Back when I was in vet school I lived in a little rental near the beach with my husband (then boyfriend – that sounds so weird now!) and my gorgeous Border Collie, Anika.  We called our home the slanty shanty because it was pretty old and the ground had obviously moved a bit over time.  The result was almost dangerously sloping floors and windows that wouldn’t open.  The three of us loved it there though, and Ani absolutely lived for her morning and afternoon runs along the beach.  She was three years old at the time, and regularly dealt with the many annoyances of being owned by a veterinary student.

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Don’t have a cone of shame? No worries, a goon box* will sort that out!

Unfortunately life as a vet student isn’t just a bit of study here and there punctuated by booze cruises and barn dances; it’s actually pretty bloody grueling to be honest.  Every day we would file in at 9 am for four hours of being talked at that we were somehow expected to absorb and retain, followed by some lunch then three hours of practical work.  Every. single. weekday.  Not to mention rotations through areas like emergency and equine doing overnight shifts.  And I spent my weekends working as a vet nurse in a clinic near my parents’ place.  Don’t get me wrong, it was awesome.  But also very time consuming.

* for non-Aussies, here’s what I’m talking about

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And I’m not lion, there were some definite perks!

So my darling Anika tolerated these absences beautifully for a while, then one day I came home and she was gone.

I totally lost my mind.  She had a collar and a microchip, but visions of the worst flashed through my mind as I searched for her.  I was literally looking along the edges of the neighbouring streets for a crumpled black and white bundle (it makes my stomach churn now just thinking about it!)  I called up the local vet clinic and breathlessly asked if anyone had brought in a black and white Border Collie with a red collar, and to my relief, the receptionist said yes!  I rushed down to get her, shaking with adrenaline. Can’t even remember if I put my seat belt on or how I even got there, but I was seriously in panic mode.  I rushed in and stammered something about a lost dog and the girl behind the counter nonchalantly wandered out the back to get Ani.

It wasn’t her.

It wasn’t even a Border Collie.

So I’m normally very very polite (maybe too polite to the point that people can walk all over me) but I immediately blurted out “That’s NOT my dog! That’s NOT even a Border Collie!”  She just shrugged, “it’s black and white with a red collar though.”  Aaaaargh!

crying baby

I’m totally freaking out right now!

I drove home with tears streaming down my face, and who should I see sitting on the front door step?  There she was, covered in sand from a self-guided adventure down on the beach, waiting for my return.  I didn’t know whether to hug her or strangle her.  I thought ‘you bitch, you’ve just been having a lovely little outing.’  But then I noticed she was panting heavily, trembling, and VERY excited to see me drive in.

The house next door had some renovations going on, and there were builders using nail guns and other noisy tools, so I think something really frightened her.  She had dug a hole under the side gate and run for it.  And that was the beginning of our experience with separation anxiety and my special interest in behavioural medicine.

sandy dog

This is how she looked. Except less happy. But just as sandy and wet

I filled the hole under the gate and put a couple of bricks down, congratulating myself on being clever enough to fortify it so well.  Anika laughed in the face of my flimsy barricade, and was waiting for me out the front again a few days later.  At the time I had no idea what I was dealing with, even though in retrospect it’s so damn obvious.  I started to receive complaints from one of my neighbours that she had begun barking during the day while I was at uni.  Things progressively got worse and she started scratching frantically at the back door if she was outside while we were home.  On one occasion while I was at uni she scratched at the side gate so desperately she broke several nails and left smears of blood where she had been trying to escape.  This broke my heart.

At the time I didn’t know how to manage her separation anxiety, and knowing what I know now I certainly could have done better.  After around 6 months of working on environmental enrichment, behaviour modification, and medication with a drug called clomipramine, I had my happy girl back.  It wasn’t easy – behavioural issues rarely are – but we got there.

She’s now a happy, healthy, 12 year old.  We still have problems with anxiety associated with thunderstorms and fireworks, but she has been drug-free and separation-anxiety free for the last 9 years.

border collie

I dug up this old pic of Ani and Darren, and while it’s totally irrelevant to the story, I loves it.

Based on my own experience with Anika and subsequent years as a veterinarian, here are my pointers on what is helpful and what is unhelpful for managing a dog with separation anxiety.

