Actionable 18 Steps to Treating Separation Anxiety
Pumpkin’s Story—A Family Effort
When Eveline and Jen arrived late to the adoption fair with their daughters, they weren’t sure if they would find the dog they had seen on Petfinder but, as luck would have it, there she was. Filled with wiggles and wags and desperate to jump up and shower them with kisses, Pumpkin was ready to go to her new home.
From the get-go, Eveline noticed Pumpkin had a difficult time being away from them, and the family began working on crate desensitization training. It took some time, more than a few weeks, but eventually Pumpkin could be in another room in her crate for an hour or so and not whine. The family had read everything they could find on the Internet and strictly followed the rules of ignoring Pumpkin when she whined or barked during their crate-training period and, while it was difficult for dog and humans alike, Pumpkin eventually calmed down. They were lucky—few separation anxiety dogs respond to such a training plan. The problem was, this only got them as far as the other room.
When it came to leaving Pumpkin alone in the house it was a completely different story. Pumpkin started barking and panting and putting up a huge fuss immediately. One time, she managed to pull a nearby curtain into her crate and destroyed it along with her bedding. The family tried ignoring her as they had done during crate training, but Pumpkin was experiencing a completely different level of distress and after just a few days, they knew they had to try something else. That’s when they called me.
It was obvious Pumpkin had to start from the beginning. Fortunately, Pumpkin had a genuinely positive association with her crate. Many separation anxiety dogs are crate averse, but Pumpkin seemed to find comfort in her cozy crate so we stuck with that as her safe zone. We started by simply going to the front door, touching it and returning. This was easy for Pumpkin to handle, which is why we started there. (Never start at a level that’s anxiety-producing for the dog.) Next we began opening and closing the door. Pumpkin paid close attention to that, so we repeated this exercise for a few days until she became bored with it. By the end of the week, we were able to step out the door, close it and immediately return without Pumpkin becoming concerned—success! In my eyes this was a triumph, but to the owners it felt like it took forever and they asked me repeatedly how this would ever turn into a real absence. Owners commonly feel this way, and it’s the trainer’s job to normalize the process, empathize, encourage the owners, and even try to make the whole repetitive business a little fun too.
In week two, we added duration. Getting to five and ten seconds was easy, relatively speaking. Going beyond that proved challenging for Pumpkin. After the ten-second mark, we moved along in increments of seconds at a time every few days or so. The owners were frustrated and started to have real doubts this method could work. I encouraged, counseled, explained the science, gave case studies, offered phone numbers of clients who had been through this before, and basically let them vent while keeping them on track. Painfully slowly, we made it to 30 seconds and then hit another plateau.
This was week three, by which time the owners deserved a gold medal for their patience. But that patience was wearing thin as continued progress seemed an eternity away—if even possible. We decided a trip to the vet was in order. Maybe having Pumpkin put on an SSRI would help. We continued with the daily exercises, knowing it would take a while for the medication to take effect and begin to help.
I explained to Eveline and Jen that it wasn’t uncommon to have a difficult start. Often we hit plateaus and then get a big jump in duration, and then later hit another plateau down the line. Sure enough, that’s what happened with Pumpkin. Suddenly (only a day after the vet visit, far too early for the meds to have kicked in), we saw a noticeable improvement in Pumpkin’s demeanor and were able to start raising criteria. In the course of a few days we went from 30 seconds to five minutes, and everyone was thrilled. Over the next week we could increase duration criteria in increments of minutes and by the end of week four, we were hovering around the fifteen-minute mark. Not too shabby!
With renewed optimism and dedication, Eveline and Jen rolled their sleeves up and got to work on their longer exercises. Their goal was to get Pumpkin to the point where she could stay home for a few hours by midsummer. In week five, they started increasing the duration in increments of a few minutes at a time and saw enough improvement to almost reach the 30-minute mark.
Many books and articles claim that if you get to 30-minute absences, your dog can handle being left alone for any amount of time. I personally don’t believe that, but I do think 30 minutes is a major milestone, so we were happy and celebrated the big breakthrough.
At this point I told them they could start increasing duration in slightly larger increments of even five to seven minutes. They were thrilled and went off feeling like nothing could stop them. Of course, we hit our next plateau two weeks later at around 55 minutes. Plateaus like this are the hardest. The owners have seen such great success and finally feel like there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and suddenly the dog seems to fall apart and their belief is shaken to its core. I jumped back in with encouragement, support, counseling, a review of how the process works, and did what I could to normalize the setback. The plateau was a big one and lasted several days, but we got through it and eventually moved forward again.
