A veterinarian discusses the basics of recognizing and treating separation anxiety in dogs in the early stages. Early intervention is the key to better resolutions.
What is Separation Anxiety in Dogs?
This is NOT a dog being willful, hateful, spiteful or anything like that. Those are human emotions and motivations. No dog is out there calculating mentally like some world conquering evil genius on how to most effectively ruin your day. I promise you that. Some dogs are really bright but they are not quite that forward thinking.
Animals as a rule are very “present” or “in the now” in how they live and think. What separation anxiety in dogs is = is a panic/anxiety attack that ranges from mild to truly mentally debilitating. This is a very real panic attack of varying proportions – heart racing, panting, pacing, running, drooling, shaking, trembling, yowling, raging, room spinning to black. A full on panic attack is not a joke. Set up a camera in these days of cheap easy video tech and watch them. It is upsetting to see the severity of mental trauma that some dogs go through.
Different things set it off in different dogs but commonly the signs can start up schedule changes or other changes that affect the routines in the house. Some dogs, like some people, are greatly fond of normal routines. Changes in those routines basically disrupt the dog’s ability to understand what will happen next. They are unnerving because now the dog no longer understands how to anticipate what will happen next.
Separation anxiety in dogs tends to progressively get worse over time when untreated, and it is physically and mentally damaging to these animals when ignored. A little anxiety breeds more anxiety which breeds full on panic attacks. Yes this can devolve into a generalized anxiety about life for some dogs, and stop being an issue that only happens when you leave.
Common Signs of Separation Anxiety in Dogs
Common manifestations of separation anxiety in dogs usually occur when you are leaving, gone, or at home but not in sight. They include but are not limited to:
- Elimination in the house: yes they can and do get so upset that they urinate or defecate in the house. It is NOT a purposeful attack or statement on you at all. They are so upset and distressed that they can no longer control themselves. These dogs are NOT soiling the house out of anger or spite.
- Destruction: First of all chewing is soothing for dogs, and is naturally anxiolytic and calming for many of them. People often say well they only tear up X’s things or Y’s things – yeap, because the stress is associated with X or Y in some way. X is gone = they are convinced they will never see X again, so they chew on things that smell like them for comfort. Y is new in the environment and they do not want to tear up the beloved X’s things that comfort them to smell so they tear up everything else. The destruction is not premeditated ‘acting out’.
- Escape attempts: Usually also accompanied by some impressive destruction. They want out of the house where they are convinced they will die alone and without resources.
- Excessive vocalization: to varying degrees of angst, persistence, and distress – whining, barking, howling.
- Other signs of stress: Pacing, constant panting despite neutral temperatures, drooling. Eventually they may sleep after exhausted, but the majority of their awake time will tend to be spent in restless, stressed behavior.
If you are not sure if what they are experiencing is separation anxiety then you should consider getting a remote nanny camera set up so you can see what is happening when you leave, and how long after you leave the problems occur. You should strongly consider brushing up on your understanding of canine body language so that you can recognize signs of distress earlier and more effectively in order to help your canine companion.
Still think your dog is acting out rather than experiencing separation anxiety?
The rest of this discussion on separation anxiety in dogs is purely for the early intervention stages. Remember the dog’s motivations are simple, present, in the now, and not at all ‘calculating’ in these situations. Trying to force that human emotional perspective onto the dog is a disservice that is going to result in them needlessly being abandoned to a shelter as a bad, willful animal. Their ‘motivation’ is fear, anxiety and trauma based. They need HELP. Their motivation is not anger, not spite, and certainly not revenge and will not ever be helped by punishment. Punishment will ratchet up their anxiety every time.
A word here on ‘guilt’. First of all, even if they were actually guilty = who cares?! They cannot control the stuff going on in a panic attack. Humans cannot control themselves in the middle of a panic attack either without a lot of therapy and a complete understanding their triggers. Dogs cannot do that! All they can do is suffer through the attack. They cannot talk themselves down and apply cognitive behavior therapy principles to their actions. Sounds silly doesn’t it? So is claiming a dog is spiteful and guilty and purposefully causing a problem.
Dogs are extremely adept at reading human body language. Extremely adept at levels which equal a carnival psychic. If you walk in and get tense and frown at seeing the couch destroyed, then you do not have to yell or hit them. They see all your body language ‘tells’ super easily, and they know you are upset. They may not have any real idea why you are upset, but they know you are angry and distressed. They will immediately begin ‘appeasing behaviors’. Immediately. Just based on your body language and nothing else.
Appeasing behaviors are a dog’s only real way to try and defuse YOUR behavior and YOUR aggravation. There is a big difference between ‘guilt’ and a dog trying desperately to diffuse an upsetting situation. If you have ever yelled at them in an angry fit over finding your house in an uproar upon your return a couple of times or more, then they may start the appeasing behaviors every single time you come home. They are not guilty – what they are is perceptive, and they understand you are unhappy, and they are trying desperately to appease you.
