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Let's Talk Canine Separation Anxiety...what is it, why is it happening and what can you do about it?

Separation anxiety is something we are all hearing about all the time. I think it's one of those "terms" that could use a little unpacking and discussion. As a breeder, I specialize in creating shock-proof puppies through the use of the latest scientifically backed techniques in puppy rearing to produce puppies who do not suffer with this issue, however, all breeders are not created equally and puppy mills and puppy brokers are still a real thing, so, separation anxiety is definitely out there and a real thing. For the dogs who suffer from true separation anxiety, they need us to learn about how to help and understand them.

A dog with true separation anxiety is different than a dog that just follows you all around the house and doesn't let you use the bathroom alone, or a dog that gets wound up when he knows you're leaving the house, but then chills out after you're gone.

The true separation anxiety dog is a dog that eats his way out of the boot room, destroys the furniture, bloodies his paws trying to get through the door you exited from, howls and barks the entire time you're away (and your neighbors are not afraid to tell you so), urinates and defecates in the house, despite being house trained, it's a dog that drools all day long, until there are puddles on the floors because he is so stressed out or in fear.

What is true canine separation anxiety

A dog with true separation anxiety is dog in a state of sheer panic about being left alone.

True separation anxiety is a clinical diagnosis that needs to be made by a canine behaviorist or veterinarian who specializes in canine behavior. Usually, it refers to a dog that has formed a hyper-attachment to a particular person in the home. When that person is not home, the dog starts to panic.

Not every dog that struggles with separation anxiety exhibits such severe symptoms where the result is property damage or self harm. Instead, you may have a dog who just cannot relax, who paces and barks or whines the entire time you are away. This dog is still suffering panic when left alone. We need to try to figure out what is happening and provide some relief to our four-legged friends.

Why does my dog have separation anxiety? Did I cause this?

A canine behaviorist can typically identify the cause(s) of a dog’s separation anxiety and it is seldom going to be the fault of a loving family. Some common factors include:

Being left in a shelter/or returned to a shelter

Changes in the family structure, like a birth or a death, a return to work or school after a long period of being home, divorce, a child leaving home, etc.

We also know there can be a genetic (inherited) component for some dogs that struggle with anxiety. Some dogs, due to poor breeding or other genetic factors, are simply predisposed to anxiety disorders.

What can be done for to help a dog suffering from separation anxiety

Unfortunately, dogs suffering from anxiety are unlikely to overcome the behaviour without intervention. In fact, if left to suffer or figure it out for themselves, the problem is likely to get far worse. Remember, this is a dog in a state of panic. 

Setting up for Success

This post is not a substitute for professional help from a qualified canine behaviorist or veterinary professional. The idea behind this post is to shed some light and to help you to know when it's time to call for help.

Overcoming separation anxiety is a process. If your dog suffers, chances are you’ve already made a number of compromises in order to manage your dog’s anxiety when you need to leave him home alone.

Nevertheless, if you want to help your dog to overcome his condition, rather than just cope with it, further changes will be necessary.

It won't be an easy or overnight process, but it will be temporary. As you gain the tools to help your dog to overcome his fears, you will gradually have more freedom and confidence that you dog is content and safe at home.

Taking measures to ease stress

There are little things you can do to decrease your dog’s stress while you begin working on real solutions with your behaviorist. These things are not a cure or solutions on their own, there is no instant "cure", but these things can possibly help, and definitely won't hurt, as your dog learn to be content on their own.

Some dogs may find a pressure wrap very helpful, such as a 'ThunderShirt'.

An Adaptal pheromone collar or plug-in diffuser (the pheromones produce a calming effect on dogs as it produces a synthetic hormone that reminds them of their mother when they were nursing) Both the collar and the diffuser last approximately 30 days.

Soothing music or white noise machine to block out sounds from the outside world. You could try both, playing white noise through one device while another plays classical music.

A good quality canine CBD oil has been shown to have efficacy in calming anxious dogs.

Pharmaceuticals. Many dogs do not need pharmaceuticals to help overcome their separation anxiety, but for some, it can make all the difference in the world. Please consult your veterinarian to learn more about your options.

Here’s the Only Real Way to Train a Dog with Separation Anxiety

Finding the threshold

The first mistake in trying to help your dog overcome separation anxiety is starting beyond your dog's threshold. If your dog starts to panic 10 seconds after you walk out the door, then that is where training needs to begin. Anything beyond that 10 seconds and your dog is already panicking.

To find your dog’s threshold for separation, you will need to become a junior detective.

Set up a camera and leave the house. Watch your dog on a smartphone or even a baby monitor. Start a timer and observe, as you close the door and step away (so that your dog cannot see or hear you) and watch. Watch for pacing, circling, whining, barking, howling, scratching, digging, yawning, jumping on the door, urination/defecation, lip licking and other indications of discomfort or fear. Continue to watch for 5 to 10 minutes so you see the full build-up our dog’s behaviour while you are away and take notes. Whatever the length of time it takes for your dog's anxious behaviors to start is your threshold.

Gradual desensitization

Now that you know your dog’s threshold, you can begin to slowly desensitize him to longer and longer absences.

In a period of time (30 mins max), practice going to the door and stepping outside for varriying amounts of time. For example, if your dog’s panic began the moment you walked out the door, you might start this way:

Walk to the door and open it slightly without going out. Close door and walk away. Walk to the door and this time do step outside, closing it behind you. Immediately go back inside. Walk to the door and turn handle, but do not open the door. Let go and walk back into the room.

Pause for at least a minute between attempts to act normally. Watch t.v., or get a glass of water. Be sure during this time to not give your dog too much love and attention. You don’t want to completely ignore him, but sitting down for a play session between steps is going to make your next step more challenging.

Pre-departure signals

Even if your dog is able to be alone for a few minutes before panic ensues, please know that he is very aware that you are about to leave.

Part of getting your dog comfortable with being on his own is to get him desensitized to all the things that lead up to your absence. These are called pre-departure signals, and they include actions like putting on your coat, picking up your purse or keys, locking the door

Some pre-departure cues may frighten your dog more than others.

When you begin working them into your training, be sure to add only one per day. That way you will be able to more easily identify those cues that trigger your dog’s anxiety.

In most cases, you will want to hold off adding a new cue until you’ve had a couple of days with the previous one.

Moving forward

As you move forward with your training, expect to go slowly. Remember this is called “gradual desensitization” for a reason! You have to move at your dog’s pace.

How quickly a dog overcomes their anxiety does not correspond to the severity of the symptoms, the age of the dog, or the breed. Every dog is an individual.

Unfortunately, this makes it impossible to predict how quickly a dog can overcome their separation anxiety. Be patient and keep working toward the goal of being able to leave Fido for longer and longer periods of time.

Here are some other things to keep in mind as you move forward:

Breaks are essential. Don’t try to work with your dog every day. For both your own sanity and that of your dog, take at least one day off per week. This type of training is very high-stress for your dog and you need to ensure that you are not asking too much of him. Stick to 20-30 minutes of training per day total. Be sure to practice at different times of day. If there are other people inn your household, be sure that everyone is involved in at least one session per week. If everyone is not involved, your dog will struggle to be left alone when other people are leaving the home and only be okay with the one person doing the training.

Although dogs respond differently to this training depending on their plasticity and level of sensitivity, it is effective at helping a majority.

Hang in there

Be patient and continue with your training and, if you are struggling to see any progress, a canine behaviorist can help.

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