This is a long blog!
I think separation anxiety is one of the most challenging dog behaviours to live with. Not being able to leave your home without worrying about your dog or worrying about your home is challenging. It is not uncommon for people to be stressed, and worried and angry or resentful. After all, this was not on your list of things you sought when you decided to add a dog to your family. The whys and wherefores of what separation anxiety is will be the subject of a different blog (stay tuned). This blog is about the myths and boy, are there some myths out there. Dr. Google and friends or family will have no shortage of advice for you. This often adds to your guilt and frustration. Unfortunately, while well-intentioned, at best some of the advice may not be helpful and some, well, some is just downright harmful.
As is the case with most dog training, the first answer is ‘it depends’. What I mean by this that each dog is different and some of the myths presented here may just work well for ‘your’ dog. But in my experience as someone who works with separation anxiety is that for most dogs, these approaches will not work and may just make your situation worse. While pursuing these avenues you are wasting time and money and you and your dog are continuing to suffer.
Myth #1: A Second Dog Will Cure Your Dog’s Anxiety
The myth about getting a second dog to help treat a dog’s separation anxiety is common. In theory, getting a second dog makes perfect sense - your new dog will help keep your current one company, right? Not so fast. Separation anxiety is usually something that happens between the dog and its people. It is a behaviour that occurs when your dog is left alone when their people go out. The dog’s inability to relax without their family results in the dog responding to their absence with the behaviour that we can best describe as a panic response. The presence of a second dog does not usually address the absence of the dog’s people.
Now before I get inundated with emails telling me that you fixed your dog by getting a second dog let me just say, that in some cases the presence of another animal, a dog or a cat, can help. I have clients that this has worked for. But I also have lots of clients where this didn’t work and now, they have a second dog, that maybe they would not have wanted to have otherwise.
Here are the situations when a second dog may be something you want to consider:
- You used to have a second dog, but when they died the remaining dog started to show separation anxiety.
- You have been thinking about getting a second dog for a while and are ready for the extra financial commitment, time and training required.
- That you are okay if the new dog doesn't get along with the current dog.
- That you are okay if the new dog does not help with your current dog's separation anxiety.
If you have read the above and can honestly answer 'yes' to all, then by all means bring that new dog into the family. You won't regret it.
However, if you are hesitating and can’t honestly answer ‘yes’ to the above statements, then my advice for this myth, is don’t get a second dog to fix your current dog. If you are still on the fence, then consider fostering a dog from a shelter for a few weeks or months and see if it makes a difference. You need to give it time. Dog sit a friend or family member’s dog when they go on vacation for a few weeks. If you notice a difference, great. But if you don’t, you have not committed to a second dog that you were not ready for. Only get a second dog, because you wanted to add another dog to your family, and you are ready for the added cost and time that comes with it.
Myth #2: Crate Training Will Cure It
Remember when you brought your puppy home, everyone told you that you need to crate train your puppy, right? Well, they weren’t wrong, but for a dog with separation anxiety, the crate is not likely to be the answer. It is common for a dog that suffers from separation anxiety to also have issues with being confined. There is also a higher probability of noise sensitivity. When I am assessing a dog for separation anxiety, I will assess the dog free in the home. For some dogs being confined just makes the whole situation much worse. Imagine how the dog feels when they sense their people are about to leave. They start to get stressed and next they are locked in their crate. Now they may try to escape the crate, which means chewing, scratching in an attempt to get out. I have seen my fair share of dogs with broken teeth and nails trying to escape a crate. In some situations, people invest in stronger and stronger crates. The dog may not escape, but their condition just continues to get worse.
If your dog has separation anxiety, using a crate makes sense if you may want to help keep them safe while you’re away, but before you do it’s important to make sure they’re comfortable with it. For most dogs that may take some time. If your dog isn’t a fan of their crate to begin with, they’re not going to enjoy (or feel safe) being left in it when you leave.
Often, a dog will feel much more comfortable when free in the house. This doesn’t mean they need to have full rein. Just like when they were a puppy, you will set them up for success for ensuring the area is safe and puppy-proofed. Stay tuned for the blog post on how we work on separation anxiety to learn more about how the process works.
