Let's Talk: Treating Separation Anxiety

I have to give myself chocolate when I leave on a trip, because I find it so hard to say goodbye to my dogs. But I’m not the only one who suffers when being separated from someone I love. Separation anxiety (SA) can be a serious problem and dogs who suffer from it may panic when left home alone: they may soil the house, destroy window molding, howl for hours on end, pant, shake, or drool entire lakes of saliva when you leave.

SA can be a serious and frustrating problem, but there’s good news: Its treatment has a high rate of success. If you follow the recommended training schedule to the letter, most cases are resolved in 6-8 weeks. It would be impossible to cover every step in one article, but here are my top 3 tips to get you started.

1. Make coming and going boring! Teach your dog that your arrivals and departures are nothing to get excited (or anxious) about. It’s hard to not get excited when you get home and there’s a wriggly, soft pup waiting for you, but calm is key. Keep your greetings quiet and restrained; you can love up your dog and still be serene and peaceful.

2. Begin a desensitizing and counterconditioning plan. Teach your dog to feel calm when you leave. Break your leaving repertoire into tiny steps and take note of what actions trigger your dog. Then begin counter conditioning each trigger, starting with the one that shows up first. For example, if your dog looks comfortable until you pick up your keys, start with them. Five times in a row, pick up your keys, give your dog a treat, put your keys down, walk away, and then go back to sitting on the couch. You can also desensitize your dog by picking up the keys randomly throughout the day without actually going anywhere.

3. Never correct or punish your dog after the fact. This goes for ALL dog behavior. She may look guilty when you come home, but Brandy’s appeasing posture is more likely designed to to avoid trouble (read more about the “guilty dog fallacy” here). Scolding her when you get home will likely do nothing but make it worse the next time you leave.

I can keep writing until this becomes a short book, but that already exists! If you’d like more information on SA, check out I’ll Be Home Soon! How to Prevent and Treat Separation Anxiety. It’s available at a new low price of $4.95, or even less if purchased in bulk for veterinarians, trainers, rescues, or shelters.

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