In total, Pumpkin’s program lasted just about five months. At the end, she could be left alone for four to five hours until the dog walker showed up. Late in her program we had experimented with leaving the crate door ajar, thinking Pumpkin might want a little more freedom, particularly for that length of time. She did great with this and interestingly, while she would come out of her crate on occasion, she most often chose to return to her crate to rest.
Pumpkin is a pretty typical case and I include it here so you can tell your clients with confidence that the first few weeks can be difficult and slow, plateaus are normal and long programs of several months are the rule, not the exception. Knowing this up front, they may get through any disappointment and frustration a little more easily.
Pumpkin’s family is such a happy one now, and after months of daily interactions with them, I can honestly say that I miss them—and I think they feel the same about me.
Charlie’s Story: The Challenges of Re-Homing
Gray flecks peppered his muzzle and made him look distinguished and beguiling. The thing was, Charlie was only five—far too young for so much gray. But stress does take its toll, and the gray was the outward mark of the internal anxiety that haunted Charlie’s life.
Charlie was fortunate. He landed with a good rescue organization that in turn found him an amazing owner, Ken. The two spent a few days getting to know each other and it seemed a heaven-made match. Buddies from the get-go. Then Ken went to the grocery store. Already walking back up the street to his home, he could hear Charlie’s mournful wails. He returned to a scene of pure destruction.
Ken contacted me that afternoon. He was completely enamored with Charlie, but he was also a pragmatic person. He knew he couldn’t keep Charlie if it meant never leaving him alone, and he didn’t have the time or resources to train Charlie. He asked me what it would take to re-home Charlie. I told him the grim truth. There just isn’t a surplus of people who have the time, funds and patience to adopt a dog who can’t be left alone. Finding such a home can be next to impossible. Ken was an optimist, though, and he vowed to provide the best possible transition home for Charlie. Until he found the permanent home Charlie needed—and he was uncompromising in his quest for that home to be perfect—Ken would support Charlie financially, send him to daycare and do anything else needed so he would never be left alone.
Ken and Charlie’s many other supporters went to work in earnest, posting ads and putting up flyers, getting the word out to friends, family members and so on. A few responses trickled in, but they always ended with, “surely I can leave him for just a short time here and there?” Ken and I had to turn away these well-meaning potential adopters because they didn’t fully understand what Charlie’s condition entailed. Weeks went by. A handful of amazing people came and went. A lovely woman in a retirement home fell in love with Charlie and almost adopted him, until her children stepped in and nixed the deal, saying it was too much responsibility. The woman was heartbroken, and even Charlie looked sad about that lost opportunity. Weeks turned into months. What little money Ken had was spent and now he was borrowing to make sure Charlie was taken care of. Walkers, daycare providers and trainers all did their best to pitch in. But Ken never lost faith, even when the rest of us began to wonder if Charlie would ever find a permanent home.
It took ten months. A young girl—who worked in a shop that sold sex toys, of all things—was looking for a dog. The other employees all brought their dogs to work. She loved those dogs and wanted her own, and when she saw Charlie’s ad, she felt he was the one. Because everyone shared an office and the dogs and people were on site the entire time, Charlie would never be left alone. Ken interviewed the girl and did a site inspection, and he found the environment to be the friendliest and most loving he could have wished for. Charlie’s new owner promised Ken he could visit and take Charlie on outings now and again. So finally, Ken handed Charlie over, knowing he had played a crucial role in securing a happy existence for this special dog and, most likely, had saved his life.
The moral of the story? Overcoming separation anxiety is tough, but finding a separation anxiety dog the right home may be even harder. This one had a happy ending, but that’s by no means always the case. Ken is the rarest kind of owner (and human being), and Charlie the luckiest of dogs.
Goody’s Story: Medications and Creativity
Goody the Greyhound had the most elegant-looking faux eyeliner I ever saw. Sweet and pretty as she was, her separation anxiety was wreaking havoc in her life. Her tremendous howling had put her owner into an almost comparable state of panic about what to do for her beloved dog. The owner’s job entailed working long hours, and although she was willing to do anything for Goody’s training, she was limited by the amount of time she could devote to it.
