One of my blog buds has asked about Separation Anxiety, so I thought I’d share some info on what has helped two of my dogs who had Separation Anxiety.

First, let me state, I am neither a professional trainer, behaviorist, nor vet. Anything shared here should be run by your own team of professionals. It’s also just plain helpful to include their support and knowledge in your program.

Depending on the severity of the Separation Anxiety (SA), there are several approaches that may help. First and always, get your dog checked out by a vet to make sure there’s nothing physical that could be causing the SA. A full thyroid profile (not just the T4) is often telling. You can have your vet draw blood and then you can send it to Dr Dodds and get a full profile for $65. Pretty good deal. You can send whole blood and serum and get a full profile, CBC and full thyroid panel for $85- WAY good deal (that can cost $300 or more at most vets). Here’s the link for forms and directions.

Assuming the blood work comes back normal, I’d start with adding some basic natural remedies. I’ve found that melatonin (starting at 3 mg then 6mg then 9mg per day if you don’t get any results) may help. Adding a multi B (50mg) would help with serotonin levels some. I also like to add an adrenal support. Bach Flower Rescue Remedy (available at most health food stores) can also be beneficial. Some people have good luck with the D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) Electric Diffuser Kit. There’s also a spray that could be used on bedding, bandanas, crates, etc.

If a dog is suffering from severe SA, your vet may elect to try a mild anti-anxiety drug. But medication alone is often (usually) not sufficient to control behavioral problems, although they can be helpful in diminishing the symptoms. Once the SA is treated, the dog can often be weaned from the drugs.

I’ll Be Home Soon by Patricia McConnell and Dogs Home Alone by Roger Abrantes are both terrific books full of great advice. If you haven’t worked up a desensitization program on your own before, you’d definitely find these books helpful.

Vet Info has some good advice at how to look at SA:

Separation Anxiety may be the most common behavioral problem in dogs. Dogs can not ask you where you are going and when you will be home. They can’t be comforted by leaving a phone number where you can be reached. If they are worriers, their only option is to worry. This can lead to behavioral problems related to their stress if they exhibit it as inappropriate defecation or destruction of your home or possessions. It is a tough situation.

A dog is a social animal. It wants to be with the family and being alone is not an entirely natural situation. Some dogs can not adjust to this situation without help. As a puppy, a dog learns that making sounds brings its mother to it. So barking, whining and crying are natural reactions when the dog wants to be reunited with its family. It may also consider digging, scratching at the door or window and other behavior designed to allow it to escape the house and rejoin its family to be “normal”. Dogs may become so anxious that they tear up objects indiscriminately, defecate or urinate without control. If a dog is punished for these actions, the resulting increase in anxiety can make the whole situation worse. It is best just to ignore the destruction if at all possible. In order to treat the disorder, it is necessary to set aside some time to figure out exactly what is happening and to help your dog adjust to separation.

Stacy Braslau-Schneck, CPDT, has a great article on Separation Anxiety in Dogs with lots of good tips and advice. I agree with almost all of it. One exception is that I find crating a dog with SA can worsen the problem rather than help. If a dog is being really destructive, I’d rather find a small room in which I could enclose the dog (bathroom, etc.) with it’s crate there but open so it could enter and leave as desired.

The gist of creating a Desensitization Program (see Stacy’s article for details) is to first start by writing down the exact and entire order of your departure cues from just before your dog starts to alert (gets nervous, anxious, etc.). These are the chain of behaviors you perform on the days you leave the house (as opposed to the behaviors on days when you stay home).

Typical leaving cues are: Get dressed in work clothes. Get briefcase/pocketbook ready. Pick up car keys and briefcase/pocketbook on the way out. Walk out the door and lock it. Start the car and drive away. The sound of the car disappears. HELP! Dog’s all alone.

Once the departure list is clear, we can start desensitizing each step on that list.

Let me use the “Walking out the door” step as an example to illustrate how this works.

Dog follows you to door. You ignore dog. Calmly walk out door and close door behind you. IMMEDIATELY turn around and walk back in house. Initially ignore dog until dog is calm and then greet. Take a break and repeat. Repeat leaving and immediately re-entering until dog shows no stress.

Then walk out door and wait literally only two seconds before coming back in. Then four seconds, etc. The point is that you want to always work below the dog’s threshold of anxiety. If anything you’re doing is making the dog anxious, you’re moving too fast, or you haven’t started at the dog’s perception of the beginning of the Leaving chain.

It can be a long slow process, but your dog’s peace of mind, and your sanity, are worth it!