Let’s talk separation anxiety

Posted on Posted in Behavior

This week among my emergency room visits I saw a young dog with some minor separation anxiety issues. The owner and her husband are professional truck drivers and they were keen on settling this potential problem before it developed into something more severe. They had only adopted the dog a month ago and already had seen major improvement in the dog’s behavior, so I have confidence that they are well on their way to success. But since for the past many years now, I have been practicing only emergency room medicine and I no longer have much reason for dealing with separation anxiety, I needed a little refresher. Here is my little treatise on the topic. Hopefully you don’t have this issue, but if you do, or if you are in the process of getting a new puppy, you might find this information useful.

If you don’t know what I mean by ‘separation anxiety’ chances are it’s probably not an issue for you. In a nutshell, separation anxiety syndrome (SA) is a behavior issue that arises in some maladjusted dogs when they are left alone for a period of time or are simply kept away from a particular person for any period of time. It can be characterized by anything from excessive whining and/or barking, to destructive behavior, sometimes of an extreme nature. On occasion this abnormal type of behavior can be confused with simple boredom, since some dogs will occasionally indulge in destructive behavior out of boredom when left alone, but with a bored dog the behavior tends to be more of an occasional problem and often is focused simply on some sort of “entertaining” activity and usually lacks the extreme controlling type of behavior associated with separation anxiety. Separation anxiety tends to be a relatively consistent recurring problem. In milder cases of SA, the patient may simply act miserable – panting, pacing, overgrooming or indulging in self-mutilation, less annoying to you and the neighbors but still making life seriously unpleasant for the dog. Hypersalivation, urination, defecation, and vomiting may also occur. These dogs sometimes (but not always) have other issues simultaneously such as storm or noise phobias (gun shyness) and barrier or confinement anxiety. In those uncommon instances where the dog is exhibiting aggression, you should seek competent veterinary help.

Dogs with SA issues are usually the result of excessive inappropriate conditioning by an overly attentive owner. Without thinking about what s/he is doing, the pet owner responds to the puppy’s (or dog’s) presence or approach by touching, petting, playing, picking up, or otherwise overinteracting. The owner unknowingly creates a pet that is hyperdependent or hyperattached. Without the owner realizing that he/she is being ‘trained’ by the puppy, the puppy or dog’s control over the owner develops quite rapidly. The puppy whines, the owner picks it up. The puppy comes to the owner, the owner fawns over it. The owner decides to leave and puppy whines, so the owner takes it along. In other words, the owner cannot stand to see the puppy unattended without feeling the need to console it and let it know that s/he is available for interaction. The first time the owner goes to bed at night and the puppy whines, it’s invited to sleep in the owner’s bed. After a time or two of going to bed with the owner, the owner cannot go to bed without the dog coming along. Depending on the particular puppy or dog, it takes a relatively short time for this type of positive reinforcement to produce a dog that is demanding and expectant of this sort of round-the-clock attention. In the beginning the owner feels the pet’s behavior is cute and enjoys the feeling of their “bond” and bends over backward to accommodate. The owner misinterprets the pet’s controlling behavior as “love.” As the novelty of this inseparability wears off, eventually the owner is unable to live any kind of personal life without including the dog. The owner can’t even leave a room without the dog following along. Now when the owner decides to leave without the dog, a huge scene ensues – panting, pacing, barking, whining, excitement, and anxiety over the owner leaving without the pet. Once the owner has left, the behavior often continues or even escalates into destruction of articles in the environment (especially chewing or clawing at doors), excessive chewing, and more. Once some serious damage has resulted, very often the owner seeks help. Sometimes, however, the pet owner simply dissolves the relationship and dumps the pet at a shelter or with some other placement group, often with some kind of less embarrassing and more socially acceptable explanation (i.e. lie) that they are moving to a no-pets-allowed apartment and can’t keep him or perhaps someone in the household has developed an allergy. As a result, when the little cutie is eventually adopted out, the monster they have created now unknowingly becomes someone else’s problem.