 First Of All, Is It Separation Anxiety?

Obviously it’s important to know what you’re dealing with.  Your vet can help you here, and please be aware that the advice I give here is general and does not necessarily apply to every dog.

The main thing to differentiate separation anxiety from is boredom.  Behaviours that can occur with both include barking or other sorts of vocalising, and destruction.

  • A bored dog is likely to chew up or destroy things any old time, whereas a dog that does it due to separation anxiety usually does it only when you’re not there.
  • A bored dog may chew up his bed, some furniture, whatever takes his fancy, whereas an anxious dog is very likely to cause damage to doors or barriers.
  • Separation-related behaviour usually occurs within 30 minutes or so of your departure.

There are also indicators when you are home.  These poor doggies are often hyperattached, liking to stay close to their owners and following them from room to room.

dog separation anxiety

Oh thank God, I thought you were gone forever… 

How To Make Things Better

I’m not gonna lie, having a dog with separation anxiety can be horrible.  It can be stressful and soul destroying, and an uphill battle to manage.  If you have a dog experiencing this, give yourself a pat on the back just for coming this far.  Be kind to yourself, cos it’s not easy.  Unfortunately there really is no quick fix, and it’s much more about training (the dog and the humans in the family) than about medication.

  1. Encourage some independence and reward calm behaviour.  If you see your dog lying happily in her bed away from you, that is the time to offer a little reward.  A reward is something the dog likes.  It might be a food treat, or it might be a special toy or some cuddle time.  Totally depends on the individual.  If you catch a nice calm behaviour you like and reward it a few times, you can start adding a cue so that your dog can actually do it on command.
  2. IGNORE ATTENTION-SEEKING BEHAVIOUR.  This is tough, but remember it doesn’t limit the amount of love or affection your fur-kid receives in any way.  It just has to be on your terms.  Even just making eye contact is giving your dog attention.  It’s really important not to reward attention-seeking.
  3. Downplay departures and arrivals.  I can’t emphasize this one enough, and it’s where a lot of people (including myself and Anika back in the day) go wrong.  When you leave, make sure it’s no big deal, and when you get home the best thing you can do is totally, completely ignore your pooch for 10 or 15 minutes, then approach them calmly.
  4. Provide things to do while you’re out.  This is also known as ‘environmental enrichment,’ and may include food-dispensing toys or hiding things for them to find while you’re not there.  You could provide a special toy that they only get when you’re out, and you take away when you get home.  The one Anika has loved the most is the Home Alone toy by Aussie Dog.
  5. Consider leaving the tv or radio on.
  6. Provide plenty of physical and mental stimulation when you are home with them.
  7. If you can get home in the middle of the day, organise a dog walker, or use a bit of doggy day care, these things will all decrease your dog’s alone time and help make them happier.
  8. A pheromone known as dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) is quite helpful in reducing anxiety for some dogs.  It is a synthetic version of the pheromone secreted by mothers for their babies when they’re suckling, and is quite calming.  Its odour is not detectable by humans.  DAP is available as a diffuser you plug into the wall or as a collar.  You can find more information about DAP here.
  9. Sometimes it helps to desensitize them to you leaving by decoupling departure cues from departure.  Does your dog prick his ears up when you put on your shoes?  Does he start to look anxious when you reach for the keys?  There is a bit of work involved (basically going through the pre-leave rituals again and again without actually leaving), but it can help a lot to slowly teach them that these things don’t necessarily mean being left alone.
  10. For dogs with moderate to severe anxiety problems, medications are often required.  This is arranged in consultation with your veterinarian, and generally after your dog has been examined and had blood testing done to rule out any contributing medical conditions.  The drug clomipramine, (which is the one I used with Anika), has been shown to help dogs receiving behaviour modification improve four times faster than those receiving behaviour modification alone.

How To Make Things Worse

Just quickly, there are a few things that are likely to make a dog with separation anxiety a lot MORE anxious.

  1. Punishment.  In any form.  If you come home and shout at or hit your dog for something it did 3 hours ago a) the poor animal is never going to put two and two together b) Anxiety will increase, not decrease c) The behaviour you’re trying to manage will increase, not decrease, and d) You sir, are a douchebag.
  2. Big dramatic goodbyes or frantic OH MY GOD OH MY GOD I MISSED YOU SO MUCH returns only serve to make your absence more significant and scary.

