Most dogs experience separation anxiety to some degree. They are social animals that love their masters and enjoy their company. A dog that is somewhat sad to see his master leave for work is not unusual or abnormal. However, a dog that becomes stressed, destructive and is in obvious, serious distress is a problem for professional intervention.
As a professional dog trainer, I have found several techniques to overcome this problem. However, contrary to popular belief, no dog trainer can wave a magic wand to solve a serious case of extreme dog separation anxiety. What a good dog trainer can do, is to employ a range of strategies that will generally overcome the problem with the full co-operation and PATIENCE of the dog owner.
Some methods for treating problem behavior include: punishment crate-training, and obedience training. These methods are directed at the problem behavior, however they fail to address the source of the problem. I equate this approach with treat training. It is a band-aid solution that does not address the root problem. More importantly, it is like placing your finger in a leaking dam. You may stop the leak in one area only to have the dam collapse in another area. A more rational approach is to repair the dam so that it is structurally sound.
The most accepted method for treating separation anxiety involves planned departures. This method involves gradually adjusting the dog to being alone by exposure to many short departures. Because the stress response occurs very shortly after the owner’s departure (within 30 minutes), the dog should only be left alone for very short intervals at first (seconds to minutes) to insure the owner returns before the onset of anxiety. Before the departure period can be increased, the owner must be certain that the dog is not stressed. The owner must closely watch the dog for signs of anxiety and insure that the dog does not engage in an extended greeting. After the short departures have reached the 30 minute mark, the length of time the dog is left can be increased by larger increments. Once the dog can be left alone for two hours, it can usually be left all day. Departure and return should be made as quiet and uneventful as possible to avoid over stimulating the dog. The dog should not be given attention prior to departures nor given attention and praise upon returns. Excessive attention prior to departure and upon return seem to increase the anxiety during separation and it does NOT make it easier on the dog as most people suspect. Safety cues may also be used to associate with the short departures . The T.V. or radio can be left on or an acceptable chew toy may be provided for the dog. However, it is very important that the safety cue is not an item that the dog already associates with anxiety. These cues help the dog relate to a previous safe period of isolation.
Ant anxiety medications are sometimes used to suppress anxiety. These are often used on dogs with severe separation anxiety or when owners simply must leave the dog alone for an extended period while treatment is on-going. I do not recommend this approach although it is an option you may want to discuss with a qualified Vet.
In severe cases the owner may also have to take steps to weaken the dog’s dependency upon a person. This requires the owner to ignore the dog for a period of time, sometimes up to three weeks. This will not break the bond between owner and dog but it will decrease the dog’s extreme dependency and allow it to tolerate its owner¹s absence without anxiety. Ignoring your favorite pet may be difficult but it is important to keep in mind that a much more healthy and happy relationship will result. In fact, it is my belief that separation anxiety and a wide range of neurotic dog behaviors are the result of an unhealthy relationship between the owner and their dog. It is extremely difficult to admit, but we often use our dogs to blunt our own personal difficulties and anxieties with life.
As a professional dog trainer, I have had a great deal of success with curing separation anxiety. But is has only been accomplished with modification of the owner’s behavior.