Thursday, September 12, 2013

Separation Anxiety

As a rescue volunteer and foster mom, I have encountered my fair share of separation anxiety. Although the causes of separation anxiety can vary from dog to dog, many experts believe that it develops as a reaction to a traumatic event (such as being dumped at a shelter) or major change in family routine. Whatever the cause, separation anxiety is difficult to deal with and is one of the more common reasons that adopted animals are returned to shelters. Today's blog entry is written in response to a few of my rescue friends who are experiencing these anxiety issues for the first time. 

Upon first entering our home, Layla attached herself to us immediately. It was as if she’d waited her entire life for our home and she never wanted us to leave her sight ever again. She followed us from room to room. When we sat, she sat, but as soon as one of us moved she felt compelled to follow. Hey, if you won the lottery you wouldn’t just set your winnings down and wander off would you?



 Photo: Courtesy of Caity and her foster dog Shatoosh
“Isn’t it cute that she is so attached to us?!?” I exclaimed to my husband that first day. It felt nice to be needed. I felt like I had a purpose beyond my usual role of “filler of the food bowl” and “scooper of the poop”. This dog REALLY needed me.

We returned home from dinner that night to quite the surprise. Layla had shredded the entire plastic liner of her crate. The door of the crate had been bent and pried open. All of the cushions had been pulled off the furniture, puddles of drool covered the windows, and there was blood everywhere. In the process of escaping, she had scraped her muzzle raw. There were cuts extending from the tip of her nose to her eyes. She looked terrible.
Obviously, this level of attachment was unhealthy and her anxiety was heartbreaking.  So I immediately took to the internet for suggestions and just started trying them. There was a lot of trial and error in those first few months.
We started with the obvious suggestions:

·    We left the TV and radio on.
·    We moved her kennel into the living room so she didn’t feel isolated.
·    We tried leaving her out of the kennel (BAD idea! That was not a good day).
·    We reinforced the kennel with extra-strength zip ties.
·    We left “indestructible” toys in her kennel (FYI, this toy company’s claim was quickly proven otherwise).  

We also began working on desensitization and counterconditioning:

·    We started by leaving the house for short periods of time. Several times a day, my husband and I packed up our stuff, left the house, and sat on our front porch for 5-10 minutes before going back inside. I’m sure our neighbors wondered why we were always sitting outside staring at our watches, but if that’s the weirdest thing they saw me do then I consider myself lucky.
·    Upon returning, we ignored Layla for another 5-10 minutes to show her that our return was nothing exciting or celebratory.  
·    We gradually increased the amount of time we were gone, but each time we left the house in exactly the same way. We put on our shoes, turned on the TV, put her in her kennel, and left the house. Any deviation from this routine and Layla returned to her old ways. The worst part about this strict routine is that you cannot go back if you forget something. There were quite a few days when my lunch consisted of greasy cafeteria food instead of the healthy packed lunch that I had inadvertently left behind in our fridge.  

Over time, (I’d estimate about 6-12 months), her anxiety improved. We no longer dreaded coming home. Also, the addition of Harry to the family made a world of difference in her confidence. I don’t recommend going out and getting another dog to solve separation anxiety, but in this instance, it helped tremendously.
In summary, there a hundreds of resources out there for separation anxiety, but below is my list of tried and true solutions. Remember, these things take patience and commitment. It is very important to stick with it and be consistent!


1.       Leave the TV/radio on
2.       Move the crate to a more central location in the home (no basements, closets, garages, etc.)
3.       Reinforce the crate with extra-strength zip ties or metal clips
4.       Leave a high value treat/toy in their kennel. Many people have success with Kongs stuffed with peanut butter and then frozen overnight. Others have results with stuffed toys or blankets that smell like them.
5.       If you have other dogs, try crating them all in the same room.
6.       Keep a strict routine. Leave the house the same way every time.
7.       Do not acknowledge them when you return home and they are in their excited state. This helps the dog learn that your return is nothing extraordinary and should be accepted as routine.
8.       Desensitization and counterconditioning exercises
9.       If the crate is absolutely not working, then you can try leaving your dog loose yet still in a confined space (i.e. bedroom, kitchen with baby gate, laundry room). But if you come home to find your kitchen cabinets destroyed, don’t say that I didn’t warn you!!
10.   Seek professional help. There are anxiolytic medications that can be prescribed when all else fails.
Here is an excellent resource for desensitization and counterconditioning tips:

And as always, any additional tips are welcomed in the comment section below!

6 comments:

  1. Great advice! Perfect for a forever home!

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  2. You are a dog genius! Cesar watch out!

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  3. Great advice! Bookmaked this for any future questions.

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  4. I never thought about not getting all excited when I come back. My rescue Bella came from one of St Louis Stray rescue's foster's she was never actually part of the system she literally fell into our laps she was both of our first dog (on or own without family) and certainly our first pitbull (not the last ;) ) she has been with us just shy of a year and we have been leaving her out of her crate she does well but she can still be vengful when we leave (ie she chews on my nice shoes or dads ps3 controller) one thing I always notice when I get home and she is so excited I never thought encourgaing this actually aided the problem! poop! ( will see about not doing that) I am glad I read this now if only we could get me over my anxiety of leaving her (we are getting married on the beach in June and I cant fathoum leaving her for a week especially with no idea of where she will stay)
    keep on posting
    I love the drool crew I want to snuggle them all
    Danielle (st louis)

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