Separation anxiety is not that uncommon in dogs and ranges quite a bit in severity. More times than not it is a LEARNED BEHAVIOR that can become unlearned with following some proper strategies. However, regardless of the reason why your dog has separation anxiety (genetics, life experiences or learned behavior), there are several things you can do to help your canine buddy build some confidence and learn to be a calmer dog when left alone.
The key is to SET YOUR DOG UP FOR SUCCESS when you leave it alone. Make it EASY for your dog to be calmer and more relaxed.
Here are some tips:
#1. Structured Exercise and A LOT of it, especially before being left alone. The key here is structured exercise. Allowing your dog to just run up and down the fence or pull you on leash while barking at everything in sight is NOT helping- if anything it is breeding more anxiety. It also needs to be adequate. A 20 minute walk for most young dogs is not near enough. Wear your dog out! Whatever it takes. If your dog is completely exhausted, then he/she will be much more likely to relax and sleep while you are gone. I am also a realist and I realize that it is impossible to always wear our dog out before we leave the home for the rest of the dog's life. However, if you really commit to exercise every day for a few weeks, then you are giving your dog the chance to reshape its behavior when being left alone. Eventually, you should be able to tapper off to a more reasonable exercise routine.
*Note: your dog obviously must walk well on leash without pulling, lunging, barking, etc. If your dog cannot walk well on leash then you cannot have structured exercise via leash walking; therefore, you need to find a trainer to help you with leash walking.
*Note: if your physical limitations and/or busy life-style limit your ability to give your dog adequate structured exercise, then I would recommend thinking about quality dog daycare once or twice a week. While dog daycare is kind of like recess for a dog and it is not necessarily structured, it will absolutely help drain some of your pup's energy, which is a big help in helping your dog relax more at home. It is also great for socialization.
2. Build your dog's confidence: A dog that just lays around the home every day all day is a recipe for separation anxiety. Get your dog out on walks and hikes, trips to Home Depot, the US National Whitewater Center, local parks, a neighbor's house for a dog play date, etc. Generally speaking, the more situations a dog is exposed to the more confidence they build and the more adaptable they become in various situations.
3. Teach your dog that it cannot always be with you... even when you are home:
* Use your back yard for training! If you have a fenced-in backyard and a healthy dog and the weather allows it then USE your yard as a training situation. You can have your dog in the yard at times while you are inside home. Do NOT allow your dog to bark or paw at the back door. Allowing those behaviors will most likely increase anxiety. Nipping them in the bud with a correction will not only stop the unwanted behavior but help the dog stay in a calmer state of mind. I recommend correcting the dog with a remote E Collar (seek a professional trainer's help) for any barking or pawing at the door as the remote collar can work at a distance and through walls. Eventually, your dog will learn to relax alone in the yard. When your dog has relaxed for a few minutes, THEN you can let them in :)
* Do not sleep with your dog: If your dog has separation anxiety then allowing him or her to sleep in your bed or in your room will most likely make them that much more "clingy." I would recommend having your dog sleep in a crate that is in a different room then you. Any barking, pawing, whining needs to be corrected. Ignoring it will not work (if anything- it makes it worse because the dog just keeps getting worked up more and more and more) and you will not get any sleep. See #5 and #6 for more on crate training and nipping tantrums in the bud with corrections.
*Teach your dog a solid "Place" command (seek a trainer's help if needed): have your dog learn to be on its place bed during meal time, house cleaning time, guest entry, etc. Again, teach your dog that it cannot always be the center of attention when you are home.
4. Take a look at the structure & energy within your home. Dogs THRIVE in calm environments that provide structure, boundaries/rules, exercise and leadership. They do best when they know exactly what is expected of them. Many times, as a trainer, I see various issues (such as separation anxiety, fear, aggression, dominance, resource guarding, etc) in dogs when love, affection, free will & free roam of the dog are in abundance while structure, boundaries/rules, exercise, and leadership are lacking. Take a close look at your home environment.
