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Avoiding and Coping with Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety affects many dogs, and many people give it as a reason when they give up their canines at shelters.

Following are tips from positive-method trainer Cinimon Clark in California, who uses the "Good Girl" approach to training.

Many dogs suffering from separation anxiety symptoms need to have their confidence bolstered. They usually exhibit behaviors such as following the owner around the house and acting very needy or anxious when you try to get away for a few minutes.

Some steps you can take:

* Instill confidence and independence. "Don't let the dog follow you around the house," advises Cin. "He needs to learn to survive by himself." You can use down-stays a lot; for instance, when you're washing dishes and the dog hovers next to you, instruct him to "down" on his blanket and "stay" there the entire time. "Then release him and have some play time together."

* Feed the dog her meals in her crate. Give her yummy toys only when in her crate (at least during the retraining period). Convey the idea that "all good things happen in the crate." Cin says you can leave the crate door open for the first few weeks while she's eating if that helps her acclimate to the new routine.

* Don't let an anxious dog drape himself on you when you're watching TV, on the computer, etc. "Remember, it's all about confidence," says Cin.

* Ignore the dog at least 10 to 15 minutes before leaving and after returning home. Avoid emotional greetings and departures. You want to teach her that your leaving is not a major event.

* Practice using the crate when you're home. Give the dog a toy that contains something edible, such as a Kong stuffed with kibble and/or peanut butter, while you're reading or watching TV. Let the dog out when she's calm and quiet. Resist the urge to let a dog out of a crate when she's barking or displaying other anxiety symptoms, because that rewards the behavior you're trying to reverse.

* Instead of the dog initiating contact with you, make a change: you initiate the contact, be it playing, petting, etc. "If he comes up to you for a pet, ignore him for about 3 minutes, or until he stops asking you, then ask him to come over and sit," suggests Cin. "Now you can pet him. I use a command for stopping the petting -- 'enough.' If he still tries to get your attention, walk away."

* Don't let the dog sleep on the bed with you. He can be in the same room, just on his own bed area or crate, which will keep him from sneaking back into your bed. You can also tie a long leash to a dresser. The idea is to foster independence.

* Sign the dog up for obedience class, ideally, one that focuses on positive (non-aversive) training methods. Cin suggests that you try to find somebody else to help work with your dog in the class -- or even have a trusted friend take the dog sometimes -- so the dog learns that "other people have cookies, too...I don't want the dog to associate good things only with you." Help the dog learn you are not the end-all-be-all of his or her existence.

* Read about separation anxiety. Cin recommends Dr. Nicholas Dodman's book, "The Dog Who Loved Too Much."

* Drug therapy. In some severe cases of separation anxiety, veterinarians prescribe a drug to use in conjunction with behavior modification. Behavior modification, including counter-conditioning, must be part of the program...there is no magic bullet to alleviate anxiety symptoms. Clomicalm has been frequently prescribed, but Cin and other specialists report better results with Elavil (amitriptyline -- an antiobsessional & antidepressant like Prozac). Cin also knows of dog owners having success using Melatonin.

Separation Anxiety - More Info & Tips

Often, it's tempting to give an anxious, insecure dog too much attention, -but this can aggravate behavior problems. Insecure dogs need to be retrained to be independent, writes Dr. Nicholas Dodman in "The Dog Who Loved Too Much."

Insecure dogs tend to follow their people around the house, look anxious as the people prepare to leave, and become distraught when they are alone. They bark after their people leave, sometimes destroy things, and may even urinate or defecate out of anxiety.


* When first taking the dog home, don't spend all day with him. Train the dog to accept staying in a particular space, a crate or confined in a kitchen or family room.

* Practice leaving the room for very brief periods, praising and giving the dog treats when he remains calm. Gradually increase the duration, and then practice leaving the house.

* Continue praising/treating for being calm. If you teach the dog that his people coming and going is part of life, when Monday comes, the dog is less likely to feel abandoned.

* During leaving/return practice sessions, increase the length of absence randomly so the dog can't guess when you will return. The goal is to accustom the dog to being alone without becoming anxious.

* Feed the dog and exercise the dog before leaving for work. A tired dog is more likely to remain calm.

* Ignore the dog for 20 minutes before leaving and for 10 minutes on returning. Don't engage in big good-byes or hellos. Be nonchalant.

* Just before leaving, give him a good long-lasting safe chew toy, such as a Kong toy filled with peanut butter. He'll spend hours trying to lick it out.

* A playing radio is likely to work only if the dog has learned to consistently associate it with being alone in a non-anxious state.

Owners compound separation anxiety by empathizing too much, says Dr. Dodman. Firm but supportive leadership and providing clear direction can help reconcile this behavioral problem.

Separation anxiety treatment typically requires desensitization and counter-conditioning programs. Some are explained well in books, but are best guided by a trainer.

The PAW Dog Adoption Guide includes tips for avoiding separation anxiety to practice starting day one. For foster dogs prone to separation anxiety, be sure the adopter is willing to both work with the dog and consult a trainer.

Last Updated: April 26, 2018 (LET) PawSupport