Separation Anxiety – Fact vs Fiction

By Emma Judson
© Canine Consultant

Separation anxiety is something of a hot topic. It’s something many trainers and behaviourists avoid like the plague, and something widely misunderstood!

So what it IS, and what it ISN’T

Separation Anxiety is used as an umbrella term to cover any anxiety-based issue regarding: separating the dog from humans; from another dog; from specific humans; from any of these in specific contexts.

Technically, your dog may be suffering from isolation distress; from hyper-attachment disorder; from separation frustration; barrier frustration, or more typically, a combination of these issues.

It is really only important to determine the specifics of the problem so that it can be correctly addressed. Ultimately, no matter what label we stick on it, if leaving the dog in some way causes distress, we need to fix it.

So What do those Labels Mean?

Separation anxiety means that your dog is anxious if separated from humans. Whether that’s because the humans are actually gone, or are simply unavailable to the dog – in another room for example.

Isolation distress/anxiety means the dog is anxious/distressed if alone, but not necessarily alone from humans. This dog could be fine if left with another dog.

Hyper-attachment disorder means the dog is hyper-attached to someone, and cannot cope without them, even if there are other humans that they know well present. This can also apply to other dogs. They may be fine with a specific dog present, but not fine without that dog, even if there are other dogs around.

Separation frustration – the dog isn’t actually anxious, but is frustrated. They feel as though they are missing out on some activity.

Barrier frustration – this is the dog that can cope when they can see you but not get to you, but can’t cope if they cannot see you due to a closed door. Or this might be a dog who can do an out of sight down stay for ages, but can’t be shut in the living room alone.

It is also important to remember that these disorders, syndromes and anxieties may not be ‘abnormal behaviour’ depending on the age of the dog and the context. A tiny puppy is perfectly normal in experiencing extreme anxiety on finding himself alone, for up to around the first nine months of his life. I would also argue that a rescue dog of any age is not behaving abnormally in finding it distressing to be left alone, or to quickly form a hyper-attachment with a new person.

This may be why in the past people have been told to ignore this distress or anxiety. However, just because it’s normal, it certainly does not mean we should allow it to occur!

The reality is, most dogs suffer a mixture of these issues, rather than just one. For many they are context specific.

So, a dog may be FINE left in the car for hours on end, but you can’t shut him in the house. Or he is OK if the wife goes out first, and then the husband leaves later, but absolutely cannot cope if the owners leave together or in the reverse order.

Another dog could be OK with being left, unless the owner puts on a particular set of shoes that suggest he’s missing out on an activity, or only if the owner goes out at certain times.

I know many a dog who is fine during the week, but the owners cannot leave him alone during the weekend, simply because weekdays are predictable and weekends are not!

So, these labels have limited use really. Don’t get hung up on which it is, because the process of addressing separation anxiety should go through all these situations to find out exactly what your dog is/is not OK with, and work from there.

That, of course, is why it is so hard to address. You can’t simply get a book and follow it. You have to follow your dog, and listen to what they tell you is OK, or not OK.

What ISN’T Separation Anxiety?

Some dogs are simply bored. In their boredom they amuse themselves in ways you really don’t like, such as: chewing furniture; galloping about; barking at stuff out of the window.

Some dogs have just been set up to fail. One we will address in the ‘Myth and Magic’ section is exercise. Leaving a dog who has been highly aroused by fast exercise, for example a long game of ball chasing, may leave that dog with a bunch of energy and no outlet, so he can’t settle.

Ultimately though, if your dog is not settling when left, and is damaging property, themselves, causing a noise disturbance, or if they are truly anxious/distressed, then that needs to be dealt with. It is unlikely to fix itself over time.

Myth and Magic

Common incorrect ideas surrounding separation anxiety

Some of these are old as time and some are still being published in newer articles, magazines, ebooks, etc.

Exercising your dog immediately before leaving will fix separation anxiety: Not only will this not address separation anxiety, but even if your dog doesn’t have separation anxiety, it is likely to leave them highly aroused, as stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline will still be rising. This leaves them less likely to settle and sleep, and more likely to bark, pace, chew, and dig.