Every had several dogs in your house and yelled at one about to hurt himself? Think really hard about that and you will realize that every dog in the room suddenly looked ‘guilty’, even though they were doing NOTHING wrong. Yelling at a dog suffering from anxiety only makes it that much worse. In their eyes it can generalize to – every time they leave the house, they return angry and upset. They do NOT correlate your anger to their destructive behavior. But dreading that angry return can certainly make their anxiety every time you leave even worse!
To properly treat separation in dogs, you have to recognize it early for what it is and STOP attributing human actions and motivations to the affected dogs. Stop trying to convince yourself your dog is plotting to drive you crazy and start helping them learn to be calm because you will be returning soon!
How is Separation Anxiety in Dogs Treated?
Dogs with separation anxiety that are doing anything more than whining and pacing for few minutes after you leave should likely be placed on a long acting, daily, anti-anxiety medication sooner rather than later.
Medication will NOT fix the problem on its own. Medication is only part of a comprehensive treatment for separation anxiety in dogs. By daily, long acting, anti-anxiety med, I mean drugs such as fluoxetine or clomipramine (and there are many other similar meds). Trazodone alone is seldom helpful for this as it tends to sedate a little more than it alleviates anxiety and it is not particularly long acting. Trazodone has it place but it only lasts a few hours after administration.
The shorter acting drugs such as trazodone, clonidine, or alprazolam are often used in addition to the long acting drugs for known stress periods (when you know you have to leave, or a vet visit is coming up) to excellent effect. You will need to talk to your veterinarian to prescribe these to your dog. And you need to remember that not every medication works for every dog. There can be a trial and error process of finding the right med or combination of meds for the individual.
There is a tremendous reluctance by many to use medication for separation anxiety in dogs, and this is unfortunate because when used properly and early then they tend to help a great deal. The largest error I see in dealing with separation anxiety in dogs is a refusal to use any medication until the anxiety has become severe and entrenched. At this point most any drug will be too little added too late to offer any real chance of success. In contrast, when used appropriately early in the process, then most dogs are able to be weaned off of them after the anxiety has been brought under control.
The next most common problem about medication is the pervasive belief that medication will make your dog a zombie. The correct long-term daily medication for your dog should NOT make them exceptionally sedate. The correct meds for your dog may cause a little sleepiness the first 7-10 days and that is about it. If anything more than that happens then the dose needs to be adjusted down or the medication chosen was not the right fit for your dog!
Daily, long term medications will help tremendously in freeing up the mental space these dogs need to think and develop new healthier habits. It is extremely difficult for a dog to learn new things and develop new routines if they are stuck reacting and reacting more in ever escalating fashion until they are reacting to their own reaction! Dogs cannot learn new routines and habits while they are in the middle of constant high anxiety and panic attacks. These drugs work best when started early as part of a complete approach.
Drugs will NOT save a situation successfully when trotted out desperately in at the end after the situation has completely devolved and the dog is an utter mental wreck. Again, that will be too little, too late. But early on they can be an awesome tool for separation anxiety in dogs when used in conjunction with good mental enrichment and a complete treatment plan.
Yes, they can commonly be weaned off the medication later when they have achieved a happy state of calm being once more. Don’t blindly dismiss a valuable tool. Side effects can be minimized with proper dosages or changing to one of any number of other medications if your individual dog does not tolerate the most common choices. Give them the proper support all the way around to bring this to a successful conclusion.
2. Behavior Modification
So back to the early mild stages of separation anxiety in dogs – anxious dogs are usually smarter than the average bear in my experience. Left with a bunch of time to fill they have enough mental wherewithal to think up things to do aside from sleep on the couch and yawn. If you can arrange for them not to be alone while you start working on this – that would be ideal.
Smart dogs get bored easily. Bored dogs focus all that mental energy on other things and in some dogs those things are worrying and fretting about life. Some of them end up fixating on scary thoughts like – “what if that noise means the world is coming to an end”, or “oh no I have been left alone, what if no one ever comes back! Ahhhhh.” The human analogies are to help folks understand what is going on. The dogs get fixated on fretful reactions and the more they fixate on them, the more reactive they get. It tends to be a downward spiraling cycle.
If you catch this EARLY enough and occupy these dogs’ minds and let them burn off more of their mental energy then things will usually improve more quickly and completely. In the early stages of separation anxiety in dogs, a little medication and a lot of focused enrichment go a very long way to righting their world again. The earlier and more proactively you intervene in separation anxiety in dogs then the less likely it will devolve into the dramatic horror stories we have all heard or watched on some video.
Early on, the way you help them is to schedule about 45-60 minutes of activity with them each day (it can be broken up into smaller pieces if needed) that works their brain so they spend less time fixating on worry. In general really increase their enrichment plan as well. These two things will help decrease their fretting anxious mental energy. The 4-6 weeks of focused activity with you helps them re-learn a new anticipated activity schedule as well. If it is early in the development and the anxiety is mild enough – this may be all you need to do.