Often the symptoms of SA start when the pet notices the visual cues provided as the owner is getting ready to leave – getting dressed for work or to go out with friends, grabbing the car keys, making the morning coffee, taking a shower, putting on a coat, whatever your standard “getting ready to leave the house” routine might be. In extreme situations the alarm clock may trigger the first signs. During these activities, the panting and pacing may start. SA is much more commonly seen in owners who live alone, than in dogs in a shared household. The destruction produced while the owner is away makes it an adventure every time the owner comes home and opens the front door. Attempts to curb this behavior by simply placing the pet suddenly into a crate can result in destruction of the crate and/or injury to the pet from the frantic escape attempts.

So what can you do? If it’s early in the development of the problem, it will probably be much easier than dealing with an old, hardcore SA patient. NOTE: I did not say easy, just easiER. Generally the pet should be examined by a veterinarian and a complete diagnostic workup – blood chemistry panel, CBC, fecal, and urinalysis – should be done prior to embarking on a treatment regime in order to rule out the possibility of any complicating or contributing pathologic conditions.

Your best bet is to talk to a qualified animal behaviorist. Usually you can find a behaviorist at a university veterinary hospital, or you may find one at some of the larger veterinary referral centers, usually located in larger cities. At the very least, your evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of this problem should be done under the care of a knowledgeable and willing veterinarian. You can try talking to your local vet and see if s/he is comfortable with behavior cases, but watch out if the first thing discussed is medication. There are medications, such as clomipramine (Clomicalm)and fluoxetine (Prozac), that can help with correcting this behavior, but without aggressive and proper behavior modification instruction it’s not likely you will be successful with drugs alone. If drugs are suggested as a sole means for correcting the issue, make an appointment with a veterinary behaviorist for a consultation and see what is suggested. In fact, although every case is different, there is research showing that in many cases behavior modification alone works as well as behavior modification with drugs.

Whatever you do, do NOT go see a dog trainer for this problem. Although training is an important part of reprogramming the SA patient, this sort of thing can be exacerbated by misdirected methods used by trainers who think everything is simply a matter of training. Since it is the owner who has created the problem in the first place, one of the most important facets of correcting the problem involves training the owner and part of that training will involve the owner training the dog. A third party can help here but they can’t do it for you.


First step

Rework the bond. This is extremely important. We need to reduce the pet’s dependence upon the owner, which also means reducing the owner’s dependence upon the pet. This is a two way street. Both parties play a role and some of the advice will likely seem totally foreign and maybe even cruel to the pet owner who until now has indulged his/her pet’s every whim.

The owner must deliberately resist the temptation to pet the dog when it approaches for attention or play. Interaction is fine, but it needs to occur on the owner’s terms and only when the pet is calm and not seeking attention. When arriving home, ignore the pet’s excitement and attention seeking behavior until it has settled down and the stimulation from your arrival has passed. The pet should, again, be to the point where it is calm and no longer seeking attention. THEN you should pet the dog and quietly interact reinforcing the calm behavior.

Work toward separating yourself physically from the dog. Avoid allowing the pet to demand petting or jumping expectantly into your lap. This means physically moving the pet away from you on the bed – three feet is a good distance. Rearrange objects on the bed so that the dog must respect this distance. If he wheedles his way in anyway, put him back and start over. Get the dog far enough away from you that it is out of your reach. When he cooperates, periodically reward him/her with some verbal praise or acknowledgement but not enough to encourage him to come to you. Get the dog his own bed to sleep in and place it on the bed and encourage him to use it. As he adjusts, gradually move the bed further toward the foot of the bed. Small increments work best. This whole process is not going to happen overnight. Take your time. It is best to eventually move the dog’s bed off your bed to another location in the room and possibly even out of the room. Again, it takes time. Patience is the key. You created (or adopted) this problem; you can’t rush the correction process. If there is another person in the household, that person needs to enter the reconditioning process. The dog needs to learn to interact with all parties in the household so it is not dependent on just one person. Strangers also need to understand that the dog is not allowed to demand attention on its own terms. Your friends and family will probably appreciate this more than you expect.