While it is sensible to ensure your dog has been exercised before you leave them home alone, take care that the exercise is calm, steady, satisfying work, rather than high-octane whizzing about after a ball, frantic tugging, or chaotic play with other dogs. Try for walks that involve a ‘wind down’ element of sniffing, finding scattered food, or other calm activity. Failing that, building in a window of time at home for chilling out with you, massage, grooming, etc will also help.

Don’t sleep with your dog: I hear this over and over, and still fail to understand why forcing a sociable, gregarious animal to sleep away from you if you both want to sleep in the same place, would ever help.

If not sleeping with your dog causes your dog distress and anxiety, then that’s counter-indicated for dealing with separation anxiety.

If not sleeping with your dog means either of you get less sleep, or poorer quality sleep, that is also counter-indicated for dealing with separation anxiety.

If your dog is quite happy to sleep in their own bed, wherever that is (and I mean genuinely happy, as in, chooses to do that without physical barriers enforcing it, I do not mean ‘well we shut her in the utility room and it’s the other side of the house from our room, so we’ve no idea how well she sleeps’!!), then that is fine.

Do not greet your dog when you arrive home: Again, a nugget of truth in a big dollop of what the actual…

We do not want to pair your reappearance with highly arousing rewards or events, because then we are building frustration into the absence. Your dog is anticipating your return, and frustrated until you do return.

So, we would not encourage you to go over the top, or shower cheese upon your dog and have a crazy party, but a brief acknowledgement ‘hey doggo how ya been’, and some way of dispersing that arousal is sensible. Maybe you speak quietly to them and hand them a toy. Maybe you go straight outside and scatter some food so they hunt for it, rather than bounce on you.

Whatever you do, know that coming in and TOTALLY ignoring your dog is weird and creepy behaviour from you that will upset your dog. If he starts to anticipate weird and creepy behaviour that is upsetting, that WILL almost certainly make any separation anxiety issue worse!

Leave a radio on: This doesn’t fool an anxious dog into thinking you are still home. It may block out background noises that can upset some dogs, but nothing more.

Leave your dog a distraction, such as a filled Kong, toy, etc: If your dog is purely bored, then great! However, what happens when the dog is done? Is he satisfied and will sleep? Or is he still bored? Can you provide constant entertainment so he is still working at it until you return home? If so, great! But be under no illusions that this is teaching your dog to cope alone. It isn’t.

If your dog is truly anxious, but distracted by this, they aren’t learning to cope alone. They are so distracted that they do not know they are alone. This may be a useful strategy if you cannot find a sitter or day care, etc. It isn’t teaching your dog to cope alone though.

Most anxious dogs are not distracted by food-stuffed toys, destruction boxes, etc. Owners report that their dog ignores these things until they return home, when they then frantically start in on the toy or box. So, not only is this not addressing the separation anxiety, but it is likely adding another layer of frustration!

Leave your dog a scented item: This is unlikely to work. After all, they live in your home which smells of you! You also run the risk of them chewing and swallowing cloth. I have known dogs who are insecure about being left, to self-soothe by taking stinky items (boots, washing), and curling up with them, but in no way does this fix the problem.

No following. Don’t allow your dog to follow you around the home: Following closely is often a symptom of separation/anxiety issues. However, physically preventing your dog from doing this by closing doors on them and ignoring them, IS almost certainly going to make matters worse.

If your dog is following purely because it is almost always rewarding to do so (follow to the kitchen, get a titbit, follow to the loo, get talked to, fussed, etc), then if the dog has no underlying anxiety or insecurity issue, the behaviour will probably fade away.

If however, the dog is following because they are insecure, forcibly preventing that by closing doors and ignoring their distress will absolutely make the problem worse.

We need to teach the dog not to WANT to follow, not forcibly prevent him from following!

Crate train your dog: Crate training (the way we do it, force-free, choice-based) can be a useful tool, however there is nothing magical about a crate that ‘fixes’ separation anxiety. You may choose to use crate training as part of addressing separation anxiety, but know that shutting a dog in a crate will not fix the issue.

Crate training correctly also takes time, as it needs to be done at the dog’s own pace, and not to your particular time-frame, so it isn’t any sort of a short cut.

Ignore your dog crying/scratching/howling – it’s just attention seeking: Why has attention seeking got such a bad press? If an animal is seeking attention. then that tells me either they are not getting enough attention, or they are not getting enough of the right KIND of attention.