There are many different protocols out there to work with trying to ‘decouple departure cues’ but that is laboriously difficult to do functionally. Anxious dogs are as hypervigilant as anxious people and that makes them amazing at watching patterns associated with your leaving. If you vary one little thing, most of these dogs can tell you do not realllllly plan to leave for work after all, so they will NOT respond in the same way they do when you ‘really leave’ for a long period. Thus it turns into a whole bunch of work for nothing on your part.
This makes it more functional for most owners of early stage separation anxiety dogs to work on teaching a positively conditioned short departure cue. For more information on that check out our article on the Basics of Teaching a Short Departure Cue.
A complete plan is a wonderful thing treating separation anxiety in dogs, and is a must for moderate to severely affected dogs. But even the more complete and complicated plans will NOT solve the issue if you do not occupy and engage the dog’s mental energy in new ways!!
I always suggest that as early as possible you COMMIT to starting a very concerted mental enrichment program for the dog for about 5-6 weeks. In fact, go sign up for a training course with your dog of some sort if you require that sort of structure to commit to that time frame!!
Very often, what sets separation anxiety in dogs in motion tends to be a change in the owner’s work schedule or living situation in some way – maybe a move, or a change in jobs, or new people moving in. This results in the dog being stressed, and losing ALL the usual cues that they had developed to let them know that you will definitely be returning. This is very common.
In early separation anxiety in dogs, the idea is to develop NEW routines, WITH you. Even if their routine altering is what has set it off, having focused time with you will help to restore their confidence and help them redefine normal household patterns. So the goal is to find new fun things to do with you and without you, all of which are mentally engaging. These things will assist in your dog developing new thought patterns, habits, and routines to focus on that are not run by entirely by their anxiety and excess mental energy. Then you keep it up for the next few weeks, to help establish the new improved mental habits.
Often, when caught early enough, the mental engagement and redirection alone will ratchet that anxiety back very nicely for the average case of mild separation anxiety in dogs. Some dogs are scared of the world and everything in it – they will need a great deal more help, but even for them, a great enrichment program is a beautiful thing for their bright, anxious minds.
For a detailed discussion of how to approach developing and improving your dog’s enrichment plan, see the post: Dog Enrichment: How to Engage Their Beautiful Minds.
4. Over The Counter Anxiety Aids
Once again, in the EARLY stages, many things can do a better job. If this is moderate to severe separation anxiety then most of these OTC aids alone will be a waste of money. Even in the early stages there MUST be defined enrichment program and other efforts thrown in before these type products help much with separation anxiety in dogs. You need to have realistic expectations for the products. In other words they will assist your other efforts to a degree but will not tend to magically ‘fix’ a dog with separation anxiety on their own.
A few things to consider:
- Adaptil collars and Adaptil Calming diffuser – a calming pheromone for dogs. I would recommend both collar and diffuser for early, mild dogs.
- Vetriscience Composure treats for dogs
- Purina Calming Care Probiotics
- CBD – can it help, some with mild cases, but do seek out a quality product. There is too much wild variation at present for me to have noted one that seems to do consistently decent.
When to Seek Professional Help for Separation Anxiety in Dogs
If the dog is screaming, howling and destroying the house and has been doing so for months – then this is no longer “early stages” of mild developing separation anxiety in dogs. If it has progressed in severity you will definitely need to engage a behaviorist. Most veterinarians and many separation anxiety certified positive trainers can assist you with mild to moderate separation anxiety, but a behaviorist is always preferred in the more severe cases. They have special training and proper time to assist in evaluating, medicating and treating severe behavior problems.
You can use tools available at national veterinary behavior specialists to search for one near you: DACVB or AVSAB at these links. Another resource to find certified behavior trainers in many countries is IAABC. A behaviorist can outline an in depth treatment plan and assist you in modifying it over time with your feedback. Moderate to severe cases of separation anxiety in dogs take a great deal of guided modification, instruction and feedback. Seek appropriate help whenever possible.
The greater the severity and length of time severe separation anxiety in dogs has been occurring untreated, the more complete the approach needs to be.
Vague unqualified internet resources or random tips and tricks from your neighbors are not appropriate assistance for severe cases. Those dogs need professional intervention ASAP and a complete treatment program to relieve their mental anxiety. Waiting puts your dog at risk of going too far into mental stress land to recover. Quicker more complete intervention is needed to bring about an acceptable resolution for all involved – human and canine.
Need some focused help now?
You may want to consider a look at Malena DeMartini’s separation anxiety training programs. The quickest way to start getting help is either the self study program or working with a trainer virtually from her network of certified separation anxiety specialist trainers. You can also look for a certified separation anxiety trainer through Julie Naismith’s website and she has a nice free guide to get started with as well. Many trainers are perfectly happy to assist via web conference these days and can do so very effectively with separation anxiety dogs.
Great Books on Separation Anxiety in Dogs
If this is a topic you have great interest in, here are two books I highly recommend on Separation Anxiety in Dogs. The first is “Be Right Back” by Julie Naismith and the second is “I’ll Be home Soon” by Patricia McConnell. They are great resources to have on hand for owners to refer to when dealing with separation anxiety in dogs.