Training Tips

Dog Separation Anxiety Handbook

A calm dog is possible Image by Dogology

What is dog separation anxiety & how do you stop it?

Separation Anxiety is Togetherness Addiction.

Separation anxiety is one of the most common problems people experience with their dogs. We have simple and straightforward methods to fix it! First we’ll clearly define what the symptoms are, then briefly describe why it happens, and then show you the steps to the solution. At the end there’s a summary to stick on your fridge.

How do you know if your dog has Togetherness Addiction?

Does your dog seem stressed, anxious, insecure, unsure, or nervous when you leave home – or even when you leave the room? Symptoms of separation anxiety include: quivering, whining, panting, drooling, barking, destroying your home or your stuff, constantly following you around when you’re home, intense pacing, urinating/defecating indoors. In extreme cases, dogs who are left alone can cause serious injury to themselves by scratching through walls, clawing doors, or by breaking windows during attempts to reunite with their owners. This can result in cut paws, or damaged nails or broken teeth!

Why is your dog stressed out when left alone?

Some people focus on imagined abuse that may have happened to a rescued dog, or the stress of life changes, but the main reason is that it isn’t natural for a dog to be alone. Dogs are pack animals who normally would not be spending most of the day by themselves. However, since we are responsible for bringing dogs into our human world, it’s up to us to show our dogs how to deal with spending some time alone and learning to enjoy it, or at least how to calmly cope with the situation.

And before you ask, getting another untrained dog to keep your dog company will definitely NOT solve the problem! Dogs can quickly teach each other bad habits, and then you’ll have two problem dogs. Instead, teach the dog you already have how to be perfectly calm and well behaved.

Owners unwittingly make the situation far worse by encouraging clinginess. Are you rewarding and reinforcing your dog for remaining close to you by being overly affectionate, constant patting or touching, or talking too much to your dog? Are you allowing your dog to follow you around and to be constantly near you? People can feel guilty for leaving their dog home alone all day, and then overcompensate by lavishing their dog with unearned attention, praise and affection.

What to do if your dog has separation anxiety?

The main thing is to teach your dog to relax and adjust some of your everyday routines so your dog learns to remain calm rather than freaking out when they need to be left alone for a while. We will show you how to teach your dog that calmness is a super power! Rather than letting your dog remain in a state of fear or anxiety, show them how good it feels to be calm and balanced.

5 Steps to Stop Separation Anxiety

Here is a series of proven methods to eliminate and/or prevent separation anxiety. Don’t just pick the steps you like. Do all of them. The methods work together in an integrated approach that not only gets to the root of the problem (to stop the cause) it also addresses how to stop the bad habits (the effects) that resulted from your dog feeling so unbalanced and distressed.

So, here are the components of a household management system to teach your dog how to remain calm and relaxed, even in your absence. These are also the core elements of our Board & Train programs because they provide HUGE benefits to a dog’s overall state of mind, as well as building trust, respect and calmness.

Control the space in your home

Your new job is to create distance between you and your dog while you’re at home. Allowing your dog to follow you around at home is a common way separation anxiety gets started. Teach your dog to relax in one place, such as on a mat, cot, or dog bed. Work on increasing the time your dog stays in that place. Use the Place command to teach your dog to be quiet and settle down for increasing periods of time. Ask him/her to lie down and remain there while you go out of sight when you’re home. Use the “place” command, down-stays, and a crate to manage your dog’s movements.

It’s an essential skill for your dog to learn how to be alone and exist on their own. If your dog can’t exist calmly while you are in the same room, how can you expect them to know how to be calm when you leave them alone at home while you go to work? So, never allow your dog to be your shadow, or follow you as you move around your home.

Crate train your dog. Practice putting your dog in a crate for a couple of hours, even when you’re home. You don’t want the dog’s time in the crate to only be associated with your leaving. With practice, the kennel will feel like a restful place to hang out. Teach your dog to relax in a down-stay in the crate, even with the door open. Your dog will learn to chill out on their own, rather than stressing out about what you’re doing, begging, or pestering you for constant attention.

Calm is a Superpower

What is your dog’s energy like while indoors? Make the inside of your home a *calm zone*. Teach your dog that indoors is not the place for jumping around or frantic play. It’s not okay to race over to bark at the window, zoom around from the sofa to the chair, to chase the cat, or to herd or nip at your kids. If you don’t create calmness within your home, how can you expect your dog to be calm when facing the exciting distractions outside of your home?

