Separation Anxiety is probably one of the most common behavior problems in dogs. Almost 30% of all dogs suffer from fear related conditions, and these conditions are one of the most common reasons why dogs are relinquished to the shelter or adoption agencies. Meaning that – if your dog is struggling with some form of separation anxiety or fear – your dog is not alone.
COMMON SIGNS OF SEPARATION ANXIETY
- Inappropriate urination & defecation while owner is away
- Barking/Howling while alone
- Chewing on furniture, walls, carpet while owner isn’t present
- Digging holes into walls or floors while owner is away
- Excessive Drooling, panting, shaking, or pacing while the owner is not present.
- Escape Attempts while alone – these can be through windows, doors, and even walls after owner leaves the home.
Not only is separation anxiety difficult on your pet in the moment, but studies have shown that pups that are more fearful have more health problems such as: skin issues, gastrointestinal issues, changes to their microbiome and a shorter lifespan than dogs that are well adjusted and comfortable in their environment.
WHY DOES SEPARATION ANXIETY HAPPEN?
What I want you to realize is that if your pup has separation anxiety it can be due to MANY different factors including: genetic predisposition (their personality just makes them a bit more wary of their environment), change to guardianship/family (like in a newly adopted pup), change in schedule (like going back to work after working from home for months), change in residence (if you moved to a new home), change in family/household members (this could be a new baby, kid leaving to college, new pet, or loss of family member), or a lack of training/acclimation (like if your pup has never needed to be alone before).
Even a well-trained and well-socialized pup can get separation anxiety, so if your pup does suddenly start to have issues, it’s not a poor reflection of you as a pet parent. I view it instead as an opportunity for you and your pup to learn and grow together AND to strengthen your bond. And yes I said you will be strengthening your bond by teaching your pup it’s okay when you leave – you need to show them that you WILL come back, despite all the changes that have happened.
MANAGEMENT OF SEPARATION ANXIETY:
What you need to realize above all else is that there is no magic pill to deal with scared dogs. Once your dog has a fear or is anxious about a situation you will need to guide them through their fears, and teach them that certain situations are not actually as terrifying as they first believed.
As puppy parents we do this by using two aspects of training: counter conditioning, and desentization. You definitely CAN use supplements and other techniques to help with this process, think of them as another “tool” in the toolbox of options.
FIVE THINGS TO DO TO SET YOUR PUP UP FOR TRAINING SUCCESS:
Before you even get into the training aspect of dealing with separation anxiety, it is always good to start by setting the mood, so that you can turn your scared dog into a calm dog.
How we can do this is by creating an environment that seems safe, peaceful, and calming. There are several different ways to “set the mood” but what I want you to realize is that you don’t want any of these ques to be associated with ONLY you leaving the home – so don’t only use them when you are not around, or when you plan to leave. You will want to have them out/around and used while you are in the home as well.
1. CREATE A “SAFE PLACE”
This seems like a no-brainer, however you will need to create a space that our pet feels comfortable in – a crate, bed or a room where they cannot get into things, or harm themselves is ideal. You want this area to be something they are exposed to often, and that is relaxing to them. Meaning that – if you haven’t already been working on crate training, and you plan to use that as their “safe place” – then you will need to crate train your pup FIRST before working on their separation anxiety. If you do not do this first, then you could be piling fear on top of fear – which isn’t helpful.
2. ADD RELAXING SCENTS
Studies have actually shown that dogs with certain types of anxiety benefit from the addition of two different types of scents to help relieve anxiety and stress. These scents could be easily used and added onto a regular routine for a pup going through counter-conditioning or desensitization training.
The first is the use of pheromones (or dog appeasing pheromones) – research has shown that puppies that smelled these pheromones during training were less fearful and anxious and more receptive to training than puppies not smelling these pheromones. However there is an interesting note that these studies also showed no evidence of reduction of fear away from the owner – suggesting these products may be good to use for rituals proceeding leaving the home to “set the mood” but that we shouldn’t expect long-term effects from these once we have left.
