9 ways to treat a dog with separation anxiety

Treatment for separation anxiety varies from dog to dog

By Laura Pakis, Certified Dog Trainer and Professional Blogger,

Treatment for separation anxiety varies from dog to dog. Here are some things you can do to assist in the modification of this behavior or the prevention of it.

Steps to relieve separation anxiety

1. Crate your dog

Crating your dog during your times of absence has two positive results. First, a dog who is confined to a carrier or crate cannot do damage to your home. Secondly, when properly introduced a crate will act as a safe, comfortable den where the dog can relax. Limiting his movement also acts as an anxiety reducer for most dogs.

A dog who has to be physically manhandled into the crate has not yielded to you the authority to place him there. You’ve merely shoveled him in there with no “buy in” from the dog. By teaching the dog to load himself on command, the dog learns to confer upon you the authority to determine what space his body shall occupy. That is called submitting to the leader and teaching the dog to

Step One

To begin, lure and prompt to get your dog to go in and out. When the dog appears calm about doing that then up the ante and let the dog see you put rewards inside the crate and close the door.  The dog should recognize the treat inside the crate and the dog on the outside.  When the dog is really “fussing” to get in open the door and let the dog in.  Repeat and alternate dog in crate with food in crate (dog and food separated by crate door) until the dog is able to remain in a calm state.

Step Two

Close the door for a second, then letting the dog out.

Step Three

Have your dog lay down in the crate with the door closed. Then treat in the crate.

Step Four

The final stage is for you to go out of sight.

The process is usually one that can be accomplished in a day (about four 20 minute sessions). This technique works very well, especially on the really frantic dogs.

Should your dog start barking, hit the crate with a pan or spoon without saying a word (as if to create thunder). Repeat that at intervals if your dog does not give it up.  DO NOT let your dog get too worked up. If the loud sound does not interrupt and startle your dog into stopping the unwanted behavior, then lift one end of the crate an inch or two and bounce the crate up and down a few times. Again, don’t say anything or tie the correction to you in any way. Just make the behavior un-rewarding.

For the dogs that won’t give it up, cover the crate (prefer the plastic crate for this) so the dog cannot see out.

Some dogs prefer to be in a room next to a window and some do not.  Some dogs feel safer in a plastic walled crate and some prefer a wire crate.  Find out what works best for your dog.

2. Turn on a radio or television

Turn on a radio or television in a room you are often in–the bedroom is usually a good choice–and close the door. Your dog will hear the human voices from your room and may not feel so alone.  Stick to an easy listening station so as not to excite the dog or use the animal planet channel.  Some clients tape record their own voices and play the recording in place of the radio or television program. Dogs know the sound of your voice all too well.  And remember, since your dog is most anxious just after you leave, a one-hour recording will probably suffice.  It will buffer outside noises and make the house seem less empty.  Also leave a light on if it will be getting dark.

3. Prepare a “bye-bye” chew toy

Get a “kong” and fill it with goodies such as dried liver pet treats, beef jerky, peanut butter, cheese or other things your dog really likes. Keep it hidden and take it out when you leave each day. Place it near your dog just before you close the door. When you arrive home put the kong away. The kong only comes out when you leave. We are attempting to distract your dog with something that he will find interesting enough to concentrate on other than you leaving.  Hopefully, your 4.dog will appreciate the kong so much that he will look forward to it coming out in place of getting upset with your leaving.

4. Change your exit pattern

With most dogs, the hardest time for them is immediately after you leave. Their anxious (and sometimes destructive) behavior occurs within the first hour after they are left alone. It will be your job to reshape your dog’s behavior through reinforcement training. Maintain a calm presence around your dog the last 30 minutes before you leave the house so as not to excite your dog and possibly induce stress. Leave your dog out of the crate, put your coat on, and walk to the door and leave. Come back in immediately. Greet your dog calmly. Tell your dog to sit. When your dog sits, reinforce this behavior with praise or a treat the dog enjoys. Wait a few minutes and then repeat the exercise, this time remaining outside a few seconds longer. Continue practicing leaving and returning over the next few weeks.  Always remember when returning to greet your dog calmly and command your dog to sit before offering a treat.

Also, do your pre-departure activities without actually leaving.  For instance, pick up your keys and watch television, put your coat on and wash the dishes, or wear your work clothes while you read a book.  Do anything but leave the house and do this randomly and continue whenever you can.  Do only one exercise at a time and keep it brief.  Your dog should begin to learn that coats or keys mean nothing at all.  The important thing to remember is to not do these exercises within an hour of you actually leaving.