Remember that intense excitement does not mean that your dog is happy. Over-excitement is unbalanced energy. In a group setting, other dogs will instinctively and harshly correct a dog who is over-excited and behaving anxiously. Humans have been taught that a wildly excited dog is happy. The truth is that a calm dog is happiest, in a peaceful, contented way. It’s not exciting to look at, but it’s true.

Silence is golden

If your dog is struggling with separation anxiety, one of the most important things you can do is to make your arrivals and departures a huge NON-event. When you leave to go to work, or return home from an errand, don’t make a big deal about it. Leave the house with as little commotion as you’d make when you leave the room to go to the washroom. Simply kennel the dog and leave. You certainly don’t want to use a sad cooing tone or an excited, high-pitched voice; “Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon! It’s okay!” “Oh, Buster, I missed you so much! Hoozagooddog? You are! Yes you are!” Of course you love your dog, and your dog knows it, but saying all of these things in a language your dog doesn’t understand only tells your dog to start stressing out. Don’t ask your dog questions, such as, “Do you want to go in the car, do you want to eat, or do you want to go for a walk?” Of course they do! So don’t ask, because it gets your dog over-excited and more likely to make bad choices. Dogs don’t know much English, but they do understand energy. So when you come home, completely ignore your dog and greet your family members, or go to the washroom, or get a glass of water first. Then, calmly say hello to your dog ONLY when s/he’s *calm*. This reinforces the good behaviour you want them to learn.

One of the best things about dogs is their responsiveness to our emotions. Dogs have an exquisite perception of our emotions and they are very expressive themselves. They read our body language, hear our tone of voice, sense our energy and respond in kind. In this way a dog’s behaviour can mirror our behaviour and energy. So it’s our responsibility to control ourselves in order to keep their energy balanced, and to provide calm assured guidance, rather than making them anxious, or allowing them to remain anxious. Teaching a dog is a great opportunity to work on improving ourselves as well. Sometimes we don’t get the dog we want, but we get the dog we need.

Reduce attention & affection

Put your dog’s needs ahead of your preferences. Your job is to do what’s right for your dog, rather than doing what feels good for you in the moment. Excessive verbal praise, physical touch, and treats exacerbate separation issues. Lower the excitement levels and create calmness by dramatically reducing food rewards, verbal praise and physical touch. Too much attention and affection increases excitement and stress and inspires more unwanted behaviours with your already anxious dog. We want our dogs to exhibit self-control, so we need to work on our own self-control. Lavishing a dog with unearned rewards is really rewarding to the human. It’s selfish and psychologically harmful to an already anxious dog. When a dog is feeling insecure and unbalanced, the owner needs to reduce unearned affection and adjust the amount of structure the dog is getting. Structure and predictable rules make dogs feel safe.

The Structured Walk

Boredom and lack of exercise can result in stress and destruction. Ensure your dog is getting the proper amount, and right type of exercise. You don’t want to amp your dog up with wild, crazy wrestling or racing and romping just before your leave. Structured dog walking is essential, not only for separation anxiety, but for all dogs. Structured walks not only help to resolve disobedience issues and behaviour problems, but also are used to teach overall good manners. This is not a casual meandering walk. Expect excellence and create the perfect, precision heel! Dogs need and love having a job to do. Your dog’s job is to walk at your side or slightly behind you, and at your pace, without pulling, sniffing, marking, pooping, lunging, staring/loading, greeting, or barking. When you stop, teach your dog to stop and automatically sit calmly at your side.

If you have one, a treadmill is also a great mental and physical workout for your dog, and is especially helpful during bad weather. Anxious dogs benefit the most from structured exercise, but it’s great for the wellbeing of every dog. If you’re going to be gone for long hours during workdays, you can hire a dog walker who knows how to lead your dog on a structured walk.

Crate Training

Kennelling not only keeps your dog and your personal possessions safe, but also helps significantly with eliminating separation anxiety. If your dog is stressing out, soiling in your home, or destroying your stuff, the solution is to use a kennel. This prevents tragedies such as your dog chewing on an electrical cord, or swallowing a chunk of your furniture and dying!

