As a Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in behavior issues and has treated many cases of canine separation anxiety, I have seen first-hand how challenging the problem can be. Separation issues not only have behavioral consequences for the dog, but there is an emotional component for both dog and owner, which can make matters even more difficult.
Some dogs are hyper-attached to a particular person, while others simply do not like to be left alone. Anxiety levels range from mild to extreme, and may display as pacing, drooling, barking or other vocalizations, inappropriate elimination, and destruction, to name a few. In extreme cases, dogs may injure themselves trying to escape to follow their owners. It can be frustrating to come home to destruction and potty accidents day after day, and truly terrible to watch your dog suffer. So what can you do?
1. First, set up a video camera to record your dog’s actions when you are away. Reviewing the footage will help to you determine whether your dog seems anxious or upset, or is destroying things out of boredom. If it’s the latter, providing more exercise and mental stimulation should help.
2. Consider creative management solutions. If your dog remains calm as long as another dog is present, you could bring him to a doggy daycare center, or arrange for play dates with another dog. If that’s not possible, hire a petsitter, or bring your dog along when you do short errands.
3. Desensitize your dog to departure cues-those things that clue him in that you’re leaving. Pick up your keys and put them down immediately; put on your jacket and remove it. Do these things multiple times each day until your dog does not react.
4. To prepare for a departure, choose an area your dog will feel safe, such as his crate or a gated off room; this varies by dog, as some anxious dogs may panic in a crate.
5. Be sure your dog is well exercised before you leave him.
6. Provide a stuffed Kong or other tantalizing chew item that will last for some time.
7. You can also place an item that smells like you (such as a t-shirt or sweatshirt you’ve been wearing, or a towel you’ve rubbed on your body) in his safe are to provide comfort.
8. You may have to practice being physically separated but in sight first, then out of your dog’s sight but still in your home before you ever actually leave the house. Once your dog is ready for actual departures, leave for very short periods at first, starting with mere seconds. Gradually build to longer absences. Don’t push too far too fast, always making sure your dog remains calm.
9. Complementary measures that can help include body wraps, psycho-acoustically designed music, DAP, flower essences, and more.
10. In severe cases, pharmacological intervention may be indicated. Consult your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist.
11. A trained professional can offer guidance and support. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers is a good place to start.
12. There are some good books on the subject. Don’t Leave Me: Step-by-Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety is an in-depth workbook with step-by-step protocols, tips and techniques that allow you to customize a rehabilitation program for your dog. The Cautious Canine is a shorter booklet but is packed with useful information.
Remember that progress will be made gradually. In mild cases improvement may take only a few weeks. In moderate cases, it might take months. In extreme cases, complete recovery could take up to a year or more. The important thing is to stick with the program, seek help when necessary, and do not give up hope. Your dog is worth it!