Remember that as with anything behaviour-related, consistency is key.  Everyone involved needs to be on board to make it work.

joanna paul

The day I graduated vet school Ani was right there beside me.  And she still is.

Do you have a dog with separation anxiety? What has worked for you?

I am participating in the Round Robin Caring for Critters hosted by Heart Like a Dog  It’s like a super awesome relay race where each blogger passes the virtual baton onto the next, to talk about their own experience with illness or injury in their furkids.  The next link in the ‘hop’ will be over at Kol’s Notes tomorrow and is about Felix and his ruptured cruciate ligament.  If you missed yesterday’s, it was at all about Cooper’s allergies over at Oh My Dog!

caring for critters

 

Joanna Paul
Dr. Joanna Paul BVSc (hons) BSc Jo is a practicing small animal veterinarian based in Melbourne, Australia. Working in partnership with loving pet owners to ensure their fur-kids remain happy, healthy family members life-long is what brings her joy. Well, that and taking naps. Jo strongly believes that helping to maintain the wonderful bond between a pet and their human is reason enough for a happy dance.
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Showing 26 comments
  • Jason
    Reply

    I have found reiki for dogs is really helpful for reducing separation anxiety. It calms them so much and leaves them with a deeper sense of peace. You may think I’m biased, being a reiki practitioner, but the results speak for themselves 🙂

  • Betty
    Reply

    I really appreciate your post. I work in a doggie daycare that provides supervised, rather than interactive, play. We get anxiety dogs frequently, & as I was bingeing today on various doggie blogs, I saw that sending an anxious dog to daycare was a common recommendation. My suggestion to owners of anxious dogs is to ask questions of the owner/staff on what they do for anxiety. Activities, staff training, level of staff-to-dog interaction, and even dog-to-dog interaction varies widely & is unregulated in most states in the US. Ask questions, then ask more questions; drop by for unscheduled tours more than once to see what the dogs really do. Is your dog friendly to other dogs? Daycare in a supervised play environment may be a great option, and reasonably inexpensive: maybe your anxious dog is actually more bored than anxious. Dogs that aren’t naturally outgoing often turn fearful when faced with other dogs, and their anxiety can actually increase. And please, if your dog has been going to daycare for a while and the staff express to you concern over your dog’s behavior, or he seems to be in constant time-out, or if his behavior seems to worsen either at home or when you drop him off for daycare, consider that this may be the wrong place or the wrong option for him. Each dog is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all. My heart bleeds for the anxious dogs that come to us: it’s true that some are truly shy, and repeated exposure works, but for those who get worse, and their parents refuse meds or other therapies, daycare can be just one more fear inducing experience.

    • Joanna Paul
      Reply

      Hi Betty,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I couldn’t agree with you more, and I really appreciate the valuable insight.

  • Sand Spring Chesapeakes
    Reply

    A lot of great information thank you for sharing your story and ways to help others out.

  • Amy
    Reply

    Hmmm. Firstly I LOVED this article. Very personal and I liked hearing more about you.

    Also I have hyper-attached dogs that don’t like to leave my side however I am not aware of any other of the signals of separation anxiety. Should I encourage them to lay down by themselves and stuff so that it doesn’t develop into separation anxiety, or does it not work like that!?

    Also I like the advice of leaving them alone to calm down when you get into the house. I have started to do that and it’s making things less hectic when I get in from work!

    • Joanna Paul
      Reply

      Hey Amy,
      I think it’s really good for them to learn some independence, purely from the viewpoint that it makes life less stressful for them when you have to be apart.
      If they’re hanging around but relaxed I wouldn’t be too worried, but it is always great if you can teach calm behaviours that don’t involve being stuck to you like velcro. This may include going to a mat or bed (or crate) and learning that it’s a safe place where good things happen – and definitely never using that location as a punishment like a time out.
      Your dogs are gorgeous!

