Why it Happens; What to Do
Dogs are our best friends for some really strong reasons. They’re always delighted to see us, they’ll follow us anywhere, and they’ll never run off with somebody else. Those traits are hard to find in another human. Most everybody I know does their best but, in some ways, dogs are the most special friends. They’ll never leak a secret.
So what can you do if the dog who has stolen your heart damages your house while you’re away-often? How is this possible? This dog loves you beyond words. More than frustrating, separation anxiety can damage the bond that makes these special pets our best friends.
I’ve dealt with hundreds of these cases. These pet parents are desperate. They struggle with the daily angst of coming home to face…, well, sometimes hundreds of dollars of damage. Your mind can go wild with why a dog so special would run amok while you’re away. Does she dig holes in the carpet to spite you for leaving her alone? Has he torn through the sheetrock next to the door so he can be with you? Does she miss you that much?
Separation anxiety is nobody’s fault. And it’s common. A large survey found that 17% of well-loved dogs struggle with overwhelming fear when left home alone.1 We have a generous trove of research and a lot of experience. This disorder comprises 20-40% of a veterinary behaviorist’s case load. The good news is that we can make life better for the great majority of them. When behavior management is combined with medication to reduce anxiety we see improvement in 72% of our cases.2 There are no simple solutions; real improvement takes serious work on everybody’s part.
Chloe was 3 years old the first time I sat down with her and her people, Dennis and Jody. A really sweet springer spaniel this dog’s destructive behavior had started a few months previously. Her folks had tried some of the fixes that popped up on an Internet search but nothing had helped their girl. They badly needed a solution.
This little family had had an older dog named Gus who was Chloe’s best friend. Gus was a really good guy – relaxed and stable. He even looked out for Chloe when she mixed it up at the dog park. She followed him everywhere, inside and out. But Gus, a big boy and a canine senior, became very sick and passed on, dealing everybody in the family a tough blow. That’s when Chloe started to fall apart when she was alone.
Dennis and Jody were retired and home most of the time. They had always crated their dogs when they were away, believing that everybody would stay safe and out of trouble. Prior to Gus’s death Chloe never damaged her bedding. She camped out in her crate right next to her big brother’s and, by all appearances, was relaxed and fine while her folks were out on the town, dancin’, drinkin’, and carryin’ on. (Actually, having gotten to know these senior citizens, I think they had quiet dinners and attended lectures.)
It turns out that videos of seemingly well-adjusted dogs show that many struggle with significant anxiety, quietly wringing their little paws while home alone. A change in their life, even a minor bump in the road, like a variation in their person’s work schedule, can upset their tenuous grip on sanity, causing them to destabilize. For others, desperate attempts to escape their crate or their house or their yard make their misery obvious.
Following the loss of her BFF Chloe didn’t cope at all well with being alone. She started chewing her pad and pushing it around inside her crate. As Jody and Dennis headed for their car they could hear Chloe’s high-pitched cries. Arrivals back home became highly charged and prolonged reunions. Chloe was often clingy, closely following her people from room to room. Separation anxiety had been simmering for a long time for this girl. Now the lid had blown off.
Looking back, it became clear that Chloe had been over-bonded to Gus, her constant companion. After his passing she transferred her hyper-attachment to her people. Alone and confined to her crate she was now seriously distressed.
I explained to Jody and Dennis that whether they adopted another dog or had Chloe continue as their only pet, we could only get our arms around this problem if we reduced her runaway anxiety. It would also help Chloe a great deal to engage her brain in a natural canine activity while she was alone. She needed something so compelling that she could abandon her angst. Just like a real live dog in the wild, Chloe could forage for her survival – at home and without close confinement.
I told this confused springer’s dog parents to withhold her morning meal on days when they both planned to be away. On their way out the door they were to ignore their Nervous Nellie as they dropped a couple of food toys, loaded with really tasty morsels. Our long term goal would for Chloe to actually look forward to her alone time because that would be her chance to engage her innate survival instincts. She is a dog, after all. It was time for her to live like one.
Many affected dogs, beside themselves with angst house soil, dig, scratch, chew, and howl. After returning home to daily disasters many fraught folks, flummoxed and frustrated, protect their homes by confining their demolition dogs to a crate or a run. This almost always goes badly.
It’s really stressful coming home to find your wigged-out dog soaked in slobber, the crate and its exhausted inhabitant across the room, and its padding shredded. Do you face a tomorrow as emotionally draining as so many yesterdays? Trapped and traumatized, dogs have broken their nails, lacerated their lips, and even fractured their teeth in their frantic attempts to escape. They need more space, not less. Lose the crate; forget the dog run. Research-based behavior solutions are the only path to sanity.