5. When it is time to leave–just leave

Do not say “good bye” to your dog with hugs and kisses. In fact, ignore your dog for five minutes before you go. Paying too much attention will make your dog feel more insecure when the attention is abruptly withdrawn.

6. Learning to spend time alone

You can help your dog learn to be comfortable away from you.  This process will help teach your dog that it is okay to be left alone!  It must be done slowly, paying careful attention to your dog’s behavior.  Your dog must not display anxiety at anytime throughout the progression.  This exercise can be performed during times when you are relaxed and sitting down for a period of time such as watching television or reading a book.  Perform these exercises during commercials or in between chapters of your book.

It is important to NEVER TELL THE DOG TO STAY!  You want your dog to decide to stay on his own.  Once your dog ignores each activity then you may proceed to the next activity.  Each activity may take several days or even weeks.

  • When a commercial comes on simply stand up. If your dog gets up with you sit back down.  Continue standing up and sitting down until your dog ignores your activity or the commercial is over.
  • Stand up and take ONE step away from your dog and chair. Return and sit back down.  Do this until your dog ignores you.
  • Continue this process until you can walk all the way around your chair without your dog getting up.
  • Once your dog ignores your laps around the chair then start moving around the room.
  • Now step out of the room (ONE STEP) and immediately back in. Once your dog accepts your disappearance without response you can begin to increase the length of time you are out of sight.  Do this slowly and gradually.

7. Diet and exercise

Diet, walks, and the home environment also play a role in preventing stress in your dog.  Below are some suggestions for easing your dog’s stress. It is imperative that a dog receives positive, quality attention.

  • Dogs are social creatures and need play time. It is important that you as the owner set the beginning and end time for the game. Your dog should not demand the game be played. Have a specific fetch toy and take it out only when it is time to play. If a dog is good for six fetches then stop at four. Gradually add a repetition on each day until your dog will do two dozen back and forth. Put the toy away when the game is over. This will ensure that the dog stays motivated and does not lose or destroy the toy.
  • Have chew toys for your dog when not playing. Do not play fetch with your dog’s chew toys as that will reinforce your dog demanding play at the wrong times.
  • Controlling when and what to play with will put you in the role of leader as well as prevent dominance issues.
  • Feed your dog twice per day. This will satisfy your dog as well as prevent possible mood swings due to possible low blood sugar.
  • Calmly walk your dog twice a day for 20 minutes. On the walks you can also include some basic obedience training such as sits and downs. This also encourages your dog to keep his focus on you.

A dog that is lacking exercise is more likely to have stress and tension. Tiring a dog out with a long walk, a good run, or play goes a long way in reducing stress.

8.  Obedience training

Obedience helps to structure the dog’s life.  Practice a minimum of 15 minutes a day strictly on obedience and enforce any command you give your dog so the dog’s world remains black and white.  This way the dog will know his boundaries.

Practice long down-stays and sit-stays so your dog learns to control himself while you leave the room.

Whether the dog has minor or severe separation anxiety, one of the most effective tools in your toolbox is the PLACE command.  This command teaches dogs self control which an anxious dog needs to learn.  Contact a professional dog trainer for more information on this command.

And finally…

9. Be a strong leader 

When a dog has a strong leader, it has a calming effect on dogs.  The dog feels safe and taken care of.  In the absence of a strong leader, the dog feels obligated to assume that position in the social hierarchy of the family pack.  Since a leader must control all that goes on, the dog’s inability to control your leaving causes the dog stress and anxiety.  Obedience training is the best, organized method of establishing yourself as a strong leader.

 

It is important to remember that the dog is not bad or trying to make life miserable-although it sometimes may feel that way!  The dog is the victim of a disorder that can be treated. Prognosis for recovery is excellent if you are willing to spend time working with the dog.

Don’t give up.  Patience and consistency will either correct or improve the situation.

 

REFERENCES

Griggs, Janet. “Desensitizing a dog to being left alone.” Agility 4 Fun. 2007 <http://www.agility4fun.com/pdf/separationanxiety.pdf>

Holland, C.C. “How to treat separation anxiety.” Dog Watch. September 2005

“Separation anxiety.”  Dumb Friends League.  1999 <http://www.ddfl.org/tips_dogs.htm>

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