If you Google “how to stop separation anxiety in your dog”, not only will you get a ton of results, but a good many of them will be incorrect. There are a lot of websites out there with poor information about treating separation anxiety. And unfortunately an owner who is desperately looking for answers may think that those dog separation anxiety myths are valid, or at the very least worth a try.
The best-case scenario in addressing dog separation anxiety with the incorrect training may just be that the dog continues to be anxious during the owner’s absence. The problem is that separation anxiety can easily be made worse with the wrong treatment.
Adding to the confusion is the problem that many of these articles on the Internet are written by professionals. The average dog owner doesn’t realize that someone who may be a fantastic dog trainer, isn’t qualified to work with other types of behavioral issues such as separation anxiety. So the articles that are written with misinformation maybe well intentioned, but the person writing it may never have actually worked with clients whose dog suffers from separation anxiety.
I want to talk about some of the myths that I’ve come across as I’ve surfed the web, and explain why they may not necessarily be a good idea if you are trying to resolve separation anxiety in your dog.
Dog Separation Anxiety Myths
Leave food or a puzzle / chew toy out before you leave the house There are a couple of problems with this advice. First of all many dogs who are extremely stressed when their owners leave them home alone are too anxious to eat or chew. If a dog does eat, despite normally being anxious when the owner leaves, giving these types of items are nothing more than a delay in the dog’s onset of panicking. Eating and chewing may dampen the feelings of anxiety while it lasts, but when those items are gone the dog will display their typical anxiety. Even worse, the presentation of food, or food placed in a frozen kong for separation anxiety can serve to help the dog predict that the owner is about to leave, and they can start to become anxious as soon as those items are given to them, even though the owner has not yet left.
Crate your dog whenever you leave This one most likely came about because dogs with separation anxiety are often destructive when left alone; destruction is an outlet for a dog with feelings of severe panic. I can certainly understand wanting to prevent your house and belongings from being damaged, and crating the dog may prevent that. But will a crate help separation anxiety? The problem is that crating does nothing to prevent your dog from experiencing the anxiety of being alone, so it won’t cure your dog of separation anxiety. As a matter of fact confining a dog suffering from separation anxiety can make the dog’s panic even worse because it adds another component of stress to the situation. Even worse is that dogs with a separation anxiety symptom of destruction will often do whatever they can to get free of the crate. There are many cases of dogs that have broken teeth, bloodied paws, bent wire crate panels, and seriously injured themselves trying to get loose. A crate for dog separation anxiety treatment is usually a poor option.
Exercise Exercise is a great way to relieve stress, but by itself will not resolve true separation anxiety, which is a panic disorder. However, if a dog is destructive or barks too much because their activity needs aren’t being met, exercise can relieve those behaviors simply because the dog is now getting a regular workout. Exercise is a great addition to separation anxiety training, as a dog who is feeling energetic will have a harder time being calm. Some dogs do better with separation anxiety training when the exercises are done after a long walk or run.
Getting a second dog At face value, this would seem to make sense. The dog is afraid of being alone, so companionship of another dog should logically take care of the problem. While sometimes getting another dog to help with separation anxiety does work, unfortunately in the vast majority of cases it doesn’t. As a matter of fact there are many cases of separation anxiety in multi-dog and pet households. If this was a surefire cure we wouldn’t see separation anxiety cases in homes with more than one dog. It could be a likely cure in cases where the dog developed separation anxiety after another dog in the home has passed away. But there is no guarantee, and I’d advise anyone thinking of trying it to “borrow” a dog that gets along with yours for a few days to see if it helps.
It’s a phase - does dog separation anxiety go away? Dogs suffering from true separation anxiety have an anxiety disorder. Mental health professionals for people generally agree that anxiety disorders don’t go away without some kind of treatment intervention. As a matter of fact, the longer the wait between the onset of separation anxiety symptoms, and the implementation of treatment, the longer it will take for treatment to resolve the problem.
Ignore your dog before you leave and upon return The theory is that if you don’t attention around the time before you go away, you’ll reduce stress. The problem with this is that separation anxiety is a phobia and is triggered by the terror of being alone. Ignoring a dog with separation anxiety won’t resolve the problem, and could make it worse as the dog will start to associate your emotional withdrawal as a signal that soon you’ll be leaving. We do recommend low-key attention at the time of departure and return during separation anxiety treatment.
Velcro dogs It’s often stated that an overly clingy dog is a sign of separation anxiety. This isn’t true, nor is it true that dogs that like their own space are less likely to suffer from separation anxiety. There’s actually a study on this very subject that found no difference between behaviors towards the owner from dogs with and without separation anxiety!
Leave your dog for short periods of time, like 1, or 2 or 5 minutes to begin with, and then add a minute every time you leave. This particular myth has some basis in fact and it’s in the right ballpark as to how separation anxiety is treated. The problem with this advice is that it fails to explain that we need to keep dogs under the threshold of displaying anxiety based behaviors. The starting point will be different depending on the dog, and some dogs need to be started with the owner just approaching the door but not even opening it, much less going out through it. Very few dogs with true separation anxiety will be under threshold starting at 5 minutes. And adding a minute after every step is going to be way too big of a jump in the early stages as we build a foundation of being comfortable with being alone.
Separation anxiety can be really difficult to treat, especially when you don’t know where to look for valid information. If you’re struggling to cure you’re dog’s separation anxiety, your best course of action is to find a professional who specializes in treating it. I would be more than happy to help you with a treatment program to address your dog’s separation issues.