Putting your dog in a kennel is not being mean to the dog. Using a crate is actually good for your dog. It keeps them safe. It keeps your home and guests safe. It’s a quiet place to rest if there is too much going on for your dog to handle – such as if you’re having a party, or if you have a bunch of kids visiting your home for a play date. Crates are great for quiet times too, like when you’re sleeping or when you are very busy and can’t supervise your dog. They are also extremely helpful during house training / potty training.

As soon as you bring your dog home, begin training your dog to go in and out of the crate on command: “Kennel up!” Make the process short, fun and rewarding. Then, as with all training, consistency is key, so repeat often. The goal is for your dog to enjoy being in the kennel and to feel safe and snug in there. The crate is not a punishment, so never use it as such. It’s their bedroom, den or living room. Feed your dog in the crate to associate these two pleasurable experiences together. Feeding your dog in the crate also ensures your other pets or kids don’t steal your dog’s food – so your dog won’t feel the need to guard their food from them. You can also let your dog have their favourite bone to be used as a stress or boredom reliever while in the crate.

If your dog has escaped from a crate, use zip ties to strengthen the corners and leash clips to secure the door more firmly, or get a stronger crate. Once your dog learns that it can’t get out, it will relax.

You can also play music, or leave a TV or fan on for your dog to provide a constant background sound for a feeling of security. This can also block out or mask other sounds that may disturb your dog’s rest.

Correct Undesirable Behaviour

This section discusses 2 tools to snap a dog out of their destructive and anxious mindset. These tools are a bark collar and a remote collar. If you are new to these training tools, don’t let your fear of the unknown stop you from keeping an open mind, learning and growing. These tools are safe, humane, and extremely effective. Our mission is to help dogs, not to hurt them. On the other hand, dogs die every day from being dumped at shelters due to destructive and disturbing separation anxiety behaviours that get people evicted from their homes. Dogs with separation anxiety can seriously injure themselves while in a panic at being left alone. These tools do give the dog a split second of discomfort, to snap them out of panic-mode, rather than the hours of escalating distress that the dog was already experiencing. The goal is to change the dog’s state of mind in an instant to stop the anxiety in it’s tracks.

Bark collars save dog’s lives. Many people have abandoned their dogs or their dog ends up dying in a shelter due to neighbours complaining about their barking dog and the landlord threatening to evict. Instead, a bark collar gives a split-second stim to a localized spot on the dog’s neck that startles them and stops their barking. It is not painful, but yes, it’s uncomfortable. That’s why it works. After a few instances of experiencing immediate consequences, the dog realizes that barking isn’t such a great idea and they begin to relax instead. Bark collars work. They are humane and effective. They give the dog instant information to stop doing something that isn’t good for anyone – including themselves. Note: Do NOT use citronella spray collars. Dogs have exquisitely sensitive scent detection. The smell remains long after the barking has stopped – which is cruel and unfair to the dog.

Allowing a dog to remain in an anxious state is abusive. Instead, correct the whining. Rather than letting your dog to continue to stress out, get your dog to calm down by using one of the following methods:

Good quality remote collars (with at least 100 nuanced increments of stimulation) are incredibly effective tools to communicate with your dog even at great distances. The sensation is not shocking or electrocution. At the very highest level, it is very startling, but causes absolutely no physical harm. I know, because I’ve tested them on myself. The stimulation can only be felt at the spot the contact points are touching. It’s a very localized sensation that stimulates the muscles like a TENS units used by chiropractors and in sports or physical therapy. We have experienced amazing results with this tool. When introduced properly and used in a consistent way, it is an incomparable part of a dog’s overall training. This tool is used at very low levels to motivate and communicate, (in the same way you first show a dog on leash any basic command by applying leash pressure or by releasing that pressure) and it can also be used to give a dog a brief correction. A split second stimulation can instantly interrupt and correct a frantically stressed out dog. Using a remote collar is one of the most effective ways to help dogs get over their undue anxiety.

Used properly, it’s a fantastic wireless guidance system. Like any tool, or any object really, it can be used improperly, but we don’t ban water because a maniac used it to drown someone. We don’t blame knives if some lunatic used a knife to stab someone rather than to chop veggies.

These are effective and humane ways to quickly calm your dog down, to make it’s life better, and make your life better. This momentary startling interruption is much better than allowing the dog to remain in a tortured state of mind or perpetuating this state in a negative feedback loop. Dogs feel relieved to not be held hostage to the unnecessary stress, and begin to practice peaceful, calm behaviour instead.

