#12-Separation Behavior

I have just adopted a Belgian Malinois approximately 1 year old from the animal shelter. We have only had her two days, but she is getting progressively destructive trying to get into the house when we put her in the yard.  She was only at the shelter about one week, and I spayed her on Monday and brought her home on Tuesday.  She is very well behaved otherwise. Any suggestions?

Linda Westall, DVM


Hi Linda-

Congratulations on adopting a good breed. Your new dog sounds like a good girl with a separation-related behavior that may improve once she learns to feel secure in her new home. You are right to get her started on the right foot.

The first priority for this dog needs to be helping her relax. A multifaceted approach will work much better than trying one hopeful solution at a time. If you spin your wheels very long she will quickly learn to associate the context of your yard with panic. Half-hearted attempts or wait-and-see are bad ideas.

Your dog needs to be motivated to engage in natural canine behaviors while she’s in your yard. By not feeding her from a bowl but requiring her to extract her sustenance from food toys and puzzles she can adopt the natural canine mindset of scavenging for survival. Like all dogs she is hard-wired to spend a significant part of everyday surviving. Procure a bunch of different kinds of food toys and puzzles so you can rotate them. Provide a few different ones for her each day.

You can also promote a more relaxed emotional state by playing music for your dog outside. “Through a Dog’s Ear” is scientifically designed for dogs. It makes a real difference for many. There are lots of other ways to make life in your yard enjoyable. I have attached additional information.

I would do everything possible to set this panicked dog up for success. An Adaptil pheromone collar is likely to help. Anxiolytics like Clomicalm (2-2.5 mg/kg bid) or fluoxetine (0.5-1 mg/kg sid) are necessary for many dogs with separation anxiety but will take 3-4 weeks to become effective. I would start your dog on one of these but also add a long acting benzodiazepine like clorazepate (0.02-0.5 mg/kg bid-tid).

It’s important to monitor these dogs for more subtle signs of distress in your absence. I encourage you to aim a smart phone or iPad at your door for about 20-30 minutes following your departure. You may need to add trazodone (100-150 mg) given about 2 hours prior to your departures. Either Clomicalm or fluoxetine, as a primary anxiolytic, will work safely with clorazepate plus trazodone. Later, your new dog may adjust and do fine with much less medication or none at all. You’ll want to get a handle on this problem ASAP and then reevaluate.

There are a couple of important “don’ts”. Don’t let anybody reprimand this dog when leaving home or returning. She should be ignored at these times. And please don’t confine her to a crate or a run. This is a sure formula for intense distress and escape attempts, often leading to cut lips broken nails, and fractured canine teeth.

I hope this helps get you started. If you need more help I would be happy to provide a consultation. Colleagues and their staffs get a 50% professional courtesy.

All the best,