The second is the use of Aromatherapy – in a study done in 2006 – they found that dogs that suffered from travel-induced anxiety showed significant improvement when allowed to smell lavender essential oils diffused during travel. Now it should be mentioned that owners were present during this study period, so it is possible that we could see the same phenomenon when leaving the home as with the pheromones.
The next thing you can do to make your pup more receptive to training is to make sure they get regular exercise prior to the training period – so this might be that every morning before you start working on separation anxiety counterconditioning you take them for a nice 30-45 minute walk around the neighborhood. This physical activity can get out some of those extra wiggles before you are looking to “set the mood” at home prior to leaving for the day. Exercise also releases “feel good” hormones that can help with anxiety. Making exercise and activity a key to overall prevention and treatment of the anxious pup.
Enrichment allows for a safe outlet for natural behaviors such as chewing, sniffing, hunting, scavenging, and more! There are many different types of enrichment – social enrichment – where you might take your pup to a dog park. Scent enrichment – where you might expose your pup to different types of smells either while on a walk or by maybe placing different herbs into boxes in the backyard. Scavenging enrichment where you might hide portions of their meal in different areas throughout your backyard for them to find using all their senses. But probably the easiest way to incorporate enrichment have to do with how you present your food to your pup – puzzle feeders, maze bowls, kongs, snuffle matts, and lick mats are great ways to present breakfast before you leave!
For some pets offering a frozen stuffed kong when you leave is a great treat for while you are gone – as they provide mental stimulation and a relief to boredom while the owner (you) are away!
Yes – your dog likes the sound of music. According to a 2017 study by the Scottish SPCA they found that dogs paced less, and laid down more when music was played (regardless of genre), and overall pups were less stressed when they listened to Soft Rock and Reggae music. Another study done by Colorado State University found that classical music was beneficial for the reduction of anxiety in dogs – kenneled dogs who listened to classical music vocalized less, and slept more than dogs who did not listen to the music.
Another option if you have a pup that is more sensitive to sounds is to use a white noise machine, or a loud fan to block noises from the outside – this can be particularly helpful on days where the neighbor is having work done at their house, or when the gardener stops by.
WHAT ABOUT SUPPLEMENTS?
I like to think of medications and supplements that help our scared pups with overwhelming situations as a key that opens a door to possibilities. Dogs that are very fearful don’t have the keys to get out – their body has hijacked the system so they can’t calm down enough to be receptive to counter-conditioning or desensitization training. Supplements and Medications can allow us to open that door – maybe even just a crack – so that we can start to teach them that things aren’t quite as “dire” as they think when we leave our homes.
There have been multiple studies looking at pups that were given just behavior training vs. pups that were given the medications AND behavior training, and these studies have found significant improvement (up to 30% more) in dogs that underwent training while receiving medications. For more information about which supplements may be appropriate for your pup? Check out my post on the 9 Supplements for Dogs with Anxiety.
FIVE THINGS TO AVOID WHEN TRAINING YOUR PUP WITH ANXIETY
Just like how there are things that help with anxiety, there are some things that definitely don’t – or that could lead to further problems. As I stated at the beginning – there is no magic pill, device, or object that is going to make you pup suddenly overcome their anxiety. So if you see something that seems too good to be true, most likely it is.
1. USE PUNISHMENT
When dealing with counter conditioning and desensitization training what you need to understand is that your pup isn’t doing it on purpose. There is no need to establish yourself as being the “alpha” or the “pack leader”. They aren’t being a “bad dog” – they are a scared dog. And according to research using punishment such as scolding, shock collars, citronella spray, or physical force will actually make the behaviors WORSE and not BETTER. Basically what happens is the pet becomes more fearful, driving the fight or flight cycle harder – and when this happens you may even end up with a dog that becomes fear aggressive.
