Ask A Trainer: Separation Anxiety

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Today's question comes from Brian T.

"What options are there for someone with a dog suffering from severe separation anxiety?  A relative bought a small dog from a respected breeder in the area.  The dog is highly destructive when they leave the house, even for less than an hour.  They have tried crating the dog, but she just pees/poos in the crate.  They have tried mild sedatives (per vet's recommendation), but those do not have any effect.  They have tried professional training, but no luck.

Both the vet and the trainer have stated the dog has anxiety so bad that there is little chance she'll grow out of it.  The breeder has agreed to take the dog back, but they really don't want to give up that easily on the dog as they are attached to her.  At the same time, they're afraid the dog will continue to be destructive.  They have considered other medication.  They've even considered getting a second dog as a playmate.  Thoughts?"

Separation Anxiety (SA).  It's actually one of the more frequent terms I hear families using to describe their dog.  Before we talk about SA, we need to understand what it isn't.

Dogs are social creatures.  It is generally against their nature to be alone.  Some fussing on their part is to be expected--especially if they haven't been systematically taught to enjoy solitude.  It's highly unlikely that a puppy who cries in his crate has SA.  Wanting to be with you doesn't necessarily mean your dog has SA.  It could just be him being a dog.

So how do you know if it's SA or just normal stuff that needs a little training?  Common indicators of true SA include:

  • Dog is uninterested in food
  • Dog chews or is otherwise destructive around doors/windows (entry and exit points)
  • Dog seems willing to inflict pain on himself in his panic
  • Dog urinates/defecates in your absence
  • Dog salivates or stress pants excessively
  • Dog remains anxious the entire time he's alone

These are potential indicators of SA, but just because your dog does one of these things does not mean he has SA.  Toileting accidents when the family is gone can have just as much to do with poor housetraining, than with SA.  Additionally, training Pat Miller makes a distinction between SA and Isolation distress.  Read more about that here.

So, what to do if your dog has a true case of SA (or even just mild separation/isolation distress)?  Is there hope?  Absolutely.  The best course of action is to start working with a positive-reinforcement, rewards based trainer who specializes in SA.  Marlena DeMartini-Price is the internationally known expert on SA.  Here's what she has to say about treatment on her website:
"It seems logical to put off training with the hope that a dog will eventually get over the fear of being left alone.  After all, you always come back, right?  Unfortunately, it doesn't work this way.  In fact, it's just the opposite: Most dogs with SA get worse over time, not better.

An SA dog's body is flooded with stress-inducing chemicals each time he's left alone.  The experience of daily panic and fear begins to make him hyper vigilant, constantly watching his owner for signs she may be leaving.  You may have noticed over time that your dog has become very aware of what shoes you put on (watching eather you're lacing up for a walk or slipping on your work heels), where you keep your care keys, even what day of the week it is (Sunday mornings are "safe," while Monday mornings are reason to fret)... This constant state of mild distress punctuated by the panic brought on by actual absences contributes to a devastating cycle of stress chemical production that makes it impossible for a dog to learn to feel safe while alone without training intervention.

The good news is that through training and, in some severe cases, the additional aid of medication, dogs can learn to be much more comfortable when left on their own."

In addition to taking on her own cases, Marlena also certifies other trainers in her techniques.  If training was tried in the past and didn't work, that doesn't mean the dog cannot be fixed.  I encourage you to check out Marlena's website.

As far as getting an additional dog as a companion, there's no guarantee it'll help.  Multiple dogs is a big commitment and a lot more work, so I always advise people to get another dog because they want one, not because someone else wants one, or because the current dog needs a playmate.