Relieving Separation Anxiety Symptoms

Many separation anxiety dogs can improve with training & management.


You are at your wits’ end. You were gone for less than an hour, and when you returned home, your dog Maxx had already destroyed your new sofa, defecated on your antique Oriental rug, and inflicted deep gouges in the just-repainted front door frame.

You have tried leaving him in the backyard, but he chewed through the fence and got picked up by animal control. You tried crating him, but he scraped his toenails bloody and broke a canine tooth trying to dig and chew through the crate door. When you left him in the garage he tore everything within reach to shreds. When you left him in a covered chain-link dog pen on the back patio, you got complaints from three different neighbors about his nonstop barking and howling. You’ve even tried showing him the damage and punishing him for it, but it hasn’t helped. You hate to think of giving him up, but you don’t know what to do with him. If he would only behave himself when you are away from home.

Maxx has separation anxiety – a behavior problem that results from a dog’s natural instincts to want to be near other members of his pack. It is a normal survival instinct, but one that can often be derailed early in a pup’s life through proper conditioning (see “Learning to Be Alone,” WDJ July 2001). For you and Maxx, however, it’s too late for the proper early stuff. Mad Maxx already has a full-blown case of separation anxiety, and now you need to try to fix it.

Conditioned response
It won’t be easy. Separation anxiety is a panic attack – your dog’s classically conditioned response to the terror of being left alone. When you walk out the door, Maxx doesn’t sit around and muse about whether or not to eat the sofa. Separation anxiety behavior is not a conscious choice – it just happens.

In fact, his anxiety begins before you even leave the house; your dog can tell from your morning routine whether this is a get-up-and-go-to-work day (which leaves Maxx home alone) or a relax-and-stay-at-home day. As soon as Maxx determines that it’s a work day, he starts to worry, and every step in the routine increases his anxiety. The 5a.m. alarm clock. The rush to put Maxx out to potty and then toss him his food dish. The shower and shave. The suit and the shiny shoes instead of blue jeans and sneakers. Coffee and a banana instead of bacon and eggs. The grab for the briefcase and car keys, the pause at the front door for dramatic hugs and kisses to Maxx, and the fervent admonitions to behave himself while you’re gone.

Phew! By the time the door closes in his face and you rush down the sidewalk to the car, Maxx is already worked up into a high state of arousal. He makes no conscious decision to go on a destruction binge – he is simply stressed to the max. Effective ways for him to relieve his stress include chewing, digging, urinating, defecating, and vocalizing.

Anxiety or hijinks?
Most separation anxiety behavior happens within 30 minutes of the owner’s departure and within a similar period before the owner’s anticipated return. This is one of the keys to determining whether Maxx’s behavior is truly an anxiety reaction or simply a bout of puppy hijinks.

If you can leave and come back in an hour to an unscathed home but four hours puts Maxx over the top, chances are you’re dealing with boredom, excessive energy, or a housetraining issue rather than true separation anxiety. (Some dogs will become destructive in their efforts to go outside to relieve themselves if they are very committed to not soiling the house.)

If, on the other hand, your dog displays immediate signs of anxiety upon your exit, he’s a candidate for SA retraining. If you can just get the anxious dog through the first half-hour or so, and avoid raising his anxiety level at homecoming time, you are usually home free. Simple – but not easy.

This task is best accomplished through a program of counter-conditioning and desensitization (CC&D) – fancy terms to describe getting Maxx to like something he now intensely dislikes or fears. In this case, the “something” is being left alone.

The challenge with using CC&D for separation anxiety is that ideally you start with a very low level stimulus that the dog can tolerate, associate it with something wonderful (like the dog’s favorite treats), and gradually work up to a level of normal stimulus, while taking care not to trigger the unwanted response during the process.

If you are desensitizing a dog to loud noises, for example, it is relatively easy to prevent his exposure to noisy environments between training sessions. It’s considerably more difficult for the average pet owner to design a schedule that leaves Maxx alone for no more than a few seconds at first, then minutes, then hours, during the weeks or months that it takes to build his tolerance to being alone. If you are truly committed to working through the problem, and have the time and energy, you can get through this.

Managing Maxx
So, where do you start when you can’t confine him, you can’t trust him loose in the house or yard, and you can’t punish him? What are you supposed to do with a Mad Maxx who is rapidly wrecking everything you possess? You need to do two things:

• Manage his environment while his behavior is being modified so he can’t hurt himself or destroy the things around him.

• Using counter-conditioning and desensitization, teach Maxx that it is safe for him to be alone.

Let’s start with the easy one: managing the environment. This means not leaving Maxx alone until he has decided that being alone is okay. You might be able to find a friend, neighbor, or relative who is home during the day, where Maxx can stay and be safe. Perhaps you are fortunate enough to work in a place where your dog could come to the office with you. It never hurts to ask!

Doggie daycare is another excellent option. Commercial daycare centers are thriving in an increasing number of communities around the country; there might be a good one near you. Be sure the daycare operator knows that Maxx has separation anxiety and understands how to deal with it – that he can’t be left alone and must not be punished for anxiety-related behavior.