  • Jen Jelly
    Reply

    Our Lab growing up had separation anxiety and like you say it’s heart breaking. It took a long time, many modifications in activities, and medication before it got under control. It’s so sad that dogs can develop anxiety problems when they can’t directly speak to us; I’m so glad you laid out so many good suggestions on ways to manage it. There is a distinction between boredom and separation anxiety which I’m glad you mentioned. I’m glad to hear Anika got better, it’s such a tough behavior to change.

  • weliveinaflat
    Reply

    Love the distinction between boredom and separation anxiety. And the many possible how to make things better. It’s really down to what works better with the individual dog and owner after that 🙂

  • Sarah at LolaThePitty.com
    Reply

    Great tips – shared. We (luckily) do not have any dogs with separation anxiety. However, we fostered a dog with moderate to severe separation anxiety and his current owner is still dealing with overcoming this issue. I will definitely share this w/ her as there are a few great tips that you don’t see commonly mentioned. The poor thing becomes distraught and tries to escape his crate and then will become destructive. It seems that he is always by her side when she is home as well, so that might be something to watch.

    • Joanna Paul
      Reply

      Aw, I’m sorry to hear about the foster pooch! It really is heartbreaking, especially if they hurt themselves with escape attempts. Something that can be really helpful is practicing ‘nothing in life is free’. This is where the dog has to ‘earn’ everything, from being petted to getting their dinner. They do this by performing a behavior such as sitting. It sounds intense but is really very simple. I’d be happy to dig around for some more info if you are interested. It works particularly well with dogs whose anxiety is partly caused by lack of boundaries, unclear expectations or inconsistent rules (which we ALL do sometimes).

  • Beth
    Reply

    What a great post! My border collie mix also has separation anxiety. What’s really worked for us is creating a consistent “goodbye routine” and using a crate. Every time I have to leave her–whether I’m going to work or just running to pick up some milk–I take her outside, we come in, I put on my shoes, I grab two small treats, and she runs into her crate and waits for them. There’s no changing the routine, though–if I forget my lunch on my way out the door, I just have to leave it or else we have to start all over again with the routine. If I leave her out, she barks (and we live in an apartment, so that’s never good) and paces in front of the window–when I stopped at my brother’s overnight while traveling without a crate, I gave her a rawhide while we ran out to get dinner quickly and when we got home she was standing at the door with the rawhide still in her mouth, but not gnawed on at all. It was one of the most pathetic things I’ve ever seen. Luckily, she has never hurt herself, but she is definitely traumatized when left alone. I’m so glad you were able to find a way to help Ani–she’s beautiful!

    • Joanna Paul
      Reply

      Hi Beth,
      that’s really interesting! So she takes comfort in the routine. That makes a lot of sense to me – I hate it when my routine is messed with too!
      I love that she runs into the crate to wait for her treats, it’s obviously a safe, secure place for her.

  • DZ Dogs
    Reply

    Great post! We dealt with separation anxiety with our boy Dante (http://dzdogadventures.blogspot.com/2014/06/dantes-issues.html) it wasn’t easy but we ended up solving the problem pretty easy through crate training. He’s even come so far as to no longer need to be locked up when we leave! 🙂
    Great job working with your pup and not giving up on her.

    • Joanna Paul
      Reply

      Ah yes, crate training! It’s not something that has been traditionally done much in Australia, but I think it is getting more and more common.
      Glad to hear Dante copes well now!

  • Bec
    Reply

    A friend had a pup who suffered from separation anxiety and she went home before midnight on new years because he would be scared of the fireworks if he was alone! Thats dedication but also babying? Or kind? Or making him worse? I am not too sure…

    • Joanna Paul
      Reply

      Hey Bec,
      I can totally understand how from an outside perspective that might look a bit over the top. Some of these dogs completely lose their minds with terror when it comes to fireworks or thunderstorms, so I think your friend did the right thing by not leaving him alone for that. New Years Day is actually the worst day of the year for shelters and pounds as they are full to the brim of scared, lost animals who have run away the night before.
      It used to be commonly advised to not give any attention at all to a frightened dog for fear of rewarding the fearful behaviour, but I think that has been largely superceded, and as long as you are calm and relaxed it’s ok to comfort them.

