A Conversation About Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety is probably the most misdiagnosed of all common dog behavior issues. Many other behavioral issues can appear to be Separation Anxiety... ranging from confinement issues, boredom and just plain lack of housetraining. One of our jobs at Trainers Academy is to make sure that the right behavioral issue is being addressed.

Below is an e-mail conversation between Trainers Academy, LLC president, Lisa Patrona, Dip. CBST, CPDT-KA, ACDBC, AABP-CDT  and a concerned puppy owner.

Suzanne writes concerned about separation anxiety in her pup:

My adorable and sweet 7 month old Shepard mix that I have had since she was 1 month old. She suffers from more than one symptom of separation anxiety. I blame myself for some of it because I am currently working a lot of long hours. My parents stop in to check on her & play for a little while when I work extended hours. But she still cries, destroys and just looks sad when I leave her. I am very impressed with your website, especially with Lisa L. I would like to be contacted by her. I am very concerned I love my pooch, my family is very attached to her as well, I do not want to get rid of her & I refuse to medicate her!!! Please Please Please Please help me help my puppy.

Lisa responds: I needed more details so I contacted her for more information. Here are her responses, and my answers to them.

Suzanne wrote: I attempted to crate train her when I first got her but my roommate would let her out at night when she would cry (I work midnights so it was hard to enforce it) I tried to use it only when I was gone from the house & not at night but as she got bigger would become a little escape artist & get out. I just recently gave up hope on the crate, she would bend the bars & squeeze out, I am too concerned for her safety now.

Lisa's Answer: Ok Suzanne, I understand. Crating is probably not the solution for her. Although I think that she could be taught to like the crate (believe it or not!) the rest of your letter leads me to believe that there are other viable (and easier) options that should
be simple to institute.

Let's continue.....

Suzanne wrote: Most of the "destroying" is puppy things, low candles or papers & stuff on kitchen counter tops. The biggest & most expensive thing was my brand new Berber carpet (which is why I work 2 jobs) she tore a hole down to the padding. Since that, what I like to call "the incident" she hasn't messed with anything to that degree.

Lisa answers: I have good news! I do not think that your dog has separation anxiety. I think that she is simply bored, and not completely housetrained. The behavior you describe and the things she destroys are things that are accessible to her that she finds interesting, - including the carpet. Young dogs are very curious and exploratory, whatever they find that's interesting (new and different smells, textures, etc.) become prime targets for chewing. Dogs have an enormous amount of energy, and if they are left to find an outlet for it themselves, their first choice will almost always be to chew on something!

Suzanne wrote: She is fully housebroken. The only time she messes in the house is if I'm not home for an extended period of time or if I'm gone and my roommate doesn't wake up (a bomb could go off in the house and she wouldn't budge). But it is always right next the the back door. To my knowledge she has never vomited and has never had a problem with diarrhea.

Lisa answers: Fully housebroken means no accidents. The dog will "hold it" until it gets to the right place...which is outside. Separation Anxiety is commonly misdiagnosed, often times it's a house breaking, or a chewing problem (or a combination of both) instead!

Dogs have to develop the physical ability to "hold it" for longer and longer periods of time. The fact that she eliminates by the door means that she clearly understands that she needs to get outside, but she simply can't hold it. You need to ask (beg if necessary!) your roommate or parents to help you and your dog out here. She needs to get out more often, for now.

I strongly suggest that you cut back on her water intake when you're going to be gone for a long time if no one is available to tend to her. Water left down to be taken freely by the dog that hasn't fully learned to "hold it" yet is not a good idea - no, she won't dehydrate, so don't worry ; )

**See "Housebreaking Myths" on the Woofology website for more helpful information on the topic of housebreaking**

There's another key in this that disconfirms a separation anxiety diagnosis. The elimination would be far more frequent and most likely not by the back door. Understand that the disorder creates stress levels that are so intense that the dog literally has no control over it's bodily functions - diarrhea is a big indicator of a stressed state in the dog.

Suzanne wrote: Sometimes, rarely though if I don't gate my bedroom off (no door) she would pee on my bed when I'd leave her alone more than normal. I thought it was because of my scent.

Lisa Answers: It was more than likely the result of incomplete housetraining. I assume from the way this is written that simply gating her out of the room has taken care of the problem?

Suzanne wrote: The destructive behavior would vary. It used to be after 5 hours, now it could be as short as 1 hour or not even at all. When she used to get out of her crate it would be 9 out of 10 that she wouldn't even touch anything.

Lisa Answers: If this were separation anxiety, it would not be an "every once in a while thing", and the destructive behavior would more typically be directed toward entry/exit points (doors, door jams, windows and window frames, door walls, etc.)

Suzanne wrote: When I prepare to leave she follows me from room to room whining and just looks so sad.

Lisa Answers: I'm sure that she's not thrilled when you leave, but I don't think she's that worried/anxious either. You've felt convinced that she has SA and as a result, perhaps you feel "guilty" about your impending departure, so you probably pay a lot more attention to her as you go through your routine. Ignoring her more as you prepare to go will help a lot, simply carry on with what you're doing as if you didn't hear her.

In addition to the suggestions already given, I believe that all you need to do is

  1. Get her some exercise before you go

  2. Prevent her from chewing what you don't want her to chew

  3. Provide her with plenty of "her own stuff" to keep her busy while you are gone

  4. Work more diligently on housebreaking


Aside from solving the inappropriate chewing, the following tips will help her to look forward to your leaving! The idea is that when you leave, the environment becomes a treasure hunt. In no time, she'll be excited that you're leaving soon - oh boy!

Here we go:

  1. Get her some exercise before you leave - say 45 minutes before you prepare to go, get her out and run her ragged. The motto "a tired dog is a good dog" is very true!
     

  2. Be sure to prevent her access to things she "shouldn't" chew, like the candles and things on the counter. Put them up! If she can't get them, she can't chew them!
     

  3. Stuff a Kong with some squeeze cheese, or canned dog food, or peanut butter. Hey, why not make a parfait for her *lol*! Give this to her a few minutes before you go, and remember not to make such a big deal about the fact that you're leaving!
     

  4. In addition to the Kong, stuff a hollow bone too (stick a hot dog in there!) and leave it somewhere that she can easily find it, so when she's done with the Kong, she'll have something else fun to chew on!
     

  5. Leave some dog treats sprinkled around here and there for her as well. If you have a rope toy, soak it in some sodium free chicken broth and leave that too (maybe in the kitchen on a tiled floor) so that when she's done with the other goodies, she'll have yet another yummy to tackle - if she's still awake!


Notice that all of the suggestions involve very safe toys that you stuff or soak to make interesting on your own. DO NOT leave rawhides, pig ears or any other digestible type products for her when she is going to be alone.

One final note: Dogs can not associate their behavior with a punishment that is administered after the fact. If you ever come home and find that she's gotten a hold of and chewed something she "shouldn't" have gotten, getting angry at her will do no good. In fact, she will associate whatever she is doing at that moment (laying on the living room floor, sitting by the door, etc.) with the punishment - not what she did earlier.

I hope that this is helpful to you Suzanne. Thanks for writing.

Best of Luck,

Lisa Patrona, Dip. CBST, CPDT-KA, ACDBC, AABP-CDT