5. Properly crate train your dog: If your dog has moderate to severe separation anxiety then leaving them loose in the home when you leave is simply too risky. They need to be properly crate trained. Crate training serves 3 purposes: 1. Your dog is safe (many dogs with separation anxiety will chew and destroy things and then potentially eat them; causing a scary and expensive trip to the ER Vet Clinic), 2. Your dog cannot destroy your property and 3. Your dog cannot learn and reinforce bad behavior (ie: "When I get left alone, I am allowed to destroy things").
* Note: If you are not having success with a particular type of crate then try something different. Sometimes the style (plastic airline v metal wire) of crate or size of crate can impact the dog's stress levels.
*Note: Do NOT just put your dog in its crate when you leave. The crate will become a HUGE cue you are leaving. Practice having your dog in the crate for short periods of time throughout the day while you are home. Make it positive- reward your dog when it is being calm.
*Give them something to do in the crate: safe toy or safe bone
6. Eliminate crate tantrums. Many dogs start to show separation anxiety once they are put in their crates. We need to interrupt our dog's anxiety immediately before it has a chance to escalate. Most owners fail to do this. The second their dog starts foaming at the mouth, barking, biting the crate, the owners panic and let their dog out. What did the dog just learn? Tantrums = I get out of the crate. Tantrums are not allowed and they need to be corrected if you want to help your dog.
There are various ways to correct crate tantrums (here are a few and what works for one dog may not work and/or be appropriate for another dog) and I would advise working with a professional trainer anytime you introduce corrections.
*Verbal correction "No!" - usually only effective if you have already conditioned a verbal "No" to be followed by consequence (ie: e collar correction, pet correcter, spray bottle, etc) that the dog takes seriously. See my blog on "Teaching dogs no."
*E Collar correction- this is my preference as I can correct the dog CALMLY, QUICKLY and from a distance without approaching the dog (approaching the dog alone can be seen as a reward to the dog- getting your attention as they are having a tantrum). I can also fine-tune the level of correction for each individual dog (other methods are very difficult or impossible to fine-tune for a dog's needs)
*Pet Corrector/Air corrector (little device that gives a short loud burst of air)
*Bonker (rolled up towel) that you can toss at the crate
*Water spray bottle
Note: the method of "Ignore the bad behavior" will not work! If anything - it will most likely make it WORSE because your dog's anxiety just builds and builds...stressing your pup out more. You may want to read my blog on, "Simply ignoring bad behaviors and rewarding good behaviors will NOT make the bad behavior go away."
The KEY to correcting your dog (in any situation) is to do it CALMLY and out of discipline... not frustration. Dogs do very well with discipline. They do not do well with frustration.
By correcting your dog's tantrums you are HELPING your dog! Yes, that is right! By correcting your dog's tantrums you are breaking up the anxiety before it builds and builds and builds and then erupts into panic. By correcting your dog's tantrums you are assisting your dog in remaining in a calmer state of mind.
I have had numerous board and train dogs come to me and owners that claim "My dog cannot be crated! He/she hates it!" Within 2 to 3 days, these dogs are going in their crates calmly and laying down... quietly. Exercise + no tantrums allowed = calm dogs.
7. Calm entry and exit of home: Do not make a big deal out of coming home or leaving the home. Just do it calmly and very "matter-of-fact." The more drama we bring into our entry and exit of the home the more anxiety we cause in our dogs.
8. Leave a radio or TV on for your dog- the noise helps some dogs.
9. Other things that I personally am very skeptical on but may be worth a try:
* "Thunder Shirt" - theory is the snug fitting shirt helps calm dogs. It gets its name from dogs with anxiety during thunder storms.
* DAP collar (Dog Appeasing Pheromone): supposedly releases pheromones to help calm your dog
* Rescue Remedy: all natural liquid droplets you can place in your dog's food or water
10. Seek your Veterinarian's help if all else fails: If all the above fails (and you have really committed to exercise, training, structure on walks and within the home, and proper crate training and nipping tantrums in the bud), then certainly see your Veterinarian as medication may be a viable option. While I have yet to see a dog (and I have worked with hundreds) that needed medication to get over its separation anxiety, I certainly understand that there could be those severe separation anxiety cases that warrant medication.
"Balanced Training- Balanced Dogs"