Right away we decided Goody was an ideal candidate for pharmacological treatment. After blood tests and a thorough health exam, Goody’s vet started her on a moderate dose of Clomicalm. In the evenings, Goody’s owner used what little free time she had to work hard on Goody’s exercises. Her hope was that incorporating medication would make a big difference in the overall plan. But time passed without much improvement. Sure, we saw small changes, but they were so small we wondered if they amounted mostly to wishful interpretation. The one area where Goody measurably improved was in her ability to tolerate being in the car while her owner went into a grocery store or coffee shop.
After a bit of time, the decision was made to switch Goody to a different medication, Buspar. Interestingly, we saw changes relatively quickly. Soon Goody tolerated brief afternoon absences between being dropped off by her dog walker and her owner returning home. This was encouraging. Goody still couldn’t bear to watch her owner leave, but at least she could handle a brief period at home without company, which told us she would eventually be able to tolerate more absences. We were getting somewhere.
More time passed and again the decision was made to change Goody’s medication, this time placing her on Prozac. It took a while before we saw any improvement, but when it came it was significant. Within a month, Goody was able to rest happily in the car while her owner went out for an evening dinner with friends. We were even able to keep Goody happy by loading her up in the car, taking a drive around the block, returning home to the garage and parking securely inside where she slept safely and comfortably while her owner was able to have a social life during her rare free hours. Even better, Goody could now be left alone for the entire afternoon without any problems. “Calm as a cucumber,” her owner happily reported each time I inquired. Mornings were still hard for Goody, and desensitizing her to the sight of her owner leaving took time, but after another month on Prozac and further practice of her exercises, Goody was fine and could tolerate even the morning routine.
Not every medication works in the same way for every dog, and you may have to experiment a little. But medications can make all the difference. Just ask Goody.
Mookie’s Story: Noise Phobia and Super-Sleuthing
The combination of dignified Shar-Pei wrinkles and Rottweiler markings made Mookie one of the most charming-looking girls around. Great to snuggle with and a champion kisser. But Mookie had separation anxiety from the first day her owners brought her home from the shelter. The owners worked hard from the outset to help Mookie get a life free of anxiety and she saw minor improvements. But there were severe meltdowns, which seemed to happen at random—and it made no difference that Mookie was the second dog in the home, by the way.
The apparent randomness was what stumped us, because separation anxiety is not an intermittent disorder. A dog doesn’t have panic attacks about being left alone some days, but then handle it well on other days. Given that her owner and I had managed to get Mookie to a place where she handled short absences without falling apart, why did she still experience such horrendous fluctuations?
We only had one clue to go on. Like many separation anxiety dogs, Mookie was noise phobic, and we thought a type of noise might be the culprit. The question was which noise? She didn’t like the sound of motorcycles or fire engines (who does?), but neither would send her into a full-blown panic.
After weeks of investigation we finally solved the puzzle. The neighbors had a team of gardeners come in once a week. For the most part, their equipment didn’t upset Mookie too badly, not even the blowers. But on days where the foreman didn’t come along, the gardeners turned cavalier about their job and, instead of watering certain beds by hand themselves, they would set up one of the sprinklers in the back. There, it would bang incessantly on the window just above Mookie’s confinement area. It was loud and it lasted for hours, and Mookie was terrified of it. On those days Mookie drooled, paced and destroyed everything in sight. She broke nails and tore her gums bloody.
Once discovered, the sprinkler was never placed in that spot again and the extreme bouts of panic stopped. Mookie’s separation anxiety was always there under the surface, partially because of her noise phobia, but eventually her owner was able to leave her alone (or rather with her canine housemate) for a few hours at a time. The lesson here is that understanding the factors contributing to separation anxiety is essential—and that bringing your best Sherlock Holmes routine can sometimes save the day.
Chloe’s Story: When Lives Are Wrecked
Danika and Jeff, newlyweds, had both recently embarked on demanding careers. Their teeny mutt Chloe was two years old. Chloe had been living with separation anxiety since puppyhood, but her condition didn’t begin to rule her owners’ lives until six months into the marriage when the couple moved to a new condo. Small and in a desirable location, the condo was part of a new development—and the homeowners’ association had strict rules. Jeff and Danika immediately got complaints about the nonstop barking while they were at work. Worse still, they came home every day to blood spatter all over the back of the front door and foyer.
That’s when the arguments began. Young, both in starter jobs, and financially strapped, they were poorly equipped to deal with Chloe’s distress, which now affected everything. They couldn’t go out to a simple dinner with friends because Chloe couldn’t be left alone. Danika couldn’t go with Jeff to company functions because Chloe couldn’t be left alone. Neighbors and the homeowners’ association were threatening them, and when Chloe had to be rushed to the vet after breaking a tooth and injuring her mouth during an absence, the vet bill cost money they couldn’t really spare.
