Don’t Leave Me! Understanding Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety (also known as Isolation Distress) is one of the most concerning and challenging behavior disorders dogs suffer from. Dogs who suffer from separation anxiety experience mild to extreme panic attacks when left alone.  No other behavior concern has the impact that separation anxiety has on dogs and their people. It is estimated that 15% of the 70 million dogs living in the United States are affected with separation anxiety.

People who live with and love dogs who suffer from separation anxiety often feel trapped in their homes, guilty knowing their dog is suffering when left home alone. Some owners may feel that their dogs are getting “revenge” for being left home alone, or just need to “get a grip”, but for dogs suffering from separation anxiety the panic is real, and it is uncontrollable. Living with a dog who suffers from separation anxiety may seem helpless and hopeless, but it is not. With proper training these dogs, and the people who love them, can find peace of mind.

Signs of separation anxiety can vary from one dog to another. Some dogs may display minimal signs of separation anxiety, and others may be completely out of control with panic.

Common signs of separation anxiety are:

  • Vocalization: This can start before you leave, or after you have been gone for a while. It can be chronic and non-stop or occur in cyclic patterns. For example: a repeated pattern of howl – bark – howl – whine (each pattern may be followed by a period of silence before the pattern is reinitiated by the suffering dog.
  • House Soiling: Dogs who are otherwise reliably house trained my lose control of their bowels or bladder and eliminate in the house.
  • Destructive Chewing or Pawing: Dogs may chew household items, especially items that may carry a strong scent of their owners, such as the TV remote control or personal clothing.
  • Escape Behavior: Dogs may become panicked and chew or paw at crates/kennels in an attempt to be free. They may damage doors or window frames as they attempt to reunite with their owners.
  • Self-Mutilation: Some dogs suffering from separation anxiety may engage in anxiety related chewing or licking at themselves, creating bold spots or irritations.
  • Excessive Salivation /Drooling: Owners may come home to pools of salivation left by anxious dogs.
  • Panting: Dogs may engage in heavy panting even in cold weather or when the air conditioning is on.
  • Sweaty Paws: Owners may come home to find sweaty paw prints on floors or crate bottoms.
  • Pacing: Some dogs may pace from throughout the house, watching from one window to the next. Checking doors in anticipation of their owners return.
  • Excessive water consumption: Generally upon the owners return.
  • Anorexia: Although some dogs suffering from separation anxiety may eat treats or food left for them, others may refuse to eat until their owners return home.
  • Excessive Greeting Behaviors: Some dogs may display an excessive and/or frantic greeting when owners return home.
  • Excessive shedding: Dogs may display excessive shedding when left alone.
  • Depression: Not all dogs display their anxiety with “out of control” behaviors. Some become withdrawn, sluggish, mournful and depressed.
  • Aggression: Some dogs may display aggressive behaviors directed towards their owners when they leave or return home.

So what causes separation anxiety? There has been, and continues to be, much scientific study into the causes separation anxiety. Scientific studies are now suggesting that dogs who suffer from separation anxiety have a genetic predisposition to this disorder. Events in the individual dog’s life can then trigger separation anxiety anywhere from puppyhood to well into the adult years of a dog’s life. My own dog, Jolie, a well breed and raised Black and Tan Coonhound from a reputable and accomplished show breeder, displayed extreme and intense separation anxiety related behaviors from the day I adopted her. I am happy to say that, with proper training, she is completely calm and content when left home alone now.

Some triggers that might initiate the onset of separation anxiety may include:

  • A Scary Event: Events such as a severe thunderstorm, loud construction, a break in, or being lost (even if just for a short period) can trigger the onset of separation anxiety.
  • Changes In the Home Environment: Events such as moving to a new home, someone moving out, someone moving in, going back to work or school or even a new baby to the family can trigger the onset of separation anxiety.
  • Illness or Injury: Some dogs develop signs of separation anxiety after an illness or severe injury, hospitalization and extended veterinary care.
  • Rehoming: In some dogs the onset of separation anxiety can be triggered by the uncertainty and upheaval of being rehomed, or spending time in a shelter or rescue. * It must be stated that not all dogs who are rehomed, spend time in shelters or rescues will develop separation anxiety. Many do not.
  • Inconclusive Causes: Sometimes it is impossible to ascertain the trigger that set the separation anxiety ball in motion. And this is okay as no matter what the trigger may be, separation anxiety is always successfully treated the same way.

