The pet that can’t be left alone: Separation Anxiety

Your lovable new puppy cries when you leave it in its crate. Or, your dog freaks out when you leave it to go outside. So, you go get them and bring them with you. Most people love it when the puppy cries for them. Of course they miss us because they love us so much. If we are not careful we might be creating or reinforcing separation anxiety. Our simple act of compassion might actually create more anxiety in our pets.

When we go to their aid we are supporting the behavior. If their antics
cause us to keep them with us they will never learn to be alone. They will never learn to deal with their initial anxiety. Most pups are pulled from their litter and their initial response is to whimper or cry. This is normal for puppies. It tells the mother dog to come and find them. But, if we support this behavior it can spiral into a full blown case of separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety is one of the most common behavioral problems Veterinary behaviorists treat. As you can imagine from the previous examples, it is created by the loving pet owner all too often. How many pet owners take their pet with them wherever they go because they can’t leave it alone? Many pets will exhibit destructive behavior or house soiling as a result of the anxiety they feel upon being left alone. If this anxiety is not treated it often gets worse. The dog’s destructive behavior is rewarded when the owner inevitably returns. All the pet knows is that if it destroys the house and or soils it their Master always returns thus reinforcing the behavior.

The secret to treating separation anxiety is teaching the pet to be alone. This is accomplished by exposing it to increasing amounts of time alone without it causing the anxiety. Initially, this could mean teaching the pet to stay on the other side of the room. With time one can increase the time alone until the pet forgets it is waiting for them. Since pets have a short attention span this is usually around 20 minutes. Separation anxiety usually manifests within the first 20 minutes of departure. We always want to reward good behavior. So, if the pup sits without crying it should be rewarded. Eventually it will learn this new game and the training can continue with increasing time alone.

Most importantly, the anxiety must be avoided. If your dog becomes anxious due to this training you are creating too much separation. You’ll need to shorten the time and distance you are away from them. The key is to gradually increase the time alone as long as the dog can handle it. Anti-anxiety medicine can shorten the amount of time needed for this training since an anxious dog cannot learn. The object is to allow separation without it causing anxiety.

Most dogs with separation problems read cues that you are leaving. This is usually the trigger for the aberrant behavior. Jingling car keys, putting on boots or a jacket or starting up the car are common cues that dogs look for to begin their anxiety. So, eliminating these cues is of paramount importance in treating separation problems. Until the pet is cured you’ll have to start leaving your coat or keys or boots in some other place away from your pet.

Sometimes distracting them with games or a treat can be enough to preclude the manifestation of the behavior. Leaving a TV or radio on can also help them from feeling alone. One trick we use sometimes is teaching a hide-the-treat game. While the pet is running around looking for the treats we can slip out the door without leaving any cues. Once the dog finds its treat it will be too busy eating it to worry about where we are. If we can avoid the initial anxious period they may not exhibit any separation anxiety. This is learned behavior. If we avoid the triggers and distract them well enough they can learn new ways to cope with your absence…like sleeping until you get home. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Chris is an avid outdoor sportsman. He is a well known telemark skier (since 1982) in the Northeast and around his home mountain of Killington. Chris also enjoys rock climbing, windsurfing, tennis and hiking. Since he must be around to be available for emergencies, Chris spends a lot of time in his gardens growing both flowers and vegetables…with his pager on

The pet that can’t be left alone: Separation Anxiety
By: Chris Mangini, DVM
Woodstock Animal Care,
441 E Woodstock Rd., Woodstock, Vt.