Separation anxiety makes up 20-40% of cases dog behaviorists are brought in to remedy every year in North America. The symptoms include, but are not limited to: ripping the house to shreds (I remember coming home to my couch in absolute pieces on one occasion - Indy had completely taken it apart), incessant, inconsolable barking, house soiling accidents, and self-harming behaviors. A dog with this disorder will "ask" for constant reassurance from their owners, or any humans in the vicinity, by doing things like leaning heavily on a person, climbing onto laps, and perpetual whining or barking for attention.
In Indy's particular case, the only symptom we didn't experience was house soiling. Indy has been known to bend back the bars of his crate, tear through the garbage, pull off the refrigerator door and clean out the contents (oh yes, I said it. Right off it's hinges, folks), howl, bark, whine, and scratch himself raw.
So how does separation anxiety become habituated in our dogs? In many cases, owners simply don't realize that dogs need to learn to cope with being alone. It doesn't come naturally to them. What's more, without proper obedience training to create some level of impulse control, the dog is unable to self-calm, alone or otherwise. When we suddenly have to leave our canine companions due to a job change, a move, or travel, the symptoms of separation anxiety can crop up very, very quickly.
In Indy's case, as a puppy and adolescent, we learned that he had been tied up outside and left for long periods of time without food or water. When Indy panicked due to prolonged isolation and neglect and began to act out with extreme, unwanted behaviors, his forced exile from the family only became worse. Australian Shepherds are high energy and extremely social by their very nature - tying down a working, herding breed alone for extended periods could only result in massive psychological and behavioral problems. And so it was for Indy.
So how did we help our beautiful, red-headed herder to cope?
To begin, it is important to understand that punishment, in the case of a dog with separation anxiety, is completely out of the question. It will only increase their anxiety to before unseen levels. Even harder to understand is that coddling the dog will also worsen things. It is often our first instinct as pet owners to tell our anxious dogs that, "Everything is okay!" Ultimately, that attention only rewards the anxious behavior, habituating it even more deeply.
Instead, we must take a different path and build our anxious dog's confidence and independence. So that's what we did with Indy. Let me explain how.
To start, we associated our departure from the house with good things for Indy. In cases less severe than his, often leaving a favorite toy, chewable, stuffed kong, or food puzzle is enough to keep our furry friends busy while we're away. Be sure to put the toy down five to ten minutes before you leave, and to remove it when you return, ensuring that the dog associates the enjoyment of the toy for only those times when you are away.
Next, we put Indy on a firm "Learn to Earn" program. This means that, for everything Indy wants, whether it's dinner, his frisbee (his greatest joy in life), the kong, or even our affection, he must earn it through offering us good, appropriate behavior. Having basic obedience training under your dog's belt is critical here - without it, the dog will not know how to offer you the behavior you want. In this way, we built up Indy's confidence, and today he is proudly proficient at nearly fifty different canine cues.
As with all of the dogs in our care, Indy knows that the first step to getting what he wants is to 'Say Please By Sitting." Check out www.alldogstoronto.com/the-all-dogs-blog/mine-mine-mine-part-one-food-possessiveness for how to teach your dog to "Say Please By Sitting."
Next, we had to train Indy to be able to stand on his own four paws independently. To do this, we started with a deceptively simple tethering protocol. While we were home, Indy would be tethered on leash to our bedroom door. This ensured that he was only able to get within a foot or two of either my partner Ben, or myself. Whenever Indy was calm during this time, he would be rewarded with five seconds of petting and affection. Slowly but surely, we began to increase our distance away from Indy until, eventually, we were out of his sight.
Careful here. You want to be sure you only leave your anxious dog for an instant before coming back. Do, however, wait until s/he offers you a sit before you walk back up to the dog to offer affection.
While working on the above, Indy would practice repeated "Sit-Stays" and "Down-Stays", and repeat them in rapid succession, never allowing a moment to get worked up about being tethered or being unable to touch me or my partner. Starting with a step away from Indy, we slowly increased to two steps, then three, and so on.
The final stage involves removing the tethering and taking yourself out of the house altogether. We began with short departures out of the house for several seconds at a time.
It was critical that we return to Indy each time before his anxious behaviors set in. Ideally, when training your dog to be alone, you want to completely avoid the anxious state of mind. Habituated behaviors are extremely difficult to modify, and the longer they have to "set in", the more difficult the process of rehabilitation. In Indy's case, we put him in a down-stay, and systematically broke down our method of departure. Allow me to explain what I mean.
First, we chose to treat our departures like a distraction. Ben would pick up his keys and jiggle them. We rewarded Indy with some kibble, returned to the couch, took off our shoes, and made like nothing was happening at all. We repeated this exercise (put Indy in a sit-stay --> pick up keys and jiggle them --> reward Indy --> sit back down) at this level of difficulty about ten times consecutively, until we were sure Indy would not react in an anxious way.
The next stage was the handle to the front door. Jiggling it at first would be enough to set Indy off once again. and so, we backtracked it to the couch once more. Opening and shutting the door, walking out and coming right back in, and each time rewarding Indy for good behavior before he became anxious.
Finally, we increased the intensity of this exercise by actually walking outside and staying out longer than before, all while doing our utmost to make sure we returned before Indy could become anxious.
There are a few more things you can do if your dog suffers from separation anxiety like ours does. To start, it is critical to end the drama of entering and exiting the house with your dog. Be sure to ignore your anxious dog for twenty minutes before you leave and after you return. If your dog, like Indy, paces and circles you anyway, reward him for repeated, successful "down" cues and "say please by sitting" behaviors for however long it takes for him to calm down and remain that way.
The entire protocol, in all of its complexity and with a mind to truly reduce the anxiety your dog experiences when alone, should be repeated twenty to thirty times each day with at least five to ten iterations of the departing protocols per session. And don't forget to follow each session with your dog's favorite tasty treat!
While working on all of this, there are a few things to do to manage your dog while you're away. Use a dog sitter, or a kennel service. If your dog will tolerate a crate, you can use one for very short periods away. In the most severe of cases and as a last resort, some dogs will require medication. Please be sure that this course of action is always paired with significant behavior modification.
As with any behavior modification protocol, these techniques work best at the first signs of separation anxiety, long before the behaviors are heavily habituated in the dog's psyche.
Separation anxiety, while a challenging and difficult set of behaviors to modify, can be treated with the consistent application of the above protocols and a hefty dose of compassion for our canine housemates. What's more, the work you do with your dog will build a relationship of understanding between you that will last for the entire life of your dog. It may feel impossible, but resolving these issues to extinction IS possible.
If your dog suffers from a severely habituated case of separation anxiety, enlist the help of a qualified behaviorist to help you and your family with this time-sensitive, challenging process.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.