When the couple met with me, Danika was crying and Jeff was angry. They’d been fighting in the car on the way to our meeting. Jeff was willing to give it two weeks of training, but didn’t want to spend more than a few hundred dollars. Danika was willing to give the training process longer, but acknowledged they only had a few hundred dollars to spend. She was certainly willing to spend more; they just didn’t have it.
They pleaded with me for advice. I watched the tape they brought me of Chloe being alone and it was indeed heartbreaking. She would spend her entire eight hours either barking while jumping at the doorknob and slamming her petite body into the door in an effort to escape, or collapsing to the ground in exhaustion while panting furiously. She bloodied her nose and sometimes her paws, scratching and scraping at the door. Her owners couldn’t take time off from their brand new jobs—nor could they afford a dog walker or daycare and, as Chloe had never been properly socialized to dogs, neither was a good option for her anyway.
My heart went out to Chloe’s owners. Their despair, love for the teeny dog, anger, hopelessness and misery were all evident. So I took care to be gentle when I broke it to them what it would take to get Chloe through her separation anxiety. I talked about medications, a private sitter and the training program that would have to be implemented immediately. After going over this and the costs involved, I suggested the possibility of re-homing. They agreed, and at first they wanted to have Chloe placed into a foster home, perhaps through a rescue organization, immediately.
I stopped them, and reviewed the realities. It would be horribly unfair to Chloe to place her into a shelter (if one could even be found that would take a dog with confirmed severe separation anxiety) or even a temporary foster environment, particularly with her lack of socialization to dogs and fear of most people and new environments. And inflicting Chloe’s disorder on an unsuspecting owner without full disclosure would be unethical. I had to talk them out of both options and let them know the type of fate that would likely meet Chloe in a shelter environment, where severe separation anxiety is often a death sentence.
This was not an easy conversation by any standards, but not only was it my responsibility to tell Jeff and Danika the truth, however painful, it was my job as a behavior counselor to help them do what was best for all involved. That means validating the heartbreaking decision to let Chloe go, yes, but not in any old way. To place Chloe in a shelter or rescue might have made them feel better, because they would not have had to be the ones to euthanize her, but Chloe deserved more.
Danika and Jeff decided to give themselves one month to search high and low for a home for Chloe, and fortunately their dedication paid off. Danika had a distant relative who had MS and was confined to her bed with 24-hour care. The relative was thrilled at the prospect of Chloe’s companionship—and Chloe would never be left alone. After a cross-state road trip, Chloe found herself in a loving new home filled with people around the clock.
Chloe’s story ended well, but the reality is that dogs rarely have this kind of luck. In severe cases with limited time and resources, euthanasia is sometimes the most humane option owners and trainers are faced with, as the fate these dogs face in the shelter or rescue environment is just too traumatic.
Olive’s Story: Slow Boat to China
Olive, nicknamed Olive Loaf because at the time there was a funny commercial on television about an olive loaf sandwich, is a Border Collie / Lab mix with enough energy for four dogs. And she too was a case of first-day-home-from-the-shelter separation anxiety. Her owners dealt with it mostly by not leaving her alone and after we first worked together, Olive learned to tolerate brief absences. Fortunately, that was as much as she would ever need to be left alone in a busy household with two young children and parents who ran a winery. Olive spent her days at the vineyard with her owners or hanging out with vineyard workers.
Then came the big challenge. Many years later, the winery was doing well overseas and Olive’s owners decided to move to China for a few years to market their wines there full time. They contacted me about how to get Olive through this move and how to transport her to China. Tough one. I’m not a fan of flying dogs in cargo for any reason, but a ten-year-old dog who has been desensitized only to brief absences? Out of the question. We talked about the reality of flying Olive and how it would affect her, on top of the move. That’s a thirteen-hour flight, after all.
Realizing that Olive would suffer too much, her owners altered their plans to suit their dog. The mother flew to China with the children; the father and Olive boarded a cargo boat instead for a slow, leisurely voyage across the Pacific. The moral of this story? Never underestimate the lengths to which loving owners are willing to go to spare their dog’s needless suffering. I’m asked all the time how I get my clients to commit to such intense training. Well, most of my clients love their dogs the way Olive’s parents do.