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If you live with a dog suffering from separation anxiety, you will likely try anything to fix it.  Googling separation anxiety solutions can lead you down rabbit holes of outdated and punitive solutions that will not only not fix separation anxiety but are likely to worsen the situation. 

Here are the six most common but bad pieces of advice my clients have received.

Bark collars

Bark collars range from citronella collars that squirt a powerful citrus spray into the dog’s face to e-collars that give the dog a painful electric shock to the dog’s neck.  Both are intended to startle the dog to stop vocalizing. If your dog is barking because they are panicking about being left at home, then these devices will add to their anxiety and will only make the situation worse.  These are aversive tools and should never be used.  Their goal is to suppress behaviour. Some trainers actively use E-collars for a myriad of training solutions.  In my view, the use of shock collars has no place in modern dog training.  There is no room for any tool that’s sole purpose is to hurt and harm the wearer.

Be aware, the people promoting these tools will try to convince you that the collar tingles.  People send their dogs off to doggie boot camp and are amazed that the dog now comes when called.  All their dog needs to respond is to feel the tingle or the beep from the collar, and they listen. The unwitting dog parent has no clue in most cases that their dog has received multiple painful shocks to pair the shock with the tingle or beep. The only way these collars work is to pair pain with the vibration or beep.  There is no magic involved.  There is only pain. The dog feels the vibration or hears the beep and stops what they are doing in the expectation that they are about to be shocked. If you want to learn more about the use of punitive tools in training, I refer you to the website for the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior position statements on the use of punishment in training.  Many progressive countries have banned these tools.  They are not available for purchase and cannot be used legally.  I hope one day, Canada will do the same.

Startle devices

Years ago, before I knew better, I thought startle devices were benign. Many years ago, I brought my golden retriever puppy home at ten weeks of age and crated her on another level of the house without a second thought.  I rigged up a can full of coins so when she barked, I would shake the can, scaring her into quiet.  It was genius, or so I thought.  At the time, I didn’t know better.  I listened to the rubbish espoused by TV trainers that today makes me sick. I still regret every day what I did to my puppy, and I vow that I will never make any dog in my care feel that way again. It makes me angry that TV networks still promote these programs, and they do it to make money with no thought to animal welfare.  I only hope for karma to run its course, although a better outcome would be for the education on animal welfare to supersede making money. Tools that fall into the startle category are shaker cans (cans full of coins or pebbles that, when shaken, make a loud noise), throwing a small heavy object at the dog like a small bean bag and the ever-popular spray bottle used to spray water directly into the dog’s face.  These work because the dog finds them unpleasant.

The most recent evolution of the startle device is to yell at your dog through your pet camera when they bark.  Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. If you observe a dog that is hearing their guardian’s voice when they are at home, they are confused.  While the intention of these devices having the ability to soothe and talk to the dog was likely well-intentioned, the effect it has on the dog is to create confusion at best and frustration or anxiety at worst.


Tempting as it is to confine your dog if you are worried about your dog damaging your home, dogs suffering from separation anxiety have a higher likelihood of confinement anxiety.  Crating them will likely increase their panic.  This will result in them trying to escape the crate and doing damage to themselves, including breaking teeth and nails. It is truly horrifying watching a panicked dog trying desperately to break free of a crate.  Since the average crate is not indestructible, it is possible to purchase a heavy steel crate with welded joints that are guaranteed escape-proof. If your dog is suffering and you are considering investing in one of these crates as your solution, I suggest that you instead speak to your veterinarian about behaviour medications to ease your dog’s suffering.  As difficult as it may be, rehoming your dog will likely be a better solution for all involved.  An escape-proof crate will not address your dog’s separation anxiety.  It will just make you feel better by not incurring damage to your home.

Excessive exercise

Running your dog to exhaustion will not fix your dog’s separation anxiety. While you might notice some temporary benefits from a tired dog, excessive exercise will not address the underlying panic.  As your dog gets fitter, its threshold will increase. Exercise is not a sustainable approach as you must ensure your dog gets a lot of exercise in advance of every departure.