What DOES NOT trigger separation Anxiety? Just as much scientific study has, and continues to find answers to what causes separation anxiety, it has also found answers as to what does not cause separation anxiety. When working with people who live with dogs suffering from separation anxiety I often hear their concerns that they “love their dogs to much”, or know that they should not let their dogs sleep on the bed, or share their food with their dogs as they dine. I feel their guilt and assure them that they did not cause their dogs separation anxiety concerns.

Scientifically supported Non Influencers to Separation Anxiety. The following have been proven to have minimal to no effect on to the onset of separation anxiety. I have to admit as someone who LOVES her dogs, I often engage in many of the following with no ill behavioral reproductions:

  • Letting dogs sleep on the bed
  • Feeding dogs from the table/Sharing food
  • Taking dogs on errands or trips
  • Celebrating your dog’s birthday
  • Talking to as if a person

Also found to non-contributors to separation anxiety:

  • Lack of obedience training
  • Improper or lack of crate/kennel training
  • Failure to be “pack leader”
  • A history of abuse

How is separation anxiety treated? The first thing is to acknowledge is that separation anxiety is ANXIETY! So often people who live with dogs suffering from separation anxiety focus on the behaviors their dog is exhibiting, especially when they are destructive to the owner’s home or menacing to neighbors. I understand this completely. This is what we see, or hear, and it is what clues us into the fact that our dogs are having problem when we leave. But, if owners focus on the behaviors they may be falsely enticed into a program of punitive training methods. Punitive or otherwise coercive training methods will only serve to create more anxiety about being left alone and possibly the owner’s home coming. This can turn into a vicious cycle of building anxiety and anxiety related behaviors.

Treating Separation anxiety is always “a study of one”. By this I mean, each dog is an individual and will progress at their own individual pace. Some progress faster, and some not as fast as others, but, with proper training all dogs suffering from separation anxiety can progress towards a calmer and more comfortable “home alone time” future.

Successful treatment of separation anxiety is best achieved with a program of desensitization that is evaluated and customized to the individual dog on a daily basis. Working with a trainer who is well educated in this unique methodology, and certified in separation anxiety training will offer the best results.

Before training begins an assessment must be made of the individual dog and how they display separation anxiety. Once evaluated a custom training program can be started.

Separation anxiety is best treated remotely. When Certified Separation Anxiety Trainers work with clients to help their dogs overcome separation anxiety the goal is to get clients out of the house! Our job is help you teach your dog, in increments that they can be comfortable with and succeed at, remain calm and secure as clients get ready and leave the house. By offering live and personalized training sessions via Zoom, Skype or other video conferencing technology, a trainer is able to observe, guide and customize detailed training in real time. By using this technology the trainers presence does not affect the dog’s anxiety or learning situation and abilities. Online training has proven to be the best format for working with dogs suffering from separation anxiety. It allows uncompromising attention to detail that accelerates progress.

Why use a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT)? Separation Anxiety training is not like other training. The methods that have been proven to work best are far different than the methods used in obedience or other behavior training. Treating separation anxiety is a specialize endeavor. Certified Separation Anxiety Trainers have been interviewed, assessed per education, knowledge and person handpicked to be eligible for enrollment in the CSAT training and certification course. This ensures quality in education and commitment. CSAT’s complete over 100 hours of intense study in the causes and rehabilitation of separation anxiety. CSAT’s are tested and retested on their knowledge and ability to successfully guide clients through individualized and progressing separation anxiety training programs. This rigorous “hand picking”, training and testing assures that CSAT’s are offering clients the very best and up to date science based training available for a successful outcome to a training program.

If you think your dog is suffering from separation anxiety you can:

  • Use your phone, tablet or computer to watch your dog via live stream (Zoom, Skype ..) as you are not home. Don’t get obsessed!
  • Contact a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer to discuss your concerns and training programs. Many of us offer a free, no obligation initial phone or e-mail consultation.
  • Talk with your veterinarian to be sure there are no underlying medical concern.

Separation anxiety can be as emotionally disabling for owners as well as their dogs. Relief from the suffering is possible and peace of mind can be achieved with the proper training approach.

Just a closing note about separation anxiety and puppies. Although some whining, crying and mild distress is normal when puppies are becoming acclimated to their new homes, extended or intense whining, crying and distress is not. The old adage of “Just let them cry it out” is greatly outdated. Scientific studies have shown that letting puppies whine and cry in extreme distress can actually cause lifelong psychological and emotional damage.

Helping puppies overcome separation anxiety takes skill and attention that only comes with specialized training and experience. If you think your puppy is suffering from separation anxiety please contact a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer for immediate training assistance.

Happy Training!