Let me give you a quick example… if say you have a dog that barks uncontrollably due to separation anxiety while you are away. Then you use a citronella collar – which sprays a liquid that stings their eyes and dogs don’t like the smell of – into their face. Then you pup will associate the behavior of barking with the collar – and in their heightened state – they make stop barking, or they might bark louder. But what you have created then is a fear of a new thing, not teaching them that barking isn’t an appropriate response or how to deal with the situation in a healthy way. It’s likely that your pup will just find a new outlet for their frustration – because the fear is still there.
2. THROW YOUR DOG IN A CRATE WITHOUT TRAINING
I feel like this is easier to understand if you think of it through the eyes of a child. If you put a toddler in a room they have never seen before and lock the door – what do you expect will happen? The child will scream, they will hit the door, they will cry, etc – this be because they don’t understand that this new room is their bedroom. But if you show the child the room beforehand, maybe play some games in the room, add some familiar objects/scents, etc – the toddler will get used to the room, and no longer find it fearful. Instead they will go to their room to play, sleep, maybe even eat a snack. What you need to understand is that your dog HAS THE SAME INTELLIGENCE as a toddler.
When crate training out dogs we are creating a “den” or a room for them to have that is all their own. We should acclimate them to the crate over time so that they are comfortable with their room/den. A good way to START with crate training is to just have the crate available, and allow your pup to go in and out as they please. Maybe feed them in the crate with the door open. Then increase time in the crate as your pup allows.
3. LEAVE YOUR DOG ALONE LONGER THAN THEY CAN TOLERATE
This is probably the number one mistake pet parents make when they are training their pets to get used to time without them. And to be honest – I think this usually happens because we didn’t think ahead, and we are rushed to get out the door. Make sure you test how long your pup can remain calm while you are present in the home! Watching TV? Put your pup in their “place” – be that their bed or their crate. Doing some work from home – pup goes into their “place”. See how long they are okay with being in that area without being stressed, then keep outings to that period of time. As they become more and more acclimated to their “place” you can extend your outings.
Also leverage your resources – if you know your pup is only okay in a crate for 4 hour increments, hire a dog walker to come in and let your pup out for their potty break, wiggles, and give them instructions as to how to place your pup back into the crate (aka where the frozen treats are, or what music to turn on, etc). Some trainers will even do adventure outings now where you pup could go to the beach, dog park or on a pack walk – all while you are away. If you know your pup is only okay for an hour, maybe send them to daycare on days where you are unable to be at home or have someone stop by. Another option is to find a neighbor who does work from home on opposite days that you do – then schedule play dates at each other’s homes.
4. GET YOUR DOG A “FRIEND” TO “HELP”
Thinking that your pup will be less anxious if they have a friend is a misnomer. I know it seems like the support of another pup might help with your pup’s fears, but this is not necessarily true. Adding another pup into the mix adds variables. Though the new pup could teach good habits, it could also teach bad habits OR learn bad habits from your pup. This means you could end up with TWO fearful dogs, rather than just one. And I’m sure you’ve heard the old “anger leads to hate, and hate leads to the dark side” quote before. Well – fear can lead to something called fear aggression – this type of aggression can happen when pets are uncomfortable with a situation and don’t see a way out or feel blocked. I have personally seen aggression between dogs within the same household – and often times these battles do not occur when the owner is present, they occur when the owner is away and pets are already “on edge”.
5. RELY ONLY ON SUPPLEMENTS OR MEDICATIONS
Though supplements and medications definitely do have their benefits, they are not the “magic pill” for anxiety. But they can be used as a tool to allow your pup to be more receptive to desensitization and counter conditioning training. Dogs can actually develop and tolerance to certain medications and supplements – making it all the more important to implement training, even if your pup seems like they are doing well on supplements alone.
Remember the idea is not to mask the anxiety with something else – but to teach your pup that there is no need to fear or be anxious about certain nsituations.
So what have your done to help your pup with scared pup cope with their anxiety and fear? Have you started with behavior training – what kind of setup do you have at home? I’d love to hear from you and your experiences! Make sure to join the conversation on Instagram to ask questions, find answers and connect with other pet parents. I’d love to have you as part of our community of pet lovers.
I hope you and your pup/s have a wonderful day, until next time my Canine Health Nuts!