Myth #3: It’s Just a Phase. They’ll Grow Out Of It.
While it’s true that our dogs have different phases in their lives, separation anxiety isn’t a phase. It’s a problem that can affect any dog — regardless of age or breed.
For most dog’s separation anxiety is progressive, and it will continue to get worse over time. If you’re able to intervene early we can stop the behaviour before it gets that serious.
Well-intentioned advice from family and friends is likely to do more damage:
- Just let them cry it out.
- Put them in a crate (Myth #2)
- Give them a kong (Myth #5)
- It is your fault - you are not showing them who is boss.
- You let the dog sleep on your bed (Myth #7)
These are just a few of the different pieces of advice my clients have told me about. When you spend time following this advice your dog will continue to get worse and you will feel riddled with guilt and resentment. You will likely feel like you are a poor pet parent and that it is all your fault. I am here to tell you that you are in no way or means responsible for your dog’s separation anxiety. We don’t know why some dogs are more predisposed to it, but the research is ongoing. We do know that genetics plays a role. Saying that you are responsible for your dog’s separation anxiety is like telling the person with a Border Collie that they are responsible for the dog herding the children. It is non-sensical. More on breed traits in a different blog post.
Sometimes we may see separation anxiety begin to appear in an older dog. If you see this, you need to have your dog fully examined by your Vet. Just like human ageing, dogs can suffer from Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD). Think of it as a form of doggie dementia. This is pretty serious and requires veterinary care. A good resource that you can read to become more informed is the book by Eileen Anderson titled ‘Remember Me? Loving & Caring for a dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction’
Note: There are things we can do with a puppy to help set them up to be comfortable alone. Alone training is an essential part of puppy training and should be one of the first things you do as a new puppy parent when you bring your puppy home. While alone training might not stop separation anxiety from happening if your dog is predisposed to it, it will ensure that most dogs will not get stressed when left alone.
Canine separation anxiety is a behavioural problem that doesn’t just go away on its own, it will get worse over time without management. It’s not a phase, and your dog will not simply grow out of it. Like anxiety disorders in humans, your dog’s separation anxiety may be triggered by something specific, but it’s not a phase. Humans don’t just wake up one day without anxiety because they reached a certain age, and our dogs don’t either.
To prevent your dog’s anxiety from getting worse you’ll need to manage it. That includes using desensitization and counter-conditioning — methods that change your dog’s negative association with you leaving into a more positive one. It takes time, and it takes a lot of effort, but it can and needs to be managed. It’s not something they will grow out of.
Myth #4: Exercise Will Cure It
Exercise can indeed help with separation anxiety as it can help with just about any other behaviour concern. A dog that has its needs met with appropriate exercise and enrichment will be happier dogs. Exercise is known to help cut down on anxiety in humans and dogs alike, but it’s usually paired with additional treatment methods. Exercise can help with your dog’s anxiety, but it is unlikely to be enough on its own.
Most of us go to work in the morning, and for many dogs that means we leave without giving our dogs a chance to burn off any energy (this can be especially troublesome for young, energetic dogs). Before leaving for work in the morning take your dog for a quick walk or fit in a quick game of tug or fetch or even do some training to burn off some energy.
Giving your dog some extra exercise before you leave is great, and there aren’t any downsides to it — but alone it may not be enough to keep them calm when you are gone.
Myth #5: Leave your dog with a food toy to keep them busy
This is a really common myth. While dogs will happily chew on a food toy when you are home and a dog that doesn’t have separation anxiety will not even notice you leaving if you present him with a stuffed Kong when you leave, a dog that suffers from separation anxiety will not be fixed by giving him a food toy. He will likely completely ignore it until you return. Once he has relaxed enough, he may then eat it. Even if he does eat, likely the anxiety will return in full force once he realizes he is alone. And to add another reason why using food can backfire in dealing with separation anxiety, dogs can learn that the presentation of a food toy is just another predictor that you are about to leave. If she wasn’t sure before, she is now certain.
