If you have a dog with separation anxiety, you’ve probably heard and read suggestions on how to fix it. While most advice is well intentioned, there are several common myths about treating separation anxiety that aren’t likely to resolve the issue and may make things worse.
One of the most common myths is that your dog developed separation anxiety because you let him sleep in the bed with you or follow you around everywhere. The truth is, we don’t really know why some dogs develop SA and others don’t. Many of our dogs follow us everywhere and sleep with us without developing separation anxiety. A study by the University of Georgia found that dogs with SA didn’t spend any more time in proximity to their owners than dogs without SA. The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found while 84% of dogs with SA shadowed their owners, 64% of dogs without SA did as well. Humans make good stuff happen for dogs, so it makes sense they’d want to be where we are.
Confining a dog to a crate is often advised to prevent a panicking dog from destroying the house and having potty accidents. Crating in general can be useful, and some dogs with separation anxiety do OK in a crate. However, for most SA dogs, the added confinement of a crate can cause more distress, to the point where the dog is breaking nails and bloodying his mouth in efforts to escape. When training an SA dog, we always work at a level the dog can handle without panic, which can make crating unnecessary.
Use an anti-bark collar. Most dogs with separation related behaviors will vocalize when left alone. Barking and howling can certainly be an annoyance for neighbors. While a bark collar can suppress the barking, it doesn’t address the dog’s underlying emotional distress. Adding the pain and startle that come with a shock or spray collar just compounds the dog’s anxiety.
Another common suggestion is leaving your dog with a food toy when you go out. Give him something to do and he’ll learn to relax. While many SA dogs won’t eat when alone, some will happily work on a food toy. However, once the toy is empty, the panic starts. For these dogs, a food toy could be useful for brief absences. Just make sure you come back before the food runs out.
Getting a second dog might seem logical. If your dog is afraid to be alone, having a companion should solve that, right? It might work. But it might not. A second dog may have his own issues that need addressing. For example, if new dog is reactive to noises outside, it may trigger the resident dog’s panic.
Even if a second dog helps, there may still be times when they can’t be together. How will you manage the resident dog’s anxiety in those situations? Having a second dog doesn’t rule out the need to work on the current dog’s anxiety.
Separation anxiety is a phobia of being alone and there is no quick fix. Treating it requires a commitment to not to leave your dog for longer than he can handle and working systematically to teach him that being alone isn’t scary. Working with a credentialed separation anxiety trainer can help you improve your dog’s quality of life and give you the support you need to work through this challenging condition.
Lori Morrison is a certified professional dog trainer and owner of Waggin’ Tails Ranch in Ellensburg. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.