One is the loneliest number: How to recognize and treat separation anxiety in dogs according to an expert

For those that live with their canine's separation anxiety every day, the struggle is very real.

For those that live with their canine's separation anxiety every day, the struggle is very real

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

The term "separation anxiety" is tossed around so often these days that it seems like every dog I encounter suffers from it. But how can it be that each dog that pees on the rug, barks or chews a shoe when it's alone could have the same diagnosis? The truth is that many problems including boredom, frustration and even just normal puppyhood can masquerade as separation anxiety. So we sat down with Caryn Liles, owner of The Toronto Center for Canine Education and a separation anxiety trainer, to help us get to the bottom of what separation anxiety really is.

Liles also answered some of our most pressing questions, including whether or not there's any hope for those of us that haven't had a vacation, or even a night out, in years because our dog goes berserk. (After all, even dog lovers need a little "me time," am I right?)

Canine separation anxiety seems to be really common these days. What exactly is it, and are there different types of separation anxiety?

I agree that separation anxiety seems to be more common these days, and I have a few theories: More people have dogs, therefore all numbers are going to increase; there are far more puppy mills, due to the increase in demand, so [there's] a lot less focus on temperament and genetics of puppies; more people work from home, so they're more likely to complain about barking to neighbours; and, I think, as we learn more about dogs being sentient beings, we consider them to be valued members of the family and, as a result, we're more attuned to their emotions, so we're noticing more.

Separation anxiety, as it's typically called in a clinical setting, is often diagnosed by veterinarians and trainers. However, more often than not, we see dog guardians self-diagnosing and self-treating. Separation anxiety is the term that we use loosely, but defined more accurately, it's a condition that manifests in dogs who are separated from their primary attachment figure(s), even if someone else is with them.

"Isolation distress" is the term we use [with] dogs who are anxious when left completely alone. They don't exhibit signs of stress or anxiety if there is someone — a friend, family, pet-sitter [or] any warm body — with them.

Are there any behaviour problems that might be mistaken for separation anxiety?

Absolutely! We often mistake boredom, incomplete potty training, noise sensitivities and incomplete confinement training for home-alone issues. Sometimes, with a little management, creativity and enrichment, we can resolve these [issues].

Separation anxiety is much more complex a thing to resolve. [And] crate training and separation anxiety have nothing to do with each other — in fact, most dogs with separation anxiety get worse in a crate than they do loose in a puppy-proofed home. It's always worth a video assessment of a short absence to rule out these behaviour challenges before slapping the "separation anxiety" label on incorrectly.

How can a person be sure their dog actually has separation anxiety? What should they look for?

It's so important to understand dog body language, and it's far more intricate than the average person believes. Look for subtle signs during the pre-departure routine, such as yawning, shadowing, panting. When there's a separation, watch for an increase in those signs and the more obvious signs, such as whining, barking, howling, destruction at or near exit points, urination or defecation, pacing and drooling.

Not every dog will have the textbook signs, and some dogs will show different signs than I've listed, but these are the most typical signs. We don't want to wait until the dog is showing all of these signs before we treat the problem, but, more often than not, the dog comes to us after struggling for months or years, and it can be challenging to resolve [the problem] quickly because of that history.

How is that that you're able to work with clients remotely rather than in person?

We always ask our clients to video record a short absence or allow us to monitor the dog via live video. This can tell us quite a lot about how the dog is feeling.

We watch our clients on web-conferencing software like Skype or FaceTime as they prepare to leave their house as naturally as possible. When they leave, we start the timer at the moment the door closes. We observe the dog's body language and take detailed notes, and text the client to come back when we've seen enough.

We rely heavily on technology, and it allows us to provide far more support for our clients than handing them an overwhelming training plan that we expect them to execute. We see much faster resolution this way!

Is there any way to actually prevent separation anxiety?

"Prevention" is a difficult word here, because it implies that [experts] know the cause. Unfortunately, we don't know the absolute cause, but we have seen many correlations, such as flying in cargo, being removed from the litter too early, early weaning, illness and injury, emotional trauma, noise phobias, storm phobias, changes in schedule and the list goes on.

What should a person do if they've adopted a dog with separation anxiety or if their dog seems to be legitimately suffering from it?

Don't delay. Have a trusted vet do a physical exam to ensure there's no underlying condition, and if you get the "all clear," get in touch with a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer, and go into damage control immediately to avoid escalation and injury. Many dogs will injure themselves due to the stress or from trying to escape, and others will prompt noise complaints and eviction notices.

Damage control [meaning] that we must suspend absences by preventing the dog from being alone longer than they can handle. That might be less than one minute right now, which means adjusting our work schedule, utilizing daycare and pet-sitters, bringing our dog to work with us, working from home or relying on family and friends for a dog-share situation.

We tend to get creative, because this is the most important piece of the puzzle. If the dog is triggered on a regular basis, you will not likely make progress. [But], it's not forever!

If the dog is really struggling or has compounding behaviour challenges, many veterinarians will prescribe anti-anxiety medications for temporary use during the training process. It's so important to speak with a knowledgeable veterinarian who has a specialty in this area, or even better, a veterinary behaviourist! Although pharmaceuticals aren't necessarily required in every case, they're often a much faster aid than testing out numerous "natural" products on the market.

Can separation anxiety be cured?

Since separation anxiety is a panic disorder, it's difficult to use the term "cured." It's also difficult to look at it in such a cut-and-dry way. We can often improve separation tolerance to a realistic degree — say, four or five hours — or the dog might regress. But to say we have "cured" it isn't the most accurate way to view it.

I would say that we see upward of 70 per cent of cases "resolved," but, again, it's going to depend on how we define that. If you're expecting a dog with separation anxiety or isolation distress to be perfectly happy, alone for eight to 10 hours each day, five days a week, then I would say no. I don't think that's realistic, nor [is it] humane.

We have to remember that dogs are social creatures, and our goal is to help them feel safe and secure when we do have to leave them alone for shorter periods of time — four to five hours. But we should consider utilising a dog walker to give them a break, let them stretch their legs, get some sunshine, socialization and exercise. It all comes down to meeting a dog's basic, functional needs.

Danielle Hodges is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and a Licensed Family Paws Parent Educator for dog, baby and toddler safety. She is co-owner of Follow the Leader Inc Dog Training School with locations in Toronto and Hamilton.


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