I hate heights…with a passion. If someone presented me with my most favourite meal while telling me this would cure my fear of heights as they tied me to the side of the CN tower, I think I may have a few choice words to share. And I am confident in saying that I will still more than likely be afraid of heights, perhaps even more so. I am sure you have noticed a big difference in this example to that of our dogs with separation anxiety. I can very clearly tell the perpetrators in this exercise what I think of them. I can communicate how I am feeling. Our dogs cannot tell their owners how they are feeling, so we must interpret their anxiety for them. Often the first we learn of our dog’s anxiety is from a neighbour’s noise complaint or damage to our home or accidents while we are out in an otherwise house-trained dog.
So, to recap, food will not help with separation anxiety training. Most trainers who specialize in separation anxiety training do not use food in the behaviour modification process.
Myth #6: My dog follows me everywhere. Does he have separation anxiety?
Confession: I have not been to the bathroom alone in years. A trip to the bathroom just means that I am now held captive to my dogs for some one-on-one attention.
Dogs that follow us everywhere are commonly called “Velcro dogs”. However, research conducted (Flannigan, Gerrard, and Nicholas H. Dodman. “Risk factors and behaviors associated with separation anxiety in dogs.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association) disproved that following is an indicator of separation anxiety. Their research revealed that 64% of dogs studied who did not have separation anxiety still shadowed their owners.
Let’s face it, dogs are social animals, and we are their social group. Since dogs have evolved and have been purposely bred for hundreds of years to be with and work with humans it is not a big stretch that they will choose to be near us. Now there are some breed traits that will influence this. A guardian breed such a Great Pyrenees may be more independent than a Golden Retriever who was bred to work alongside a human, but you get the gist.
A dog that is especially clingy and who does not have separation anxiety can be helped to become more independent by training them to become more confident and independent. Confidence skills such as a ‘go to a mat’ for example can teach them that moving and settling away from their owner is a good thing. While these same skills can be trained in a dog who suffers from separation anxiety, the reality is that these skills will not fix their dog. They won’t hurt but they won’t fix them. Dogs that have separation anxiety have a negative emotional response to being left alone. Specific behaviour modification including desensitization and counter conditioning is going to be required. And the reality is that often behaviour medications are needed, but this is a topic for another blog.
Myth #7: Letting my dog sleep on my bed will cause separation anxiety.
Mmmm…there is so much misinformation out there. Dogs are social sleepers. Right from the time they are puppies, they will huddle together for comfort, safety and warmth. Imagine their surprise when they come into a new home and are expected to sleep in a crate at the far end of your house. No wonder they cry and squeal. Now, this is not to say that is wrong to expect your puppy to sleep in a crate in a different room, but we do need to help them get used to this environment. Nor is it wrong to let your puppy snuggle on your bed or sleep in your room. None of these scenarios are wrong nor are you doing anything wrong when you choose one of them. Once a puppy is comfortable sleeping in their crate in another room or sleeping on your bed, they are fine. If you choose to let your puppy sleep on your bed you have not created a monster. Letting your dog sleep on your bed, or the furniture does not create separation anxiety, so spoon away.
Myth #8: My dog is angry at me so that is why they are destroying my house.
We love to anthropomorphize our dogs. This means we love to lay all the complex human emotions on them like they are happy, or sad, or guilty or angry. This is a big fat myth. Separation anxiety is a panic disorder. Something in that dog prevents it from being able to relax when left alone. It may be a result of a specific trigger event (Myth# 9) or it may be the genetics and brain chemistry of that particular dog. Contrary to the old-school and TV dog trainers, dogs do not lay in bed scheming how to make your life miserable. They are not trying to dominate you.
If your dog does do damage to your house when you are away and you have ruled out lack of exercise and enrichment, too much time alone so that are bored then you may be dealing with a dog suffering from separation anxiety. But let’s be real - if it is separation anxiety there are often other clues. The best thing to do in that situation is to reach out to a certified separation anxiety trainer to have your dog assessed.
