Separation Anxiety 101
One of the most common behavior problems and at the same time one of the most difficult to resolve, is separation anxiety. Below I have excerpted two sections from my books regarding this topic. The first comes from my book, There’s a Puppy in the House, and concerns teaching a young pup to accept alone time from its earliest days, thus minimizing the chances of developing issues with separation anxiety later.
The second section comes from my book, There’s a Baby in the House: Preparing your Dog for the Arrival of your Child. This concerns dealing with full-blown separation anxiety in the adult dog. Between the advice in one or both of these sections you should be able to make a significant impact on your dog’s emotional dependency that lies at the root of this problem.
Teaching Your Pup to Accept Time Alone
(Excerpted from There’s a Puppy in the House)
I mentioned a moment ago that pups that are chronically over-stimulated at an early age are likely to develop problems with separation anxiety in the not too distant future. Let’s take a moment to look into that, keeping in mind my admonition that anything you want your pup to be able to deal with as an adult dog, you should start getting him used to now.
I occasionally get a call from an excited new puppy owner during which they proudly announce that they’ve taken two months off from work in order to be able to spend "quality time" with their puppy. Others are excited because they can take their dog to work with them every day. In either case the implication is that they’re going to spend lots of time with their pup. While I appreciate the sentiment and the dedication to the welfare of their pups that these clients are showing, I quickly inform them that this is potentially a huge mistake. Spending every moment of the day with your puppy is guaranteed to ensure enormous headaches with separation anxiety, one of the most difficult behavior problems to deal with. Please spare yourself the trouble.
In short, it is extremely important for your puppy to learn how to spend time alone. Each day he should have down time in his crate or special area with no one around. In order to make this easier for the pup to tolerate try to exercise him first — exhaustion translates easily into sleep while an overflow of energy translates rapidly into anxiety — and leave a special bone or toy in his crate that he never gets any other time. This will help him to build a positive connection with alone time. But time alone he must have.
I would suggest starting with two to three one hour periods a day and slowly adding to that as the pup gets older. If he complains about the periodic confinement reprimand him as discussed in the section on crate training. The older the pup gets, the longer he should be able to tolerate being left alone. My goal for all my dogs is that by the time they’re a year old they should be able to stay home in the house for twelve hours without experiencing anxiety. Not that you should subject your dog to that kind of isolation as a steady diet. That would be inhumane. But you want to be sure that in a pinch you can do it. You never know what life brings, what situation could arise that would suddenly and unexpectedly require you to be gone from home for twelve hours. It happens to me three or four times a year. While I feel bad for leaving my dog alone that long I know that she can tolerate it, basically without freaking out. The fact that she is at ease puts me at ease and makes both of our lives more comfortable.
What if My Dog is Emotionally Dependent and Afraid of Being Left Alone?
(Excerpted from There’s a Baby in the House: Preparing your Dog for the Arrival of your Child.)
The dog that is emotionally dependent on his owner (always underfoot — can’t make a move without you) or has problems with separation anxiety is also the dog that is potentially going to have the greatest difficulty adjusting to the arrival of a child. A dog suffering from separation anxiety has difficulty tolerating being left alone, which often results in nuisance barking, destructive behavior, or elimination in the house. The same dog often also has difficulty with the idea that he is not the center of your universe. Clearly, once your child arrives your dog will necessarily no longer be the focal point of your affections to the degree that he is now. In this context, it’s very easy for him to interpret your child's arrival as the source of his perceived deterioration in his relationship with you. In order to avoid this, it’s important to deal with emotional neediness and separation anxiety as long before the arrival of the child as possible so that the changes in your relationship are not associated with the birth of your baby. And, changes in the nature of your relationship are precisely what’s called for. Specifically, the emotional nature of the relationship with your dog needs to be toned down and he needs to be conditioned to accept increasing periods of time away from you. I understand that this may be difficult for many people, but keep in mind that the attention you now shower on him will soon be flowing towards your new child, potentially leaving the dog feeling left out in the cold.
Even if your dog isn’t really overly emotionally dependent or suffering from separation anxiety, the implementation of the program outlined below, perhaps in a diluted form, would be advisable anyway since normally the arrival of a baby puts serious limitations on the amount of time you can spend with your dog. Again, you want to do everything possible to avoid having your dog associate these changes with the arrival of your child.
