Managing your dog’s separation anxiety

Chantal Mills kneeling with her hands on a dog laying down at each side.

By Chantal Mills

A photo of Chantal’s family dog Bug, a two-year-old Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever who does not have separation issues but does enjoy checking out what the local teenager are up to. Ph

Navigating separation anxiety in dogs can be an emotional rollercoaster for both pet and guardian alike.

The mere mention of “separation anxiety” might evoke images of a distressed dog barking, jumping up at the door after you’ve closed it behind you, whining and crying during your absence, panting or pacing when home alone. Some dogs may even drool excessively when separated from their human, whereas other dogs with separation-related issues will become destructive, particularly near the exit points.

People routinely use the term “separation anxiety” to describe separation-related issues. However, only a veterinary behaviourist can diagnose clinical separation anxiety.

Anxiety is not a choice

Dogs with separation-related issues experience distress when left alone.

It is heartbreaking to see dogs suffer in this way. They are not launching themselves at the door when you leave just to be overly dramatic. Your dogs are not trying to punish you for leaving them alone by chewing the door frame or urinating on your cherished rug. They are genuinely terrified, not having what we would refer to as a “panic attack”.

Therefore, leaving them alone more often or for longer periods of time will not teach them that you will always return. On the contrary, it will only exacerbate their distress.

You are not to blame

Separation issues aren’t caused by allowing your dog to sleep in the bed, or by an unlimited stream of attention directed their way. Separation anxiety is a legitimate panic disorder, and dogs exhibiting these behaviours are not spoiled; they are terrified of being alone.

They are suffering and require treatment and support.

Rule out other causes

Before assuming it is separation anxiety, it is important to rule out other possible causes for the dog’s behaviours.

A recommended first step is a visit with your trusted veterinarian who can identify any underlying medical issues that may be behind things like house soiling, pacing, vocalization and an inability to rest or settle.

It is treatable

There is hope for you and your canine companion as most dogs with separation anxiety can recover from it. This emotional disorder is treatable and with the right approach, dogs can learn to cope with being alone.

Treatment may require a combination of medication to help alleviate your dog’s anxiety symptoms, along with behaviour modification.

Working with a specialist

It’s important to seek help early, and to work closely with qualified professionals to set the distressed dog up for success.

Working with a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT) can be particularly beneficial. A CSAT will develop a customized treatment plan, provide individualized daily exercises called missions and tailored to your dog’s specific needs. CSATs also offer unlimited support, regular feedback, and weekly assessments to track progress and adjust the plan as necessary.

It certainly isn’t easy to see your dog panic when you leave the house. I’ve experienced it with my own dog and know what it feels like to feel trapped in your house and not want to risk leaving your dog alone. Thankfully, there is hope!

Separation anxiety is challenging but treatable, and adding a CSAT to the team of qualified professionals can make a world of difference in helping your dog overcome separation anxiety.

Chantal will be leading one of three Ottawa Humane Society webinars about pet anxiety Wednesday March 27.

Chantal’s family dog Bug, a two-year-old Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, peers out the window. Bug does not have separation issues but does enjoy checking out what the local teenager are up to. Photo: Matthew Ellis