Coping With Separation Anxiety In Dogs

separation anxiety

Being a parent of a dog with separation anxiety can be challenging. But, with the right approach and a lot of patience you can change his ways.

When Jen Woodard, shelter manager for The Humane Society of Harford County in Maryland, adopted Deimos in 2001, she knew challenges lay ahead. Although she wanted a large dog as a companion to her pit bull, Roby, she initially resisted her attraction to this ten-month-old shepherd/husky mix – and with good reason. “Deimos’ profile said he was surrendered because he had caused $1,200 in medical bills on another dog,” explains Jen. “Having Roby made me wary of that, so I kept passing him by.” But eventually, Deimos’ loving nature won Jen over, and with eyes wide open, she took him home.

But Jen was wholly unprepared for the scene of destruction that lay before her some days later. After a short outing, she returned to find that her new addition had ransacked her home. Although she had securely locked Deimos in a large crate, Jen found him roaming loose. He had urinated, defecated, ripped open pillows, and knocked everything off the kitchen countertops. To free himself, Deimos had thrashed around in his crate until the doors opened. He had obviously injured himself in the process as his muzzle was swollen.

Jen immediately understood that Deimos was suffering from separation anxiety, a disorder in which pets exhibit extreme distress when left alone. But while her trained eye could easily recognize that her dog was a victim of this malady, like many people, she was not sure what to do about it. She promptly contacted her veterinarian and set out to solve the problem.

Following her vet’s advice, Jen began to treat Deimos by leaving him for five-minute increments. This worked well, but Deimos did not like being confined. Jen addressed this issue by enclosing her yard with $250 worth of the fencing used to protect trees and flower beds. For two consecutive days, Jen left Deimos outside while she was at work.

The first day passed without incident. But on the second day, Jen’s father found that Deimos had disappeared. A short time later, a truck driver told him that a large gray dog was running in town. Once Jen’s father caught up with the anxious dog, returning him home was no easy task. Jen explains: “Deimos is very fearful of men. He didn’t know my dad yet, and even though he had a collar and tag on, no one could get near him to read it. Finally, after calling and calling, Deimos came to my dad.”

By this time, Jen was completely frustrated. She was out of ideas and on the verge of surrendering her beloved dog, but she also knew that no one else would have the patience to deal with him. Instead, she asked her vet to prescribe Clomicalm, a drug that reduces anxiety in dogs. “He started off small, then built up to 100 milligrams twice a day, which is a very high dose,” says Jen. “I then tried leaving him in just one room. But the doors never did latch right, and he would react like it was a life or death situation and break out. Every day was a struggle.”

Eventually, Jen decided to simply take Deimos everywhere she went. While she worked part-time, Deimos contentedly waited in the car. “He was fine in the car. At first, he would freak out every time I slowed down, but he quickly got over that. The car became his comfort zone.” But Jen knew this was merely a short-term solution.

Knowing she had to help Deimos conquer his anxiety, Jen stopped administering the medication, which had never been effective, and enrolled him in obedience training. She also began to leave him free in the house. “I learned by trial and error what could and could not be left out,” she explains.

Gradually, she began to see improvement. She would leave the house with no fanfare so that Deimos would believe she would quickly return. “That was the trick,” says Jen. “I’d quietly get my keys and put my shoes on outside. I’d leave a Kong with peanut butter frozen inside it. I’d also leave classical music on.” And it was beginning to work. Jen came home each day to less mayhem.

But when Jen moved to a new house in 2003, the worst happened. As she left for work one day, she enclosed her dogs in a small room. “Unfortunately, the door had some small glass panes at the top. Deimos broke them and sliced his pads. He did it again and again. And the last time I left him there, he sliced them so badly that the entire room was blood-spattered, including the ceiling where he had climbed up on a corner shelf and scratched to get out.”

Once again Jen had to take Deimos wherever she went. She also consulted an animal behaviorist who prescribed Prozac, but to no avail.

After three weeks of continued exasperation, Jen took a chance and left Deimos unconfined in the house. “Of course, the food was put away, and I quickly learned that I had to duct tape my lazy Susan.” But Deimos amazingly, and calmly, made it through the day.

Since that time, Jen’s precious pooch has had few problems. “I often find things around the house, but now they are simply left there and not destroyed. I still worry every day that I will come home to destruction. And every once in a while, he gets into something I leave out. But what he does do is easy to clean up.”

Deimos and Jen exemplify the boundless love that can exist between an animal and a person. While Deimos’ anxiety caused her much heartache, Jen’s commitment to her troubled dog never wavered. “I know that few people would put up with a dog like Deimos,” she says. “I see people surrendering animals every day because they urinated in the house once. Well, I put up with two years of all-out destruction in my home, and I still love Deimos more than anything. I will rearrange my life so he can have a good life.

“If people would realize that the roots of separation anxiety lie in love, they might change their minds [about surrendering their animals]. The animals that suffer from this disorder don’t mean to be destructive; they just can’t control the distress they feel when a loved one leaves them. I would like people to think about that.”

One expert’s advice
Janet McMillan, owner of Best Behaved Dogs (, provides private, in-home obedience training and behavior modification for dogs in the inner suburbs of northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. In an interview with me, McMillan shared her insights into the perplexing problem of separation anxiety.

CO: Do you find separation anxiety occurs more often in dogs that have been adopted from shelters? Are particular breeds more susceptible?

JM: A higher percentage of rescued dogs have separation anxiety, but I have also seen it in dogs that went straight from a reputable breeder to a loving family. Among my clients, hounds, toy breeds, and some terrier breeds have a higher rate of separation anxiety, but I have seen it in nearly every breed.

CO: What procedures do you follow when someone approaches you with this problem? Is medication involved, or is treatment composed of behavioral training?

JM: I first ask a number of questions over the telephone to get as much detail as possible. I then set up a two-hour, in-home meeting with the entire household in order to implement a program to help the dog.

I suggest medication only as a last resort because most dogs show great improvement without it. Medication can have adverse health consequences, and it is a continuing expense. And not all medications will work for all dogs, so the guardian will often have to try several before finding one that is effective. If the dog does not improve after a month of behavioral training, I will suggest the client consult a veterinarian about the possibility of using medication.

CO: Do the ways you treat separation anxiety vary according to the individual dog and his person?

JM: Each dog and family is different, and I tailor my recommendations to suit the situation. However, I advise every client not to make a fuss over the dog when departing and arriving, to start the dog in obedience training, and to leave a radio or television on when not at home.

CO: What is your success rate? Is separation anxiety completely curable?

JM: Approximately 90 percent of the dogs I work with get better without medication. Once the dog has been anxiety-free for a while, most people find they can ease into a less stringent program without causing the anxiety to return. But they can never stop working with the dog. If they do, the anxiety almost always returns.

CO: Is there any general advice you can give to people who are facing this problem?

JM: Don’t take your dog’s behavior personally. Destructive behavior relieves anxiety in dogs the same way that chewing fingernails relieves anxiety in humans. When you come home to find your dog has destroyed something, do not punish him. Punishment will teach your dog to be afraid of your return, which will only serve to increase his anxiety. Instead, contact someone with the expertise to help your dog.

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