Sometimes, although only very rarely, getting another dog can help. If you are considering this, you should only get a second dog because you want one and are committed to keeping the newcomer whether it helps Maxx’s problem or not. Be careful – you could end up with two dogs with separation anxiety/destructive behavior!

Finally, there are pharmaceuticals that have appeared on the market relatively recently that purport to help with resolving a multitude of canine behavior problems. Clomicalm (clomipramine hydrochloride) is the one most commonly prescribed for separation anxiety, but must be used in conjunction with a good behavior modification program in order to be truly effective; the drug alone will not solve the problem.

Maximized training
A behavior modification program will help your dog understand that he can survive being left alone. Depending on the severity of the problem, this may happen relatively quickly, or it may take a long time and never be completely resolved. If you have a Velcro dog who can’t even tolerate you being in the next room, you will need to start with very small steps. Here’s one program for working with separation anxiety:

1. Teach your dog to accept a tether with you standing right next to him (See “Tethered to Success,” WDJ April 2001). When he is comfortable on the tether, take one step away, say “Yes!” before he has a chance to get upset (or Click! your clicker, if he is clicker-trained), then step back to him and feed him a treat. Repeat this step until he shows no sign of anxiety when you are one step away. Be sure that you remain very matter-of-fact about stepping away. If you get excited or emotional, so will he.

2. Now, gradually increase the length of time that you remain one step away before you “Yes!” (or Click!) and return, until he will tolerate your one-step distance for a full minute or longer. Vary the longer times with shorter ones, so he doesn’t start to get anxious about the exercise getting harder and harder each time. You want him to never know how long you will be gone, and at the same time you are teaching him that you always return.

3. Now take two steps away, say “Yes!” and immediately return to feed him a treat. Repeat at this distance until he is comfortable with you being two steps away, then again gradually increase the time at this distance.

4. Very gradually increase the distance, repeating the exercise at each new step until he is calm, then increasing the time at each new distance. If he panics at any point, you have moved too quickly – go back to the previous distance and work there again until he is calm. The take another half-step, if necessary, to avoid triggering his panic.

5. When he will remain calm while you walk to the other side of the room, sit down, and read a magazine, you are ready for the next phase. Start the exercise as before, but this time walk to the doorway to another room, step outside briefly, “Yes!” and step back into the room before he has a chance to get upset that you are out of sight. Return and reward. Repeat this until he is calm about you stepping out of the room, and then gradually increase the length of time that you remain out of sight.

6. Now, sometimes close the door as you step out of the room, briefly at first, then for longer periods.

7. Do the same exercise with each of the doors leading from the room, including the door that leads to the outside. Sometimes leave the door open, sometimes close it. Be sure to return and reward each time before your dog goes into panic mode. If he starts acting anxious at any time, slow down, and go back to a part of the exercise that he can tolerate. Then, when he is calm, proceed more slowly to the step that upset him.

8. Now take him off the tether and repeat Step 6, closing the door each time to prevent him from following you out of the room. Start with very brief departures, so he doesn’t have time to start digging at the door. Gradually increase the length of time you are out of the room, but remember to intersperse the longer ones with short ones so he never knows how long you will be gone. Remember, too, to remain calm yourself. If you start getting anxious or excited about the process, so will he.

9. When he is comfortable with you stepping outside for several minutes, start adding bits of your departure routine to the exercise. Pick up your keys, step outside briefly, return, “Yes,” and reward. Then put the keys down. Go outside, open and close the car door, then come back inside. “Yes” and reward. As he gets better with pieces of the routine, add more pieces.

10. Assuming that you drive a car to work or school, the next step is to actually start the car engine, then come back inside and reward. Start the car engine, then vary the amount of time you wait before coming back in to reward. Drive down the driveway, then drive back to the house, come back in and reward. Your goal is to gradually increase the length of time you can be outside to 30 minutes or more. If you can hit the magic 30-minute mark, you are well on your way to success.

Pacing is key
Be sure to proceed through these 10 steps at a pace that your dog can tolerate. Short, successful sessions at first (five to 10 minutes), are better than long, frustrating sessions that end in failure. You may be able to proceed through the steps in a week or two if your dog’s separation anxiety is mild, but it is more likely that it may take you several weeks, or months, to work up to 30 minutes. If you aren’t making any progress at all, talk to your veterinarian about adding Clomicalm to the equation.

Fixing separation anxiety is hard work, and it’s easy to get frustrated with your dog’s destructive behavior. Remember that he’s not choosing to do it out of spite or malice – he is panicked about his own survival without you, his pack, there to protect him. It’s not fun for him – he lives in the moment, and the moments that you are gone are long and terrifying.

If you make the commitment to modifying his behavior and succeed in making him brave about being alone, you will not only have saved your home from destruction, you will have enhanced the quality of your dog’s life immensely, and perhaps saved him from destruction, too.

-by Pat Miller



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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.