By not addressing separation anxiety is will likely get worse. Given that the condition is rooted in fear – the fear of being alone – the only way to address it is by changing the emotional response of being left from a negative to a positive. This is done via systematic desensitization behaviour modification and often requires behaviour medication. If a dog miraculously overcomes separation anxiety on its own, then in all honesty, it likely wasn’t separation anxiety in the first place. An assessment by a qualified trainer is the best place to start to tease this apart.
Myth #9: Once fixed, it is gone forever.
There’s a common misconception that once you find a way to address canine separation anxiety it’s cured forever. Now in a vast number of cases, it is fixed, and the dog can move past it.
I don’t mean to rain on your parade, but sometimes life happens. In cases when a client returns to me because the separation anxiety is back, it is usually due to a specific event. Changes in the dog’s routine or an event such as a change in residence, the change in our work schedule, the death of a canine buddy or sometimes one of the dog’s people, a traumatic event such as a car accident or house break-in can cause a setback. And sometimes it creeps back in without proper maintenance. Maybe the dog was perfectly happy to chill out for 4-5 hours after their mid-day dog walk until you come home. But one day you are held back at work unexpectedly and the 4-5 hours stretches to 6-7 hours. If the dog isn’t ready for this length of time, you can start to see the separation-related issues creep back in.
Note added: Trainers are seeing a resurgence in clients struggling with separation anxiety following the COVID 19 stay-at-home orders issued around the globe. Pandemic puppies that have never been left alone and dogs who have grown accustomed to having their families around all the time are struggling now that life is slowly returning to normal.
A current client of mine came to me about four years ago when their puppy, Ziggy had separation anxiety. We worked through a program and Ziggy graduated with flying colours happy to chill with his buddy Nora while his owners went out. Unfortunately, Nora passed away and Ziggy struggled to deal with her loss. The separation anxiety returned in full force and Ziggy was unable to be left at all. His family got on it right away and started back working on his home alone training and I am happy to see that Ziggy is beginning to feel comfortable being left alone again.
Just like with my client, the good news is that since you already know the signs of anxiety in your dog you can catch them earlier the second time around. You don’t go down the rabbit hole on the internet wasting time and money on ‘cures’ that won’t work. You followed the science once and know it works, and this time you are even more prepared to do what it takes. And generally speaking, the earlier you manage their anxiety, the easier it is to address.
I’m not saying that your dog is guaranteed to start acting anxious again when you leave — but it’s important to understand that it can happen. It doesn’t mean you failed the first time around; it just means that something has triggered your dog’s anxiety again. You can help your dog by practicing the same methods you used successfully the first time around and using them whenever you see that your dog’s starting to get anxious again.
Myth #10: Canine separation anxiety can’t be fixed.
There are thousands of dogs around the world that are happily snoozing away to confirm that this is a big fat myth.
Now let’s be clear, not every dog gets over separation anxiety. The path to resolving separation is far from being easy. It takes time. It is not a quick issue to resolve. It can take months and sometimes many months to see progress. It often requires behavioural medications. The approach to behavioural modification requires you to suspend absences which means the associated costs of pet sitting, dog walkers and daycare are required. The cost of training, vet visits and meds also need to be factored in. But separation anxiety can be improved and often fixed.
I have many emails and notes from clients telling me how they are enjoying a night out at a restaurant or a movie while their dog is at home and could not care less that they are gone. It can and does happen.
Separation anxiety in dogs can be challenging to manage, and it’s heartbreaking to see your dog live with it. And don’t underestimate the toll it takes on the human family as well. That’s the bad news.
The good news is there are methods to help address canine separation anxiety. They take time, they take repetition, and they are not easy, but there are thousands of dogs happily snoozing while their families get on with their lives that show that it can be done.
Footnote: If you are seeking a trainer equipped to deal with separation anxiety, seek out a Separation Anxiety Specialist. Trainers that have been certified to work with separation anxiety and separation-related behaviours have earned the designation CSAT. Visit https://malenademartini.com/about/meet-your-team/ for a list of trainers.
To book an assessment with me go to the following link. https://airtable.com/shrvkghyI3efAfqVM