There’s an important human side to this debilitating canine disorder. You love your dog and you really like your stuff. Frustration, even anger, are understandable. Coming home to find yet another costly disaster can really strain a relationship. But punishment of any kind, including yelling, actually worsens the problem.
Confronted by an angry leader an agitated dog learns to associate even more intense anxiety and fear with the whole event. Instead you can provide your dog with the security of an innate canine structure. Leaders of canine social groups ignore their subordinates as the leave and return. This is not how people in a human family behave because we’re not dogs.
I told Jodie and Dennis to act as though they had no dog when departing and returning home. Regardless of what they found when reentering their house they were to show no emotion. A simple kindness that is necessary for any frightened pet is to not scare them all over again.
Science has discovered a genetic predisposition for many dogs with separation anxiety. These pets don’t lose their minds when they’re alone because of boredom or loneliness; their attachment is excessive and unhealthy. They are over-dependent. These dogs struggle to adapt but have failed. They would so much rather be relaxed. If this is your dog there is no cure but there are good ways of making life better for everybody.
Anxiety this severe has to be taken seriously because it represents a significant neurochemical imbalance in the brain. It’s a physical disorder in this complex organ between Chloe’s ears that was crying out for help. We have safe, well-researched, and effective medications that help pets like her to think clearly so they can learn healthy alternative responses.
The brain is immensely complicated. Decades of robust research on learning theory, operant and classical conditioning, and treatment for neurologic disorders manifested by behavioral symptoms are now validated by advanced brain imaging methods like fMRI and PET scans. The circuity upstairs involves multiple inputs from a variety of neural centers. As we learn about what, why, and how the brain functions we discover more ways of helping.
Some pet parents have been reluctant to accept medication, concerned that their otherwise happy playful companion would become a zombie. But we can and do adjust the out-of-balance neurotransmitters at the root of this dysfunction with no side effects. Dogs without this advantage don’t have a snowball’s chance in that place where their people live as they arrive home to find another break-out attempt. For dogs wracked with overwhelming panic, medications are essential to recovery.
Reconcile® is a chewable, once daily, veterinary approved brand of fluoxetine. We have vast experience with it and have found it to be indispensable to the long term improvement of many dogs. Clomicalm® is another chewable antianxiety prescription that makes life better. Which is the right choice? Every case is different. By dosing meds carefully and matching the right treatment to the individual we can make success possible without sacrificing any of that active, loving personality. In the right hands modern medicine saves lives.
Behavior modification, of the scientific variety, was another essential component of Chloe’s treatment. She needed the freedom to move around the house. I asked Dennis and Jody to lose the dog crate and allow Chloe her freedom. To find out exactly what she would do we planned a few trial absences. I had them aim a smart phone at their door, carry out their normal preparations to leave home while fully ignoring their dog (just as a real canine leader would), and drive away. A 10-15 minute errand provided video evidence of a dog who checked the door a few times but who also scrounged sustenance from her food-dispensing toys. Chloe, happy for the chance at a productive life, spent most of her time working her food loose, and largely abandoned her fears. When I saw that video I knew we were on the road to health.
Providing primal survival behavioral opportunities for a really hungry dog matters. In the wild they thrive mostly on carrion. Always searching for their next tid bit, free living dogs work loose bits of food wherever they find it. Pet dogs, with too much time on their paws, can shift their energy away from escape attempts and redirect it toward doing what comes naturally to all of them – surviving. Food-dispensing toys and puzzles are a godsend for these dogs.
There are lots of different food toys. The best ones for your dog are those he finds irresistible. You’ll need to purchase a bunch of them and be ready to donate those that don’t get much attention. Personally, I prefer the Twist ‘n Treat® from PetSafe. (Actually, I prefer it for dogs. I, like most humans, eat from a plate.)
The Twist ‘n Treat has a funky shape that makes it hard for a dog to hold still. You can easily adjust the challenge by screwing the two halves closer together or by leaving them farther apart. You can load it with canned food and then freeze it prior to longer absences. This hard-to- manage dog food Popsicle can challenge a solitary dog’s brain, lips, tongue, teeth, and paws for a long time. When Chloe was finally done scraping loose every bit of food, she had expended a serious amount of energy. That girl was good and pooped when her folks arrived home. And a tired dog is a happy dog.