So the obvious question is: how do you tone down the sometimes overly emotional and dependent nature of the relationship with such a dog and teach him to spend increasing periods of time alone? The answer, as with most things in behavior modification, is in small increments. If your dog has the tendency to follow you around like a shadow begin by having him hold down-stays for just a few moments as you go from one place to another. If he does not know "down-stay" you can simply tie him to something like the leg of a sofa or table. The important thing is to leave only for a brief period of time. How long that is varies from dog to dog, but it should be a period he can tolerate with as little stress as possible. For some dogs that might mean two seconds. Whatever it is, that’s what you work with. When you return to the dog’s proximity you should simply ignore him, that is, don’t look at him, don’t speak to him, and don’t touch him. Just be in his space while keeping the level of interaction to a minimum. This is what I mean when I say toning down the emotional nature of your relationship. If you’re constantly coddling, petting and talking to the dog he's addicted to that constant level of attention — precisely what you’re trying to wean him away from.
Once you’ve returned to the dog’s proximity, you shouldn’t wait too long to depart yet again. If your first departure consisted of all of two seconds, then maybe it’s three seconds this time. It all depends on your dog. Again, you want to be sure to return before he crosses his fear threshold. Repeat this procedure as often as possible, slowly working to increase the increments of time for which he can be left alone. You’ll find that the time it takes you to get from two seconds to five minutes will be much longer than the time it takes to get from five minutes to ten minutes and so on. As the dog learns to ignore your comings and goings—because they are now so frequent—it will become easier and easier for him to tolerate increasing amounts of time alone. Once you have attained some success with this in the house, repeat the procedure by leaving the house. In other words, leave and within a few seconds return, ignoring the dog and immediately turn around and leave again. Stay out a bit longer, return and repeat the procedure until you can stay out five minutes, ten minutes, thirty minutes and so on. Be patient, this takes time, but it definitely works.
If you want to make the entire affair a bit more appealing to him try tossing him a treat just before you get up and leave, but be very low key about it. Simply drop it there on your way out of the area. Remember, no speaking to, touching, or looking at your dog. Just leave. Dropping a treat on your way out will help focus your dog on something positive rather than on the fact that you’re leaving and help him to begin to build a positive association with your departure. As you increase the periods of time that you leave your dog, you can replace the treat with a favorite, food related, toy that he only gets when you leave the area. As soon as you return, you pick up the toy and continue to ignore the dog. This will teach him that he only has access to this special thing when you’re gone and avoid getting him emotionally charged up upon your return. Your arrival means the toy goes away. Some suggestions for toys include Kong Toys™ stuffed with cheese, meat, peanut butter or anything else that your dog loves, a hollow marrow bone filled with the same, Planet Toys™, Buster Cubes™ and other things along those lines. A cut up pig’s ear stuffed into a Kong Toy™ is my latest favorite. Whatever it is, it should be something that the dog really likes and that he gets at no other time. Using this approach your dog will learn, over time, that when you leave you’ll soon be back and that he has a window of opportunity here to get something wonderful. Repeating this exercise as often as possible will help your dog develop the emotional stamina and trust to be left alone for increasingly long periods.
Once you’ve reached some baseline success with your dog, begin leaving him in different parts of the house for longer and longer periods so that he doesn’t associate alone time with just one place. Also, during the times that you’re not explicitly doing these exercises be sure to wean the dog off your affections. If he’s always in your lap, on the sofa next to you, or in your bed at night, begin restricting such interactions now with the goal of eliminating them almost altogether. This might sound extreme. After all, if you can’t cuddle with your dog and be affectionate with him what’s the point of having him? But the point is really to teach him not to need these things in order to feel emotionally secure. Once you've gotten him to the point where he can feel emotionally secure without these props, you can reintroduce all these interactions in measured doses and in a way that they don’t create a dependency. To feel emotionally insecure is a terrible state to be in, so what this program calls for is the temporary sacrificing of your own emotional need to be physically close with your dog for the sake of his mental health and well being.