For some people, who choose to manage their dog’s separation anxiety, exercise will no doubt be part of the management solution. If you can consistently ensure that your dog is never left alone, it is entirely possible to manage separation anxiety.  It won’t always be easy as you need an inexhaustive supply of daycare, pet sitters, friends, and family ready and able to step in on short notice to ensure your dog is never left alone, but it is possible.  Behaviour medications will also likely be part of the solution. However, as dog trainers say, management is always part of a training solution, but management always fails.

Leaving out a food toy

Food toys are common advice that makes sense in theory but not practice. If your dog is panicking when left alone, they are unlikely to eat and often drink.  I use the example of someone about to step on stage for a public speaking engagement.  For most people, if statistics have it right, public speaking is the most feared activity, followed by a fear of heights and spiders, bugs and other critters.  I doubt anyone about to step onto a stage will be interested in sitting down to their most favourite meal.  Even if the dog does eat, the food toy may be nothing more than a distraction. Once the food is finished, the dog will begin to panic.

Another adverse outcome of using food toys is if the only time a food toy is brought out is when you are about to leave, the food toy becomes a pre-departure cue.  It becomes another predictor that you are about to leave, thus confirming to the dog they are about to be left behind.  You have now created an association between your leaving and the presentation of the food toy.  I have had clients lament that their dog is no longer interested in their peanut-butter Kong at any time due to the strong association with the Kong predicting their impending departure.

Be the ‘pack’ leader

Outdated advice that your dog’s anxiety is due to you not being tough enough with them.  This is part and parcel of the outdated theory that you need to be dominant and the alpha.  You are advised not to spoil your dog.  Don’t let them on the furniture.  Don’t let them sleep with you. Don’t let them through the door before you. Don’t let them eat until after you have eaten.

The dangerous but common misunderstanding about dominance and pack theory in the dog world is based on research collected from studies performed on a pack of unrelated, captive wolves in the 1970s. These early studies suggested a rigid hierarchy in which ‘alphas’ (leaders) had priority access to resources, forcefully maintaining the group structure through displays of aggression to others.

Because dogs were believed to have descended from wolves, it was assumed that similar social groupings and violent ‘pack’ dynamics must therefore exist among domestic dogs as well. What is more, the formation of these dog packs was supposedly based on the desire or drive of certain dogs to be the alpha or top dog of the group, and the resulting hierarchy was based on competitive success.

This theory became so popular that despite the obvious (and very important) fact that dogs and wolves are separated by thousands of years of evolution and that dogs and humans are completely different species, the concept was attributed to explain not only the social interactions between dogs but also between people and dogs and how dogs should be trained.   But dogs are not wolves, and even if they were, those captive wolf studies have since been renounced by the very scientists who performed them and drew their original conclusions.

Unfortunately, this theory, even though dismissed as wrong by the very scientists who originally premised it, still has traction today.  It is still widely used, and the same TV trainers that I referenced at the beginning of this blog as still getting mileage from the same outdated and incorrect conclusion.  Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, particularly when it brings in millions of dollars in revenue.

Recently there have been articles written on the need to toughen our dogs up.  That by pandering to this behaviour, we are making it worse.


Here’s the thing, separation anxiety is not a behaviour the dog has any control over. The word behaviour implies that there is a conscious choice involved. This is not willful behaviour.  It is not the dog being disobedient.  This is a dog that has a fear of being left alone.  We have done a disservice to our dogs.  We have bred them to want to be with humans.  We have actively selected these traits in our dogs.  So, it seems illogical that we expect our dogs to have an off switch.

We can help our dogs become comfortable with being left alone. Separation anxiety can be resolved. But the use of any of the above will not help and will only make the underlying fear and anxiety worse.



Hanging With Hounds, helping dogs be home alone and happy.

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