Confidence Building

Gradually expose your dog to new environmental elements & reward their accomplishments with your calm attention and affection. You don’t need to have agility training equipment. Find interesting spots in your environment that you can use to build your dog’s trust and confidence by calmly and firmly guiding them to go under, over, and through a variety of spaces. For example, get your dog to try new things, such as climbing up on a stump or small boulder. Guide your dog under and over a park bench or picnic table. Visit new places, new situations & build trust through successful accomplishments while demonstrating and expecting calmness.

Keep a Consistent Routine

Dogs love a predictable home routine with consistent expectations. It makes them feel safe. Dog training isn’t something you do only at puppy school for an hour on Saturdays, or when your dog is misbehaving. Just as your parents didn’t schedule teaching you good manners and life lessons only for ten minutes on Tuesdays. Kids learn by observing and interacting with people in real life – every minute of the day. In the same way, dog training is a lifestyle. Integrate these new good habits and expectations of your dog into your everyday routine. Dog training for the real world isn’t a series of tricks. It’s holistic. It’s all connected. It’s about building a bond of trust, respect, calmness and good communication.

Okay, let’s summarize:

Follow ALL of the steps to eliminate &/or prevent dog separation anxiety.

  1. CONTROL YOUR SPACE by giving your dog jobs to do:
    1. don’t let your dog follow you everywhere or behave excitedly indoors
    2. teach your dog to rest in *Place* for increasing lengths of time
    3. use the crate even while you’re home & long down-stays with crate open
  2. CONTROL YOUR SELF to lower excitement levels & create calmness:
    1. no high pitch talking, excited questions, or indoor play
    2. leave the house with zero fuss (it’s no big deal, so just kennel up & leave)
    3. come home with zero fuss (*ONLY pat a dog who’s completely calm & relaxed*)
    4. strictly limit attention, affection & food rewards to reduce excitement, stress & anxiety (these are powerful rewards to be used meaningfully)
  3. STRUCTURED EXERCISE – This means formal on leash walks with rules, rather than off leash free-for-all runs. The goal is to engage both the body and the mind to release pent up energy, rather than creating a marathon athlete with more over-excited energy:
    1. structured walks (at a heel on a loose leash, with auto-sit when you stop)
    2. treadmill exercise for up to an hour per day (with constant supervision)
  4. CORRECT ANXIOUS BEHAVIOUR to help your dog calm down. Teach your dog that *calm* is expected & behaving anxiously (barking, whining, pawing the crate) isn’t allowed. Being firm & consistent with the other rules will result in needing fewer corrections here.
    1. use a bark collar to stop the barking when you’re not home
    2. use a quality ecollar with at least 100 incremental levels
    3. use a bonker (towel) or Pet Convincer (air) – see Solid K9 Training‘s video (great inspiration for this post)
  5. CONSISTENT RULES & LEADERSHIP make your dog feel safe:
    1. make as few rules as possible & ensure they are non-negotiable
    2. demonstrate fairness, calmness, patience (you are your dog’s role model)
    3. integrate dog training into your everyday routine as a normal part of life

Even if your dog doesn’t have separation anxiety, you can use these methods to prevent separation anxiety from starting in the first place! Avoid togetherness addiction and keep your dog in a healthy, calm, balanced state of mind.

We want to help you to build a bond of trust, respect, confident calmness & good communication with your dog so you can both enjoy a happy, balanced life together. Calm, well mannered dogs get to experience more freedom and are included in more aspects of our lives. Here’s to your success!

Note: Many dogs are now being medicated for behavioural issues such as separation anxiety. Medications are not a cure, do not address the cause, but only temporarily mask the underlying problem (if that) and can have seriously adverse side effects. It is much more humane to *teach* your dog the behaviours that are welcome and helpful, and to correct them when they make mistakes to be crystal clear. Instead of meds, treat the root cause of dog separation anxiety (stress & overindulgence) and create the solution (calmness & structure). A good dog trainer will be happy to work with you and your vet to reduce and eliminate meds in order to clearly assess and address behaviour problems. It’s not like you can’t change it later. After the training is complete it would be easy to put your dog back on meds if that is what you and your vet feel is in the best interest of your dog’s mental and physical health. After thorough training and behaviour modification, most dog owners discover that their dog no longer needs meds to behave well.

Congratulations for putting your dog’s needs ahead of your preferences and for taking the time to teach your dog to have calm, self-reliance!

Wishing you and your dog happiness, health and peace.