Skip to main content

What can be done about separation anxiety?

Back to overview

What can be done about separation anxiety?

  • Never punish your dog if they show signs of separation anxiety. They will not understand what they are being punished for
  • The first step is to talk to your vet as there may be an underlying medical condition and then either the vet or potentially an approved behavioural specialist will be able to provide detailed advice on how to manage the case. One of the key pieces of advice is to start as young as possible
  • The following measures can be helpful in some cases. It is important to make sure the dog is calm when performing any of the following actions. This applies to when first starting, but also if repeating the action quite soon after the first attempt.
  • Get the dog used to being on their own for short periods of time. The area you choose to do this in should be somewhere that the dog is familiar with at other times and not just when the person/people are leaving them on their own. The dog should associate the area with good things, not just being by themselves. If this area is to be kept separate from other areas, it should be separated using a gate type barrier (not a solid door) so the dog can still hear, smell and even see the person. Whilst crates might seem ideal, this may not be the case as the confinement of a crate can be a cause of anxiety in itself
  • The area should, of course, have a nice comfortable bed and plenty of fresh water must be available. Leaving an item of your clothing in the area can be a good idea, but this should be an item that you are not too attached to as it may not be in as good condition when you come back. Chewing is known to be a calming activity, so having a chew toy in the area and potentially a toy that contains food is a good idea
  • Some recommendations include leaving a radio or other source of background noise playing. Whilst this is a good idea to provide some stimulation for the dog, it is better to have the radio tuned into a station that is mostly talking rather than music
  • Now that the area has been prepared, how do you use it?
  • Start by putting the dog in the area from time to time, but not at regular times (to avoid predictability), and leaving the dog with a treat that should occupy the dog for more than a few seconds. You should plan to still be in the house, but not so far away that the dog cannot hear you. If when you try to leave the area the dog tries to follow you can initially remain in the area, but it is very important that you do not interact with the dog
  • After a short while (a few minutes at first) go back to the dog and open the gate. The ideal situation is that the dog carries on enjoying their treat and does not immediately rush out of the area. The time between you leaving the area and returning should be gradually increased
  • Once this is going well, it is now time to try leaving the house. This is done in a very similar way to before, with initial short time periods that get longer and longer
  • It is also important to manage the response to departure cues such as jangling keys or putting on a coat. This can be done by simply performing the actions when you are remaining in the house and the dog is already calm to break the association with these sounds/sights and being left alone. There can be many of these cues and getting the dog used to them as not meaning being alone should be done gradually. Try using only very few cues at any one time and not too frequently as this could trigger anxiety and make things worse instead of better
  • If there are some departure cues that cannot be avoided, such as the noise of the door being unlocked, it may seem difficult to manage, but using something like the noise of a washing machine to try to ‘hide’ the noise can be useful

What about medication?

  • Proper behaviour related training is the most important tool for dealing with separation anxiety. This takes a long time but medication is not a quick alternative. Without the training, medication alone will not have any long-term effects on the behaviour
  • Some cases may require medication for several months alongside the behaviour training

Can it be prevented?

  • Being aware of the signs of separation anxiety that may initially not be as disruptive can help, as the problem could potentially get worse with age – the earlier it is managed the better
  • Look out for any signs that occur after times when family members have been with the dog more than normal such as school holidays or family holidays with the dog
  • A dog that learns to remain calm when everyone is at home will help them to remain calm when everyone is out of the house
  • Management and training are not easy and require dedication from the owner as much as the dog

Success?

  • Medication alone is not going to have a long-term effect on the behaviour
  • Any effect of medication is not likely to be quick. It may be needed for a few months
  • You need to help your dog to learn to be on its own
  • It is important to habituate your dog to departure cues so that they no longer elicit a response and removing the predictability of the cues leading to the problem is also important
  • Following up with your vet/behaviourist on a regular basis is essential – keeping an accurate record of the situations (including the build up and possible cues) when the problem occurs is very useful

Tips & Tricks

Products

  • Zylkene is a natural choice for behavioural support to help cats and dogs cope with stressful situations.