a daily basis.
In speaking with and observing thousands of dog owners, I find these behaviors are usually misinterpreted as something less important to them than it means to their potentially anxious dog. Examples of what I often hear from owners is that their dog is just following them and reacting to every little thing they do because he simply, “Wants to be near us…” or “He’s just excited to (blank)”.
Unfortunately, if this goes unchecked due to lack of awareness or understanding of what these behaviors mean and contribute to on our part (I totally understand we do not own our dogs to have to monitor them 24-7 like a prison guard while we come home from work, entertain our guests, go to the bathroom, etc…) a highly sensitive dog with these potentials will try to wrap their head around the thought of, “how to keep track of you when you are now out of the environment since it works all day long when your are home???” Since a dog has no perception of what has happened, they quickly learn that by acting out in some way or retaining their anxious feelings, you miraculously return so they may resume the daily monitoring of your everyday routines unbeknownst to you. (Until now!)
As much as my clients hate to hear this, the solution is to take time throughout your busy day to “keep track” of these dogs in real time as they are getting to wrapped up in human business to promote both structure and awareness on your part that you are able to manage your family/pack just fine without their help. This eventually carries over to when you are gone and gives them the message that you can do this when you are away from the environment as well.
Keeping track of our dogs in need of daily structure can be accomplished by doing something as simple as giving them a focus-based command (Heel, Sit, Down) to simulate a job they need to perform whenever they are getting too caught up in your human activities. Even if this means keeping your dog on lead here and there for a few weeks, it can re-establish a more secure relationship based on a structured and calmer association in your presence plus prove great awareness on your part as their human packleader who can allow them to relax when not in their presence.
In addition to keeping a dog with separation anxiety safe when alone, a kennel/crate, or even confinement to a secure room can lessen the options a dog has to scan their environment to look for a seether to chew or destroy out of desperation vs. accepting the situation and relaxing. (I tell my clients that for some dogs, the pressure they feel when anxiety develops is like shaking a soda bottle!) Although a dog will not learn much from simply being confined when alone without addressing the cause of the anxiety as mentioned in the previous paragraph, it certainly is the most effective way to keep them safe while allowing them to relax enough to ride out the time alone more peacefully until the issue is fully resolved.
Although a structured lifestyle is essential for dogs with the potential for separation anxiety, many dogs can develop a buildup of tension from not having appropriate outlets for their physical and mental energy or an environment conducive to a calm, balanced state. To remedy this, it is important to provide a daily routine of exercise, training, and structure in their environment. If time is limited, treadmill training, backpacks, or dog daycare/dog parks can be another option to provide a regular exercise outlet for your dog.
Some other supplemental factors to consider would also be a dog’s food, blood chemistry, and additions to their diet such as vitamins and supplemental homeopathic remedies like herbs/minerals, pheromones, and body wraps (thundershirt) you can add to supplement steps 1 and 2. Keep in mind, many external remedies are not always proven to work, however many clients have reported success when using some of these in conjunction with a training and exercise plan.
Chances are your dog has adopted separation anxiety as a way of life and is going to initially have stress and difficulty associated with “letting go” of what they felt was their mainstay to survival. This is quite normal and I find harder for the humans than the dogs in terms of having to change their ways and let the dog go through the therapeutic process. Once in motion though, you will begin to see your dog relax and not be as impatient and impulsive in keeping track of the ebbs and flows of daily life. This in turn begins to carry over to less concern of when you are away by learning that remaining calm and patient still allows life to go on and resources are still provided. Through dogs, I have found that this mantra has helped me in my own life as well.
Brett Endes (The Dog Savant) is a Los Angeles-based dog trainer and behavior expert who has 22 years experience working with severe problem behavior and rescue dogs. Brett is a graduate of the State University of New York and is the owner of Ican! K9, a state of the art training, boarding, and aqua therapy facility in L.A. He is known for his unique personality and effective style of dog communication he has developed by his years of work as an applied canine behavior expert. Brett lives in Los Angeles with his daughter Skylar and their Rottweiler Boo. To learn more about Brett visit www.dogtrainingla.com. Please forward all inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.