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Training Articles

Separation Anxiety a common struggle for rescue dogs

by Maureen Haggerty, CPDT, Owner - The Canine Coach, LLC

Separation Anxiety is a common behavior problem but it has very serious ramifications for both the dog and caretaker. It also appears to be more prevalent among shelter, rescued, or otherwise re-homed dogs.

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is an emotional panic triggered by being left alone. How this panic is displayed varies by dog. Common behavior symptoms of separation anxiety include:

  • Pacing, panting, trembling
  • Behaviors which hinder the leaving process (e.g. hiding, guarding the door, keeping the person from putting them away)
  • Incessant whining, howling or barking
  • Destructive chewing and digging, usually around doors and windows
  • Excessive drooling
  • Defecation/urination from an otherwise housetrained dog

Some dogs begin to show signs of anxiety during the leaving ritual, such as gathering your things or putting work shoes on. All dogs with separation anxiety will show signs immediately upon being left. Often the panic continues until someone returns.

Separation anxiety is often wrongly suspected when there is destruction or barking simply because these behaviors only happen when the dog is alone. Barking and destruction often occur out of boredom. One determining factor is whether the behavior begins immediately after leaving (separation anxiety) or much later during your absence; a video camera will help resolve the mystery.

What causes separation anxiety?

Some dogs seem to have a predisposition to develop separation anxiety due to their temperament. These are the very “clingy”/attention seeking dogs. If their people feed this tendency by giving attention whenever it’s sought, and don’t work with the dog to develop independence and frustration tolerance, separation anxiety can develop. For others it can be triggered by a one-time or re-occurring traumatic event while left alone. One example was where the dog was left in the laundry room, and the washer overflowed and flooded to room. Another example could be the dogs first thunderstorm experience happened when left alone.

In the case of surrendered or abandoned dogs, it could be the stress they experienced from being abandoned. For others, it is simply that they have never been alone. They came from a home with other dogs or a stay-at-home mom and a house bustling with activity.

Separation anxiety is also common among rescue and shelter dogs because it is a common reason for surrendering a dog due to barking complaints from the neighbors, the damage it can cause, and the expense of time and money in the training.

What can we do to help prevent separation anxiety?

As foster families and new adoptive families we have to help our dogs from developing separation anxiety. One way is to not fall into the trap of feeling sorry for our “rescued” dogs and the desire to give them an abundance of attention and everything they want. Don’t do this to your dog.

This does two things. For one, you are painting a dramatic contrast between the hours you are home versus the hours you are not, increasing the dog’s desire for your return. Secondly, if your dog always gets what he wants when he asks, he does not build any frustration tolerance. A high frustration tolerance is necessary to handle being alone all day. Your dog has to deal with not being able to get outside the moment he wants to; seeing his toy with no one to throw it; smelling the treats with no one to get one. If he is used to being able to bark or paw and get what he wants immediately from you, it is very frustrating to be alone when he can’t get these things.

Build your dog’s independence (and frustration tolerance) by practicing exercises where your dog must stay a distance away from you while you are home, maybe even out of sight for periods. Practice leadership exercises where you insist your dog wait and be patient to get what he wants.

And keep your departures and arrivals very low key. Keep it to simple “goodbye” and “hello”, again, not to paint a dramatic contrast to when you are home versus gone.

Make the “special stuff” happen when you leave, not when you return. Your leaving should signal the time your dog gets a special long lasting treat, he only gets when you leave. Try leaving your dog with a stuffed Kong toy, or teaching your dog to find hidden treats.

What if your dog already has separation anxiety?  

If the dog you are fostering already has symptoms of separation anxiety, the above exercises under prevention will be a part of the treatment, but will probably not be sufficient.

In addition to the above, you will need to work with a trainer to develop a desensitization and counterconditioning program. With counterconditioning we slowly associate being alone with feelings of well-being. The training program may also require working with a veterinarian to get the dog on anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication to help take the emotional edge off to speed up the progress of the training. Unfortunately, medication alone is never sufficient to relieve separation anxiety.

These training programs are intensive and tedious. Further, you need to have a place to bring the dog every time you need to leave until his tolerance is built to a sufficiently long period to leave him at home. It takes a great deal commitment in time, energy and money to rehabilitate a dog with separation anxiety. A dog is not adoptable with separation anxiety. Let’s do everything we can to prevent it from developing in the dogs we are caring for so they dogs can quickly get into their forever homes.