Either way, ignoring a dog crying or scrabbling to escape or howling. etc, has no place in force-free training. This is a dog who is pushed outside their ability to cope, and they are suffering distress.

We now know that leaving our dogs to suffer distress, anxiety, fear, etc, will likely cause damage to the brain similar to PTSD in humans. This means the brain is predisposed to be more anxious, more nervous, more reactive and fearful in the future.

Nothing useful is achieved by causing this, nor by ignoring it. Return to your dog and do not set them up to experience this again!

Just go out for five or ten minutes at a time and build up from there: This is only useful advice if your dog is genuinely OK with five or ten minutes at a time. If your dog is only OK with 30 seconds, then this won’t be desensitisation, it will be flooding and likely, sensitising your dog to being left, therefore making the issue worse.

Start as you mean to go on (with puppies or adult rescues): No, please, please. no. We don’t send toddlers to University, We don’t send junior school kids into employment. And we don’t start puppies or dogs new to our home by expecting them to cope with being left long periods of time, or indeed, any period of time. What we must do is build security and confidence first. From that foundation we can teach everything else!

There are no quick fixes for separation anxiety related issues. None. Sorry.

There ARE fixes, but they take time, patience, and understanding, and often, money.

Oh and lists. Lots and lots of lists!

So, here’s what you can do, and the order in which you should do it!

Stop leaving your dog in such a way as causes them distress. Any distress. Not a whimper, not a second of distress. Tough? You bet. Necessary? Totally.

Make a list of all the situations, contexts, etc that you believe cause your dog distress. Some of these you will manage. Some you will address. Some you will find will just go away.

For example, Bob the Dog’s list:

  • OK in the house with a human, any human, even a human he doesn’t really know
  • NOT OK in the house alone
  • OK in the car with any human
  • OK in the car on his own, humans in sight
  • OK in the car on his own, humans not in sight
  • OK on a walk if female owner walks away out of sight
  • NOT OK on a walk if male owner walks away out of sight
  • NOT OK on a walk if group disperses (eg, kids scatter to play football)

To that, we would then add the list of actions/events we believe trigger Bob the Dog’s anxiety:

  • OK if people put on slippers/socks/indoor shoes
  • OK if kids put on outdoor shoes
  • NOT OK if mum or dad put on outdoor shoes
  • EXTREMELY not OK if mum AND dad put on outdoor shoes
  • Alert and on edge if mum or dad pick up keys
  • Alert and on edge if mum or dad pick up/put on outdoor coats
  • EXTREMELY not OK if mum or dad put on outdoor shoes AND pick up coat OR keys

And so on.

This gives us clues as to what Bob thinks are the predictors for ‘being left alone’.

From these lists, and other data such as ‘does Bob follow folk around the house, if so, who, when, where’, etc, and ‘are there times Bob is more or less likely to care about these triggers’, we can start to work out what needs desensitising, and what needs counter-conditioning, and where we start first.

Desensitising (DS) is the exposure, under threshold, to triggers for anxiety. So if picking up keys and putting them in your pocket causes Bob to show an extreme reaction, we might just lift the keys and put them back down. We would NOT pick up the keys and pocket them and ignore his reaction. That would be flooding.

Counter-conditioning (CC) is where we pair an action with a reinforcer. So if Bob’s reaction to the keys is so severe we can’t even lift them, we might lift – THROW BOB CHEESE – put down, and repeat that a few times over each day.

Counter-conditioning for separation anxiety needs to be used carefully, because ultimately the end goal we want is ‘meh, Bob does not care’ and NOT ‘WAHEYYYYYY THAT MEANS CHEESE’. However, where there is flat out fear and panic, and we can’t reduce the action to get Bob below threshold any more, CC is the way to go. Just understand that once CC’d, THEN you will need to DS until there is no reaction.

Sometimes there is just no way to avoid a trigger. If Bob reacts badly to keys, even when only one person is leaving, we might need to go straight to counter-conditioning, so that Bob is not experiencing distress every time one person leaves.

The next thing to look at is habits, particularly following/shadowing people.

Many dogs do this. It may not be a problem if your dog follows you any time you go to the kitchen. Is it because you make a lot of snacks and he gets to ‘help’ with that? Is it because you are more likely to talk to him/fuss him when you go to the kitchen, or the loo, or to empty the bins?

Or is it because he cannot cope without you?

