Curing Your Dog's Separation Anxiety

I get many online and telephone inquiries regarding how to treat separation anxiety in the domestic dog. This behavior is, in my opinion, a normal development in any dog over the age of five months ...

Print Email

I get many online and telephone inquiries regarding how to treat separation anxiety in the domestic dog. This behavior is, in my opinion, a normal development in any dog over the age of five months who has been separated from its primary caregiver. Occasionally, even a younger pup can suffer from this distress, due to premature removal from its dam and litter mates under stressful circumstances. I consider any domestic dog over the age of five months (who is being rehomed) to be a candidate for separation issues. I do not consider separation anxiety to be a "disorder". In fact, I consider it to be the normal reaction of an emotionally available dog (meaning, a dog that has been socialized to accept humans as its conspecifics).

How does an owner deal with separation issues in his or her dog? The first step is knowing that it will not go on forever. As the dog becomes more and more "at home" (and this very much depends on your reaction to the dog's separation problems and is also highly influenced by the dog's age), the separation issues will solve themselves. But, what if you can't wait that long?

Separation anxiety can be helped into extinction! Three important points to remember are:
1. The dog has been through emotional turmoil and the last thing that will help him/her is for you to give up! Remember, this is a lifetime commitment. Would you give up a colicky infant?
2. Your negative reactions to the results of your dog's separation problems may be prolonging those problems, certainly NOT contributing to their demise!
3. Even your positive reactions can inadvertently be causing the dog to suffer greater separation issues!

A great many veterinarians are (thanks to the manufacturer of the drug) prescribing Clomicalm (generic: clomipramine) to dogs suffering from separation issues. I do not agree that drugs are necessary in the treatment of this problem, as it is a normal result of emotional trauma, not to be considered aberrant behavior in any way. In fact, behavior modification can (and DOES) positively influence separation issues in ways that drugs cannot. In other words, forego the Clomicalm or any other drug. Instead, use simple methods of behavior modification to teach your dog how to emotionally depend upon itself, not you. And, have patience!

Step One: Purchase a perfectly hideous object, one you would not want seen in your home, eg: a rubber rat.

Step Two: Set aside 30 to 60 minutes PER DAY for you and your entire family to totally IGNORE your dog.

Step Three: Place your rubber rat (or whatever) in a prominent location and face your dog. Say the dog's name and call, "Time out", with a hand signal (the typical time out signal).

Step four: Ignore your dog totally for 30 to 60 minutes. In other words, this is a NON-dog. Call him or her "Rover" (rather than by the proper name) to one another; do not allow Rover to lean on you, make eye contact, or in ANY WAY get your attention. Do NOT laugh at Rover's attention getting antics.

Step Five: At the end of your chosen time period, remove the rat (separation object) and call your dog by his/her proper name. Everyone should give attention to the dog for approximately 30 seconds (no more is needed). Put the rat in a place where the dog cannot see it.

A two-week daily repetition is absolutely essential for this separation object to work its magic. By the end of the second week, your dog should have made an association between the separation object and your emotional unavailability. S/he should now simply go off or lie down during your daily routine of ignoring him/her.

You have accomplished two things: 1-a separation object you can now use, readily identifiable to your dog, that signals your unavailability. You can place the object in full view of the dog (out of his/her reach) before leaving your premises. 2-a much higher psychological "rank" in your dog's eyes. "Pack leaders" are often emotionally unavailable. This does NOT mean that other pack members then go berserk from separation! It translates into, "Everything is okay, I can relax."

During this two-week period of rehabilitation, make your dog earn everything. In other words, going in and out of your home, getting any sort of attention, being fed meals or treats, etc. By doing this, you are essentially "promoting" yourselves (all family members) to a higher "rank" in your dog's mind and, at the same time, comforting your dog psychologically by giving him/her the firm message that YOU are in control. This method of behavior modification, known as "Nothing In Life Is Free (NILIF)" was first described by Vallerie O'Farrel, a veterinary experimentalist in Britain, and it is a marvelous tool in the treatment of many behavior problems in the domestic dog.

Things NOT to do: Do NOT yell at, or punish, your dog for anything s/he has done during your absence. Walk in with a SMILE, even if your new leather couch is in shreds (and shame on you for allowing it).

Do NOT attempt to comfort your dog before you leave the house! This will only charge the dog emotionally and make the likelihood of separation problems even greater. Ignore your dog, after placing the separation object in clear view, fifteen minutes before leaving home and do NOT say "goodbye"!

Do NOT greet your dog within the first 30 seconds of returning home. Do NOT allow more than 30 seconds to pass before you calmly (CALMLY) acknowledge him/her and offer a smile, a "sit" command, a reward. Do NOT overdue your return. Be casual.

Things to DO instead: Nonchalantly (without eye contact or using a name) toss a paper bag filled with several safe objects (a cored apple, a cow's hoof, cookies, et al) into the room with your dog before leaving. This will, eventually (after several repetitions) lead the dog to expect a reward as you leave. After two weeks or so, you can dispense with the bag and merely offer a food treat.

DO leave lights on and a radio playing, depending upon how serious your dog's separation anxiety is. If the dog is really suffering severely, you can place your telephone answering machine (with the volume turned up) in the same room with the dog and periodically phone home to offer encouraging messages!

DO remember that your dog is alive, emotional and reacting to his/her past experiences. Be patient. This, too, shall pass!