Tips for Treating Severe Separation Anxiety in Dogs 

A dog is never happier than when his favorite person is by his side. While it’s completely normal for a dog to become a little upset when you leave him, it’s something else entirely for him to experience severe anxiety because of it. If you come home to find your dog’s voice hoarse from barking or the entire house destroyed, it’s time to take action. 

Separation anxiety happens when a dog becomes overly attached to his owner, so much so that he becomes stressed and anxious when he’s left alone. Even dogs that are properly trained and socialized can develop separation anxiety after a change of residence, the loss of a family member, or an upheaval to his regular routine. 

As many as 40% of dogs experience separation anxiety and many cases are mild. Giving your dog a treat or toy to distract him while you slip out the door often does the trick, but some dogs have such severe anxiety that a more comprehensive approach is needed. 

Desensitization and Counterconditioning

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of desensitize is, “to make a hypersensitive individual insensitive or nonreactive to a sensitizing agent.” This term is often used in the context of desensitization therapy, a treatment used to help people with severe phobias overcome their fears. The idea is based on the principle of classical conditioning. 

Though you may not know the term classical conditioning, you’re familiar with the principle. It basically comes down to learning through association and it was originally studied by a Russian scientist named Ivan Pavlov. Originally studying the degree to which a dog salivated in response to being fed, Pavlov observed that the dogs would not only salivate when the food was placed in front of them, but also when they heard the footsteps of the assistant bringing the food. Pavlov eventually hypothesized that any object or event the dogs learned to associate with food would induce the same response. 

As you probably know, Pavlov tested his hypothesis using a bell. When the dogs were fed immediately after the ringing of a bell, they eventually formed an association between the two events and began salivating after the bell was rung, with or without food. 

 Dogs with severe separation anxiety have formed a negative association with being left alone. In many cases, familiar actions preceding their owner’s departure (like grabbing the keys or putting on a coat) trigger anxiety which intensifies after their owner actually leaves. This is what contributes to extreme and destructive separation anxiety behaviors. Using the theory behind classical conditioning, you can counter condition a dog with severe separation anxiety, gradually desensitizing them to the stimulus responsible for triggering the anxiety. 

In other words, you can work with your dog to change his response to your leaving from fearful to neutral, even positive. It will take time and patience, but it can be done in most cases.

Tips for Counterconditioning a Fearful Dog 

Depending how severe your dog’s separation anxiety is, it could take weeks or even months to completely change his response. In very severe cases, it’s recommended that you at least consult with an animal behavior specialist for help. The first step, of course, is to talk to your veterinarian and rule out potential medical causes for your dog’s destructive or harmful behavior.

Once you’ve established that separation anxiety is in fact the issue, you can start working with your dog to reduce his negative response. Here are some tips to get started:

  1. Identify the triggers. The idea behind desensitization is to change your dog’s automatic reaction from negative to positive. In order to do so, you need to spend some time identifying the things that trigger your dog’s anxious response. Being left alone may be the core problem, but if you pay attention, you’ll notice that your dog starts to become anxious when he anticipates your leaving. Grabbing your keys, putting on your coat, even walking into a certain room might be actions your dog associates with you leaving. 
  2. Start off slowly. To start your dog’s counterconditioning, you’ll need to address each of these triggers and work your way up to actually leaving the house, then gradually increasing the duration of your absence. Start with the triggers least likely to trigger a negative response, like picking up your keys, but don’t follow through with other associated behaviors or with leaving. If your dog becomes extremely anxious, you may first need to find ways to make the triggers less intense such as walking over to your keys without picking them up. 
  3. Introduce positive consequences. As you start to desensitize your dog to these triggers, you’ll want to start introducing positive consequences to help replace the negative ones. For example, try picking up your keys then go sit down on the couch and invite your dog over for a belly rub. You can use food rewards as well but choose something highly desired (like hot dogs) and keep the pieces small. It helps if you use a different motivator than you do during regular training.
  4. Gradually increase the intensity. You’ll need to repeat each level of desensitization numerous times before moving on to the next. Keep an eye on your dog’s response and wait until he starts to clearly anticipate the positive reinforcement before you progress to the next level. You want to make sure that your dog is expecting something good to happen, such as looking to you for a treat, instead of exhibiting his previous fear response. 
  5. Monitor your dog’s progress. The process of counterconditioning takes time and it needs to be done very gradually. Map out your plan ahead of time so you know what steps you need to take and focus on small, incremental changes. Don’t move forward until you’re absolutely sure your dog is ready, or you might have to backtrack and start the previous step again. 

Taking It a Step Further

Once you’ve successfully counter conditioned your dog to respond positively to the things that trigger his anxiety, the next step is to actually get him used to you leaving the house. If you’ve done your job well, you should be able to employ the same principles.

Here are some tips for desensitizing your dog to your absence:

  • Start by getting your dog used to short absences in the house. Walk into another room and shut the door for a few seconds or instruct your dog to “stay” while you go to another part of the house then return.
  • Work your way up to following the same procedure using an exit door. You may even want to throw in some of your predeparture cues like grabbing your keys, just to reinforce your dog’s counter conditioning, from time to time.
  • Start incorporating short absences in your training – start with just a second or two and work your way up to 10 seconds. 
  • Once your dog has gotten used to separations lasting 10 seconds, start incorporating the counterconditioning methods you used earlier – give your dog a treat or toy just before you go out the door. 
  • Employ this tactic a few times a day, making sure to wait a few minutes between absences so your dog becomes completely relaxed. Always remain calm and quiet when coming and leaving during these exercises.  
  • Slowly increase the duration of your absences as your dog’s tolerance increases. You may only be able to increase by a few seconds or a minute each time, depending on the severity of your dog’s separation anxiety. 
  • Once your dog is able to tolerate a 40-minute separation with no anxiety, you should be able to increase by larger increments of 5 minutes up to 15 minutes at a time. After your dog ca handle 90 minutes, he should be fine for several hours at a time.

Helping your dog overcome separation anxiety will take time, so be patient! As you work through it, there are simple things you can do to ease your dog’s nerves and help him feel more comfortable. 

Try switching to a Calming Pet Bed to naturally calm your dog’s nervous system to reduce anxiety – you might even try lining the bottom with one of your shirts, so it smells like you. If your dog is really struggling, talk to your vet about anxiety medication to help him through the transition.  

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