If it is the latter there’s a two-part game I call ‘The Flitting Game’

To play, start off by choosing two adjacent rooms, ideally the kitchen and living room.

Set the timer on your phone (silently) for five minutes, then make multiple trips from one room to the next; fiddle with something in one room, and then move on. As you do this, ignore your dog. As in, don’t talk to him or touch him but keep an eye on him. When he begins to settle, flit again.

Over the course of a few sessions, you should find your dog becomes slower to get up, slower to settle, lurks in the hallway or in doorways, and starts to look annoyed at you because this is now tedious. Ugh! And unrewarding.

It’s important to remember that this is not some strict military regime. If you want your dog to come with you, to talk to him, to fuss him, fine. You can invite him along outside of these sessions.

The point is, when you do not invite him, it might not be worth his effort to follow you. Once he has realised that, you can occasionally add in a good reason to choose not to follow you.

So, step two is to add that reason. A big juicy bone, a big, filled Kong, something that’s highly rewarding and a pain in the backside to lift and carry around.

Now repeat the flitting. If he chooses not to follow you, try to spend a little less time in the ‘away’ room, a little more in the ‘home’ room, and build up gradually, second by second.

Don’t always give the Kong or bone, continue doing sessions without; very gradually build up to other rooms and longer durations away.

At any point, your dog is free to come and check that you’re still there. If he does, that’s fine. Don’t say hi or anything, but make a mental note that perhaps this was a step too far and so scale back.

The idea is that your dog learns that it’s his choice not to follow and that sometimes, that choice is highly reinforcing. At other times, it’s just saving him some tedium and effort. He is free to check up if he’s worried. There’s no force or pressure at all.

What Now?

Once we have worked on all those triggers; our dog is not being left to experience distress in conjunction with people leaving, or people being absent; and maybe you’ve started the flitting game, now we can think about building an absence routine.

There are a number of ways to do this, depending on the dog and his reasons for being distressed about being left.

  1. We can teach him that following us is pointless, and there are better choices, by playing The Flitting Game, and gradually extending that into longer absences
  2. We can develop some of the DS sessions with triggers, into a leaving routine by adding in more triggers and extending duration, adding you moving around, etc
  3. We can teach your dog a visual cue that tells him ‘whatever I am doing, it’s boring and you don’t want to be involved’, This is very good for dogs who are mostly frustrated and feel they are missing out
  4. We may determine you need to speak to your vet about meds to help with the behavioural modification
  5. We may determine your dog is, in fact, stressed by choice and is better being told what to do/confined in a crate or pen. This is rare, but does occasionally happen

In reality, it’s likely we do a mixture of all of these things, and along the way, keep good diaries and notes, video records of training sessions, and keep adapting and tweaking the process as you go along.

It is extremely common that once anxiety is removed, which it should be within the first few weeks due to immediately stopping leaving the dog to experience the distress, we start to uncover other factors, particularly frustration.

It is also important to take a holistic view, looking at the entirety of the dogs day-to-day life: where they live; where they walk; what sort of exercise they do; what they experience daily. To really do this well, keep a diary of your dog’s days, include training sessions, behaviour mod sessions, but also include walks, what happened that day, visitors, a trip out, building work, etc.

Also look at how your dog sleeps, Where do they choose to sleep? How long do they sleep? Do they achieve REM sleep (twitching, dreaming sleep)? Do they need to be curled up touching someone, or in a cosy spot, or can they just crash out anywhere and get good quality rest?

Fixing separation anxiety is not about finding one cool clever trick that magically resolves things. It is lengthy, it is tedious, the progress is in minute increments NOT huge steps. It is done at your dog’s pace.

It will likely go back and forth, progress and back-slide, plateaus and sticky patches. It is emotionally draining and expensive in terms of daycare, pet sitters, and also dealing with friends and family members who are not patient or understanding.

We’d strongly recommend that you hire a professional who specialises in separation anxiety. Someone who you speak to weekly, or several times a week, who reviews and alters your behaviour mod program, who can liaise with your vet, who can review videos and training diaries, and crucially, who can offer you the emotional and moral support you will need.

While the actual work involved in modifying behaviour and training to overcome separation anxiety is not particularly difficult, the time-frames are stressful, because we simply cannot say ‘yes your dog will be fixed next week/month/six months’, etc. We really wish we could!