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Using Training to Address Separation Anxiety

Using Training to Address Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is a common behavioral issue in dogs that occurs when they become extremely distressed when left alone or separated from their owner. It often manifests as destructive behavior, house soiling, and excessive vocalization (barking, whining, howling). Separation anxiety stems from a dog's strong bond with its owner and difficulty coping when that person is suddenly no longer present. It can occur in dogs of any age, but is most common in recently adopted dogs or young dogs between 6 months and 3 years old. The primary signs of separation anxiety include:

  • Destructive behavior – chewing, scratching, or destroying doors, walls, flooring, furniture, etc.

  • House soiling – urinating and/or defecating when left alone, despite being housetrained

  • Excessive vocalization – nonstop barking, whining, and howling

  • Pacing, restlessness, panting, drooling, trembling

  • Refusing to eat or drink when owner is away

  • Following the owner from room to room to prevent being left alone

Separation anxiety can range from mild to severe. Mild cases may involve some vocalization or house soiling when the owner leaves, while severe cases can result in self-injury and destruction of the home. It's important to identify separation anxiety early and take steps to treat it, as it will not resolve on its own and can escalate over time if left unchecked.

Causes of Separation Anxiety

There are several potential causes and risk factors for separation anxiety in dogs:

  • Changes in Routine – Dogs are creatures of habit and any disruption to their routine can trigger anxiety. This includes changes in the owner's work schedule, moving homes, adding a new pet, etc.

  • Adoption – Dogs adopted from shelters have often lost their families/homes. The trauma of this change can manifest as separation anxiety later on.

  • Lack of Early Socialization – Puppies that do not experience enough positive exposure to different people, animals, places and handling during a critical developmental stage (3-16 weeks old) are at higher risk of separation anxiety.

  • Genetics/Breed Tendencies – Some breeds like Labs, German Shepherds and Vizslas are genetically prone to attachment and anxious behaviors.

  • Medical Causes – In some cases, an underlying medical issue like cognitive dysfunction or anxiety disorders can cause separation anxiety in dogs.

  • Negative Experiences – If a dog has had negative experiences when left alone, such as loud noises or strangers coming to the home, it can lead to anxiety about being alone in the future.

Separation anxiety often develops due to a combination of nature (genetics) and nurture (environment/experiences) factors. Puppies that inherit a genetically nervous temperament and are not properly socialized at a young age are most at risk. However, separation anxiety can develop in any dog.

Training Techniques to Treat Separation Anxiety

The foundation of any treatment plan for separation anxiety is a comprehensive training program that focuses on desensitization, independence, and positive reinforcement. Some effective training techniques include:

Desensitization

The goal of desensitization is to gradually get the dog accustomed to being alone by starting with very short departures and absences. This involves:

  • Practice short departures from the home (5-30 seconds) while the dog is distracted with a treat or toy and calmly return without greeting the dog.

  • Slowly increase the amount of time spent departing over multiple weeks.

  • Vary the routine – alternate which door you use to leave, put on different clothes or pick up different objects when departing.

  • Do this daily, multiple times per day, until the dog can remain calm for longer periods (30-60 mins). Go slowly to avoid further traumatizing the dog.

Create Positive Associations

Whenever separating from the dog, provide something positive like a puzzle toy stuffed with treats, a stuffed Kong, or a chew bone. This teaches the dog that being alone brings good things, not anxiety.

Make sure the positive association starts before you leave. Once you return home, ignore the dog for 5-10 minutes to discourage anxious greetings.

Independence Training

Gradually get the dog more comfortable with being in a different room away from people:

  • Practice having the dog in a separate room with the door closed for a few seconds, then open door and reward calm behavior.

  • Slowly increase duration of this separation training working up to hours alone in another room as long as the dog remains calm.

  • Do this during the day while you are home to supervise and reinforce calmness.

Prevent Rehearsal of Anxious Behaviors

Ensure the dog does not practice anxious behaviors while alone:

  • Confine the dog to a crate or safe dog-proof room during initial training.

  • Provide enrichment activities and avoid leaving access to destructible items.

  • Use calming aids like pheromone diffusers or calming treats/supplements to reduce anxiety symptoms.

Medication

In severe cases of separation anxiety, prescription anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication may be recommended by your veterinarian. This can help dogs respond better to training.

Consistency & Patience

Desensitization training requires weeks or months of daily, structured practice. All family members must strictly follow the training program consistently. Expect some setbacks and be patient – progress will come.

Preventing Future Separation Anxiety

For puppies or newly adopted dogs that are at high risk of developing separation anxiety, owners can take proactive steps to prevent this behavioral issue from developing in the first place:

  • Socialization – Introduce puppies to many different people, pets, places, sounds, and handling during the critical 3-16 week socialization period. Focus on positive experiences.

  • Prevention – Never allow severe separation anxiety behaviors like destructive chewing or elimination in the home to become established habits. Use confinement, enrichment toys/chews, and training.

  • Independence – Avoid excessive attachment and dependence on the owner by teaching puppies to self-soothe and spend time away from people. Make sure other family members and pets also interact with the puppy.

  • Routine – Establish a consistent daily routine with scheduled feeding, potty breaks, training, exercise, and one-on-one play/training times. Dogs do best with structure.

  • Crate Training – Gradually crate train puppies to teach them to be comfortable spending time in their crate when alone. Make it positive with chew toys and food-stuffed puzzle toys. Start with very short sessions.

  • Exercise – Provide adequate daily physical and mental exercise to prevent boredom and pent up energy from contributing to separation distress. Exercise before separations.

  • Avoid Excessive Greetings – Do not make arrivals and departures overly emotional. Greet and depart calmly and quietly. Save play and affection for later.

With proper training, desensitization, management, and prevention, most dogs with separation anxiety can learn to become more comfortable spending time alone and no longer suffer from this challenging behavioral issue. Consult with a certified dog trainer or board-certified veterinary behaviorist for help creating an customized treatment plan for your dog's separation anxiety.

Summary of Techniques to Address Separation Anxiety

  • Gradually desensitize dog to being alone through structured daily training sessions starting with seconds alone then increasing duration very slowly over weeks/months

  • Provide stuffed puzzle toys, chews, or food when departing to teach positive associations with being left alone

  • Reinforce calm independent behavior in another room away from the owner via short separation training sessions that increase over time

  • Prevent destructive anxious behaviors with confinement, enrichment activities, pheromone diffusers, calming supplements when left alone

  • Seek prescription anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication from your veterinarian for severe cases

  • Ensure all family members strictly follow separation training protocols consistently over a long period of time

  • Proactively socialize and train independence in puppies/newly adopted dogs to prevent separation anxiety from developing

  • Establish structure, routine, crate training, exercise and avoid over-attachment and overly emotional greetings/departures

With time, patience and persistence, dogs can overcome separation anxiety and learn to be comfortable home alone through customized desensitization training programs tailored to each individual dog's needs. The bond between dogs and their owners can make leaving them alone very difficult, but with compassion and consistent positive training, separation anxiety can be successfully managed.

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