Also, get a few toys for the dog that do not require interaction with a person and teach the dog to enjoy some non-contact time. A Kong toy with a little treat stuffed inside may be a good start, or maybe a rawhide chew. Try to keep food rewards to a minimum. We do not want an obese pet as a result of our training efforts and ATTENTION should be the reward in all situations. The dog needs to learn that attention must be earned and will be doled out in response to desirable behavior. Under no circumstances should inappropriate behavior be rewarded – and attention is always a reward to this type of pet. Punishment has no place in this protocol. Not only is punishment ineffective at discouraging inappropriate behavior, it actually serves as a reward to some dogs – i.e. undesirable attention is better than none at all. Remember, your response to attention seeking behavior should be less attention, not more, and attention should be given ONLY when the pet is behaving appropriately.


Decondition the leaving response

Start a routine of periodically at random times throughout the day and evening of going through select routines that normally stimulate the anxiety response. Like a routine of randomly playing recordings of thunderstorms for dogs who are storm sensitive, this type of desensitization will gradually reduce the stimulating effects of those behaviors. Get out the car keys, make a pot of coffee while taking a shower, put on your coat as if leaving, or put on your work clothes or your going out for the evening attire and then – don’t go. Set the alarm on the alarm clock to go off. You can even progress to the point where you actually step outside and lock the door. Then come right back in and resume your normal activities. These behaviors should be repeated three or four times during the day while the dog is calm. If the dog remains quiet and ignores you, then you are making progress but you should not acknowledge the situation. Don’t give any praise this. This is not special behavior; it’s just normal. Mix up the sequences so that everything gets attention. As you go through your routines you may pick up on something previously unnoticed that you do when you leave that stimulates a panic response. If you do, start throwing that into the routine too. Don’t do too much too fast. If something unexpected or undesirable happens, back up and take it slower. Remember, baby steps. You can do this several times a day on your days off, or in the evenings during the week when you work, but only do it when the dog is calm. Continue these unpredictable behaviors and watch the decreasing effect that the activities have on your pet.

You can also start a program of making the household more relaxing for the dog when you are away. Leave a chew toy or a Kong toy with a little treat inside for the dog to play with while you’re gone. Whatever you choose to leave as this “predeparture distraction,” it should be made available only when you are gone. Make it special (and preferably non-fattening!). Leave the TV or a radio on at low volume when you leave in an effort to recreate the ambience the dog enjoys while you are home. And you may want to get one of those little D.A.P. (Dog Appeasement Pheromone) pheromone plug-in devices. D.A.P. is a synthetic pheromone that supposedly helps to calm and relax a dog. In some cases it works quite well, and in our situation you need all of the help you can get.


Start a training program

I feel this is an important part of the reconditioning. It’s time for you to start demanding attention from your dog and thereby putting him/her into the proper position in the hierarchy. A simple beginning training class where multiple pets are present is a good place to start. These classes train the owner to be assertive, to issue commands, and to take the dog out frequently during the week between classes and reinforce what has been taught at the class. It’s a good way to teach your dog to listen and respect you and allows you to heap praise on the pet in a proper environment where you command and s/he responds. Taking your dog out for a walk on a daily basis, requiring him to sit and stay on command whenever you stop or cross a street, is excellent training for any dog and is especially useful for the SA case. The more time spent actively training the more the pet will enjoy the proper type one-on-one attention. A side benefit of the training efforts will be some commands that you can then practice at home in your living room or where they can be carefully used to reinforce your dominant position. For example, it is frequently recommended that the dog be taught to sit/stay while the owner remains across the room, and that the dog be rewarded for increasingly longer stays as the sessions progress.



Much of the anxiety issue develops in the young puppy that is only a few weeks to three months or so of age. If proper socialization and separation is undertaken, such as forcing the puppy to sleep alone in its own cage or its own bed as a matter of routine, leaving it home alone in its cage on a regular basis, and forcing it to spend some time keeping itself safely and satisfactorily occupied, the likelihood of a SA problem developing will be greatly reduced. Participation in early puppy obedience training will also promote the proper type of bonding and a safe and healthy interaction between puppy and owner. Single pet owners are more likely to become hyperattached inadvertently to a pet, and a similar situation tends to develop in a household when children are present who tend to overinteract with the puppy resulting in a SA dog.

Hopefully this information will provide you with some insight into the separation anxiety syndrome and might help you with treating the problem or, even better yet, preventing it. Good luck.

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