There is much more. The calming pheromone from an Adaptil® diffuser, plugged into an outlet near your dog’s favorite spot, will promote a more relaxed emotional state. Adaptil is safe and won’t interact with medications.
Jody and Dennis also gifted Chloe with psycho-acoustically designed music called Through a Dog’s Ear®. Follow-up videos of this formerly wigged-out, home alone springer spaniel reinforced my faith in modern science.
There are even more ways of improving a dog’s likelihood of success. Teaching them to stay calm when seeing their person get ready to leave home (desensitization to predeparture cues) can prevent a ramp-up of their anxiety. Independence training – reducing the unhealthy clingy behavior – has been crucial for many others. You’ll find details on these techniques below.
In the end, Chloe improved nicely. Dennis and Jody commented on how much better she felt when they arrived home, having cleaned out her food toys. This little family was winning but I had to caution them that there can be relapses. They recently added a second dog to their family. It’s too soon to say whether he will be Chloe’s rock like old Gus had been. I will continue to monitor this girl and fine-tune her management. They all deserve the best possible life.
Separation anxiety will always be challenging. There won’t ever be guaranteed success – not in my lifetime, anyway. But most dogs who get the thorough care this disorder requires do much better. Your dog loves you intensely. You and your veterinarian should do whatever it takes.
Thanks for caring. I’m Dr. Jeff Nichol.
- Voith VL, Borchelt PL. Separation anxiety in dogs. In: Voith VL, Borchelt
PL, eds. Readings in Companion Animal Behavior. Yardley, PA: Veterinary
Learning Systems; 1996:124-139.
- Simpson BS, Papich MG. Pharmacologic management
in veterinary behavioral medicine. Vet Clin North Am
Small Anim Pract 2003;33:365-369.
Start by making a list of your predeparture cues. You should use only the simple ones like putting on your jacket or picking up your keys. Big departure cues like showering and blow drying hair are too time-consuming for desensitization training.
Typical predeparture cues:
- Picking up the car keys.
- Grabbing her purse
- Gathering the kids, calling to them to get ready to go somewhere
- Brushing teeth
- Grabbing a coat
Practicing predeparture cues when you are not really leaving:
- Ignore your dog when practicing departure cues.
- Practice picking up keys, for example, in the absence of any other departure cues so she realizes quickly that no one is leaving.
- You can practice departure cues at other times too. For example, picking up the keys and putting them down while she is enjoying a frozen food toy in one of her comfort areas.
When your dog seems relaxed during these practice sessions go through your leaving routine, picking up your keys, etc. but not going anywhere. If she jumps up from her food toy you can take away the food toy and put it back in the freezer. Don’t tell her you weren’t really leaving. Completely ignore her if she jumps up from her spot where she was enjoying the food toy.
Have your dog get accustomed to dragging a 6 foot leash around the house. Have it attached to her for at least an hour before starting this exercise. When she is in one of her comfort areas drop a food toy on the floor near her (you can start with loaded food toys that are not frozen-do what works). When doing this, avoid any communication (including body language).
- In a specific room, provide a bed or pad and encourage her to use it to chew on her toys while you are there.
- Saying nothing to her, drop a loaded food toy on a place that is comfortable for her. If she gets up lead her back by a leash that she drags from her collar. Ignore her as you do this.
- Using a stay command, have your dog lie and stay while you sit as far from away from her as you can without her getting up. This should be relaxing so make it easy for her.
- If she gets up you can take away the food toy. Ignore her. Try again later.
- Start with 3-5 minute sessions. If this seems hard for her at the start you can shorten the length of time.
- Repeat these sessions as many times each day as you can but allow 20 minutes or more between sessions.
- As your dog learns to relax as you sit nearby, sit a little further from her. Repeat at each distance over several sessions, only graduating to a greater distance when she is clearly relaxed at the previous distance. Be patient and take baby steps.
- Eventually try leaving the room, or even the house (to get mail, etc.), for short times with her holding the down/stay command. Your goal is to have her feel comfortable in your absence for longer and longer periods of time – making her more independent.
- Starting today, and for the rest of your dog’s life it will be essential to ignore her during your preparations to leave home. It is equally important to ignore her when you arrive home until she is calm and relaxed. Ignoring her at these times matters because when she is anxious she is watching you for validation. If you respond to her in any way you will have rewarded her anxiety.
- Ignore your dog when she seeks attention while she is anxious. Paying any attention to her at these times will encourage more anxiety.
- Give your dog regular vigorous exercise.
When your dog can be in her comfort spot enjoying a food toy for about 10 minutes you can start to practice desensitizing her to predeparture cues at the same time.