Now, all that having been said, it’s important to keep in mind what I said a moment ago, which is to cut down your affection in small increments. The idea is to wean him off your affections, not simply to cut him off. For example, if your dog has been sleeping in the bed with you for the last six years, don’t start by putting him in the garage or you’re guaranteed to have a full blown freak out on your hands, which will set your efforts back enormously. Instead, start by putting a dog bed next to your own and tying him to the foot of your bed so he’s got enough room to get comfy but can’t jump back up under the covers with you. Once he’s okay with that, begin scooting his bed further and further away from your own until he can sleep just outside your bedroom door. Similarly, if your dog is always on your lap or on the sofa next to you, begin by having him at your feet and off the sofa. Then, perhaps using the same dog bed, you can condition him to staying further and further away. Throughout all of this be sure to wean him off the petting, cooing and general coddling as well.
Having outlined the above, let’s take a look at a few potential bumps in the road and how to deal with them. The first one relates to the dog who starts whining, barking and complaining the absolute moment he senses he’s alone. While, as I said above, the goal is to attempt to return to your dog before he hits his anxiety threshold there are times when, despite your best efforts your dog will resort to a variety of attention-getting behaviors almost immediately. Usually he does this because he’s found that in the past they worked. However, now is the time to learn that they’ll work no longer, that there is a behavior boundary that you will not allow him to cross. If your dog begins to bark you can: a) quickly rush back into the room, squirt him in the mouth and nose area with water or Bitter Apple™ spray, firmly tell him "quiet," and then immediately leave the room; b) rush back into the room and put him through a mind numbing obedience drill such as sit-down-sit-stand-down, etc. until he gets visibly bored. Demand tight compliance and when you’ve pushed the dog beyond the point where he’s had enough, leave the room once more. He might decide that it’s better to be left with his Kong Toy™ than to be drilled like this by you. With regard to the concern that negative attention is better than no attention, in other words, your dog is still getting a payoff from your presence, even if it’s unpleasant — I don’t buy it. If you make your responses unpleasant enough at some point your dog will cease and desist. However, there are a couple of other options that you can explore without having to go back to your dog: c) slam your hand loudly against a nearby door, wall, or any other item likely to startle the dog; or d) loudly rattle a shake can (empty soda can with five or six pennies in it) without saying a word. One of these approaches will work with most dogs.
An additional area of importance to consider in the resolution of separation anxiety is that of departures and homecomings. In these situations, you should be sure to ignore your dog for ten to fifteen minutes before leaving and ten to fifteen minutes after returning home. Departures that involve a lot of interaction with the dog merely serve to work him up emotionally just before you leave. The moment that door closes behind you he feels as if he’s been left hung out to dry, and his anxiety level can go through the roof. Enthusiastic returns are similar in that they merely serve to highlight for the dog the vast difference between when you’re there and when you’re not. Of course, the whole idea is to narrow the qualitative difference between when you’re there and when you’re not so your dog can avoid the wild emotional swings that lead to attacks of anxiety.
To further diffuse the concern your dog may experience around your departures it can be helpful to teach him to ignore what are known as "pre-departure cues." In other words, most dogs are intensely aware of the patterns that lead up to your departure such as getting your coat out of the closet, putting on your shoes, the jingle of keys, etc. These events can often trigger anxiety attacks, so reducing their relevance to your dog, in addition to ignoring him before your departure can be very helpful. As with many of the exercises described in this section, this one is also simple but somewhat tedious. The trick is to go through your pre-departure routine as often as possible without actually leaving. For example, pick up and jingle your keys, and then set them down again. Go to the closet and pull out your coat only to hang it up again. Of course, totally ignore the dog throughout all this. As often as possible string all these events together in the exact sequence that you follow when you actually leave and if you can do this at times of the day that you normally leave without leaving, so much the better. The more often you do this, the quicker it will help your dog dissolve his anxiety over your departures.