  • Asia
    Reply

    Great post! I can totally relate as Destiny has had separation anxiety from day one (she’s now 12). Of course, I was unconsciously reinforcing this behavior, what with being a first-time dog-mom and my own co-dependency issues! Basically, how I’ve “dealt” with it is that I haven’t–I very rarely leave her alone and never for more than an hour or two at a time! Over the years, I’ve learned to make less of a big deal of departures and returns, and I always leave cartoons on TV for her. She isn’t really anxious about my leaving anymore because I always come back so quickly! Also, for the times when there are bad thunderstorms or fireworks, I give her a half-dose of antihistamine (25 mg of benadryl or diphenhydramine hydrochloride). May not be the best or ideal solution but it works for us! 🙂 Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Joanna Paul
      Reply

      Thanks Asia,
      It can be so hard, can’t it. I am absolutely right there beside you with the reinforcement of anxious behaviours, because it was my instinct to care for her and love her and comfort her. I think as long as we are doing our best and putting their best interests first, we’re doing ok. If antihistsamines help Destiny then I see nothing wrong with that. Thanks for coming by x

  • Jodi
    Reply

    What a great post and a wonderful contribution to the Round Robin. I’m certain many people will benefit from this post. Thank you so very much!

    I’ve been lucky as neither of my dogs have separation anxiety, but I did learn from this article that Delilah is bored. LOL Thankfully her destructions are typically food related…(paper towels that someone used to wipe their fingers or mouths and didn’t pick up….) and toys, which I’m totally okay with as Sampson sometimes does that too, but I think his is more anxious when our quiet routine has been disrupted too long (on holidays when we entertain.) Dang, that was a really long, run on sentence. Sorry.

    Typically my good byes are very calm, I grab them each a treat and gather my stuff. Give them the treat and walk out the door. I’ve had opportunities where I’ve had to come back because I forgot something and they both are already positioned on the couch.

    On my return they usually greet me calmly at the top of the stairs, I give them each a quick pet, and set my stuff down, and then give them a bit more attention, but that is only because they are calm. Unless of course it’s feeding time, then it’s a whole ‘nother story. 🙂

    • Joanna Paul
      Reply

      Hey Jodi,
      Thank you SO so much for hosting the Caring for Critters round robin! It’s such an awesome idea and I’ve really enjoyed every post so far! I think we can all learn so much from each other’s experiences, and I love how people have embraced this idea and really put in a great effort.
      ps I love that your doggies are on the couch as soon as you leave, that’s really cute 🙂

    • Hugzilla
      Reply

      Lots of things! LOL. We were at that pre-baby stage where we treated our dogs like royalty and they royally took advantage! Things like sleeping on beds, being able to jump on furniture, letting them jump up and lean on us etc It was basically re-establishing ourselves as head of the pack and letting our female know that she wasn’t the lack leader and didn’t have to worry about us when we left the house. She is quite a dominant dog so you can’t give her anyway leeway – there can’t be any ambiguity about who is the pack leader. We still love them and dote on them but they have very firm boundaries now.

      • Joanna Paul
        Reply

        Who doesn’t benefit from boundaries, really 🙂 Pets, kids, husbands… Boundaries create a feeling of security instead of totally unpredictable chaos, lol.

  • Hugzilla
    Reply

    OMG the goon box! So many LOLs! A lot of this post resonates with me. We have two staffies, and for many years we dealt with extreme separation anxiety from one in particular. Lots of destruction, several escape attempts and she injured herself many times. It got to the point where we dreaded leaving the house because we would return to chaos (and you’d know how stubborn, pain-resistant and strong staffies are). Many years of training and different medications (Chlomicalm, Louvan, the natural stuff and some sort of sedative, ACP perhaps? Brain not working) and still no improvement. We ended up striking gold with a behaviourist that came to the house and we also instituted a lot of the things you list in your post. She still flares up from time to time but she is 11 now so I think she has mellowed a bit. But yes, I was nodding all through this!

    • Joanna Paul
      Reply

      Oh Staffies! They are like these compact, muscular bundles of pure love! I think they get anxious because they just LOVE so much.
      I’m so glad you had success in the end – I’d love to hear what the behaviourist offered that was most helpful.
      And as for the goon box – I REGRET NOTHING hahaha.

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