In a world where dogs are unemployed and always on-leash, we are seeing a rise in many problem behaviors. And perhaps none more brought about by current living conditions than separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is one of the most difficult issues you can face as a dog owner, and it usually stems from what I see in dogs as a failure to launch – meaning they’ve never really crossed the line from a small, dependent puppy to an independent, strong member of the community. This is often times brought about by a lack of a job, or a lack of strong leadership and direction. Some dogs, like Weimereiners or other “Velcro dogs”, almost seem to have it bred into them. Like most bred behaviors with pure bred dogs, if it’s not carefully trained out of them from the start, you're going to have issues.
Like anything, if you prevent separation anxiety from day 1 by fostering independence, teaching the dog how to entertain himself away from you, effective crate training, and general good obedience work, it is much easier than dealing with it once they are already destroying your floorboards or your door frames.
If you’re already dealing with separation anxiety, then here are some steps you can take to start getting it back under control:
- Ignore attention seeking behavior – If your dog likes to walk over and lean on you, jump on your lap whenever he feels like it, nudge your hand with his nose for pets, then it’s time to put up a personal space boundary and start saying no every so often. If a dog always learns to soothe himself by using you, he’s not going to be very good at it while you’re not at home.
- Start your day by fulfilling your dog – A good start is to take your dog for a meaningful walk in the morning that challenges both his mind and his body. The end of this walk should lead to their morning breakfast – this is an awesome simulation of a day spent migrating and scavenging for food. This is better than the alternative of the dog waking up and watching you get ready and knowing they have a day full of nothing ahead of them. If your dog is more energetic or lively you can do a more vigorous activity like fetch, rollerblading or bicycling. These should be supplements to your meaningful walk.
- Get into a good routine – It doesn’t have to be down to the minute, but an anxious dog will find solace in a general pattern of behavior. I’ve seen dogs that learn to cope on the weekdays, but then get confused when they are left at different times of day on the weekends. While you are reframing your dog’s point of view, it is beneficial to keep them on a good routine until they are comfortable enough to deviate from it.
- Crate train – Crate training done correctly is important. You have two fears with a crate – anxiety caused by being locked in a box and anxiety of separation. When you have a dog that can’t handle even one of these and you give them both, those are the times you see a dog breaking crates and hurting themselves. For dog’s with separation anxiety, you should have their original crate times be while they are right next to you while you are watching tv or sleeping on the floor of your bedroom in a crate while you are asleep in the bed. As he adjusts, move the crate further and further until he is ready for you to leave him in there while you go to starbucks and back (you could even bring him back a pup cup so he learns there is a light at the end of the tunnel!).
- More boundaries – If your dog is always in your bed and the couch with you, it’s time to remove those privileges at least temporarily. Making them find a dog bed or a toy across the room, or even in a different room, will start putting them in a place to learn to be comfortable by themselves.
- Duration work – Stay or place should be a part of every dog’s skill set, and it becomes even more important when you have a dog with separation anxiety. Watch your favorite tv show or eat dinner and have your dog do 30 minutes to an hour of "place" or “stay” simultaneously. This simple activity starts the process of separating them from you, as well as teaching them character and impulse control that will help them learn to control themselves when it matters most. In essence, these are the hours in the weight room that are going to make them successful on gameday.
- Get the right non-medicinal products – One product I have seen help dogs with anxiety (in conjunction with all these other steps) is called Adaptil. It is a pheromone that releases and makes the dog feel calm. Another one that other trainers swear by is the Thundershirt. This is particularly helpful if your dog is so panicky that they are hyperventilating.
- Work on obedience – Sign up for a good training class. Obedience work also builds character. If they’ve already had the basics, try an advanced class or a dog sport like flyball or agility.
- Manage – Get a pet sitter or find a high quality daycare if you’re dog does not have the ability to cope with being alone yet. What makes separation anxiety so tricky is that it needs to be built like any other skill from small to big. If you get your dog good at being alone for 20 minutes, but then have to jump up to 10 hours, you’re going to set him back.
Talk to a vet – if you’ve put in the work and you haven’t gotten results (while that is extremely rare), talk to your vet to see if there are any psychological or neurological disorders in play. And as always, if you want my help with the issue, contact me. We'll get it sorted out!