A related issue that often arises with needy dogs is the inability to tolerate anyone besides them getting affection. For instance, it’s not uncommon for a dog to become annoyed and intrusive if two members of the household are exchanging displays of affection such as hugs. Many dogs will start barking, trying to push their way between the owners, or pursue any attention-getting behavior that will cause the affectionate displays to cease. I’ve even had clients whose dogs won’t let them talk on the phone without throwing a fit. The problems in relation to raising a child under these circumstances are obvious. You should teach your dog that such interruptions are unacceptable and then teach him to build a new and positive association with affectionate displays between household members. Begin by setting up as many displays of affection as possible (this is the fun part) and begin by reprimanding your dog for any intrusions. My definition of an intrusion is coming within five feet of where the affectionate incident is taking place, and then engaging in barking or anything else intrusive. My favorite method of response, once again, is the trusty squirt bottle filled with either water or Bitter Apple™ spray. If your dog gets too close, in a firm tone command "out" and squirt him in the nose and mouth. For most dogs, this sudden shock will give them pause for reflection. A few more repetitions and you’ll likely begin to see the behavior subside. If your dog likes to bark for attention, I suggest you begin by tying him near the area where your staged display takes place and squirting him for barking as described in the section dealing with barking dogs. The leash will prevent your dog from running away in order to avoid your reprimand when you go to spray him. It will also keep him from getting a chase game out of the deal.
Once you’ve managed to suppress your dog’s annoying interruptions you can take the next step of teaching him to look forward to displays of affection by helping him build new and positive associations with them. Simply set it up so that just as the staged affections begin taking place, he gets a favorite bone, toy or treat to chew on. When the affectionate displays are over, remove the item from the dog. This will help him to quickly associate the two events and teach him that good things happen to him when others display affection. Moreover, those good things happen at some distance from you. As his views begin to change you’ll need to do less and less of this and soon your dog will be totally comfortable not being in the middle of your hugs.
In addition to everything discussed above, the extreme importance of exercise should not be ignored. The saying, "tired dogs are good dogs," is true indeed. If your dog has a lot of pent up energy that he hasn’t had the opportunity to release, it’s guaranteed that that energy is going to be easily translated and channeled into his anxiety. On the other hand, if he is exhausted, he simply will not have as much energy available to fuel his fear. In other words, exhaustion is more readily translated into sleep. Sleeping dogs don’t worry about the whereabouts of their owners. They dream dog dreams and are thus otherwise occupied. Therefore, working with your dog in all the routines outlined above is going to be much more effective when done in the context of exhaustion.
Finally, there are some dogs who, despite your best efforts, are so deeply anxious that they are virtually impossible to rehabilitate with conventional methods of behavior modification. It seems that no matter how much work you do with them the results are never better than marginal. In those cases it might be advisable to consider anti-anxiety medication (Prozac, Chlomicalm, Xanax, etc.). Such medications can provide a bridge and allow you to gain a foothold in the resolution of the dog’s fear. They can create an opening and receptivity on the part of your dog that simply was not there before. With this opening, the effects of your exercises will be radically improved. However, it is important to note that the anti-anxiety medications, at least in the way that I view them, are not a solution in and of themselves. They are an aid to the routines outlined above. If through the use of such medications you can get your dog to relax enough to consider new habits and associations built by these training exercises, then, after the dog has had sufficient exposure to the exercises you should be able to wean him off the medications. The exercises will have created new learned behaviors and associations that will hopefully stick once the dog is taken off the medications. How long this takes can be hard to say, but I usually advise my clients to prepare for six months of work when attempting to resolve issues involving extreme emotional dependency and separation anxiety. That is not to say that things can't be resolved sooner, it just prepares one psychologically for the possibility that they might not be and will hopefully give them the resolve to keep trying. With respect to medications, since there are new ones coming out all the time and they are available only through prescription, you should speak with your veterinarian about them. If your vet is not that knowledgeable about these substances ask him or her to recommend someone who is.
All that having been said, let’s take a moment to summarize the program in simple terms. Begin by toning down the overly emotional nature of the relationship you have with your dog. Do this using the above described exercises, but be sure to implement them in increments your dog can handle. Just cutting your dog off from affection can actually kick him into a full blown anxiety attack and set your efforts back enormously. Remember the tortoise and the hare: slow but steady wins the race. Try to build new associations for your dog with what it means to be alone by providing positive experiences in your absence. Also, do what you reasonably can to exercise and tire the dog. Additionally, if necessary, investigate the use of anti-anxiety medications to help make inroads with your dog’s anxiety issues. Finally, give yourself as much time as possible to make this work. Don’t start with these exercises two weeks before your baby is due, or worse, after your baby’s arrival. By then it may be too late. Start now!