I hear it at least once a week, “well, you see, he has separation anxiety.”  While in fact, if all of these dogs truly had this disorder, they’d either be homeless, or I could quit my three other jobs and just treat separation anxiety (SepAnx).  The fact of the matter is SepAnx is a very serious (though treatable) disorder  that often results in death for the afflicted dogs.  Dogs with this disorder have been known to leap through glass windows, dislodge their own teeth and nails in efforts of escape, and, if escape is not an option, they often turn on themselves, inflicting horrendous self mutilation.  Yes, it is that serious.

Saying your dog who barks in the crate or chews on your couch when alone has Separation Anxiety is like saying your moody teenager has schizophrenia.

I am no expert in treating SepAnx, but I do consider myself knowledgeable about the subject–and in fact more knowledgeable about dogs whose owners think they have SepAnx, who in reality just don’t like to be alone.  I have news. Dogs don’t like to be alone. It’s part of being a social creature. It is our job to teach them to accept being alone from day one, so that they do not develop this devastating disorder.  Most of these fake Separation Anxiety cases are in fact just cases of boredom and its counterpart; destruction.  If you think your dog has SepAnx, do consult a qualified professional, and do buy the book, I’ll Be Home Soon by Dr. Patricia McConnell.  The book will help you decide if your dog does have this disorder, and if so (or if not) how to fix what is happening.

Understand that the treatment for Separation Anxiety is intense.  It is time-consuming and difficult.  This is not a simple problem behavior that can be managed, suppressed (never recommended anyway!), or replaced.  It requires behavior modification, and absolutely can be treated, with a good protocol and lots of help.  

An ounce of prevention, as they say, is worth a pound of cure.  And since SepAnx requires approximately ten pounds of “cure” for each pound of hound involved, let’s all just prevent it, ok?  First, teach your pups, when they are pups, to be cool with the alone factor of life.  Give them a super tasty frozen kong or raw marrow bone and leave.  Then come back.  Take your pup’s prize away and hang out a while.  Then give it back and leave.  Now your dog is learning to associate your absence with the best treats in the world, which isn’t so bad!  Second, crate train.  Spend some serious time teaching your dog to enjoy being in a crate.  Don’t shove him in, teach him to go in willingly.  Check out Susan Garrett’s Crate Games DVD for help with that.  Don’t only put him in there when you’re leaving, either, let him hang out in there while you are home and unable to supervise him.  Take your puppy to a ton of different places for socialization purposes, but be sure to go on plenty of outings and leave the kiddo at home, too.  If you are fortunate enough to work from home or have the luxury of bringing your dogs to work, be sure the pup stays home alone for at least part of each day.

Medication is available for help in treating this disorder, but is often used too liberally (IMHO) by well-meaning veterinarians who believe the pill will solve the problem.  In reality behavioral drugs should only be used in conjunction with a solid behavior modification plan (for people too, if you ask me, but that’s another blog entirely) that involves a “whole picture approach” including home life, nutrition, long-term goals, and day-to-day realities.  If you would like to look into using behavioral drugs for your dog try to find a veterinarian who works closely with an excellent dog behavior consultant or trainer to make these recommendations (or better yet, a veterinary behaviorist, which is basically a unicorn and if you found one, congratulations). 

Lastly, if you believe your dog actually does have Separation Anxiety, please please please find a behavior consultant to help you.  Seek out a professional with experience and knowledge in this area who is dedicated to dog training that is free of aversives and all about setting dogs up for success.  Do not buy a crate designed to transport wildlife, shove your dog in it, and hope for the best.  Do not listen to anyone who suggests the use of electricity in your dog’s behavior modification (ever!). And, sadly, if you find that your dog’s problems are too much for you to bear, do not drop her in a shelter.  Dogs with this heartbreaking disorder are almost always euthanized in shelters because of their inability to function in the shelter environment, and if they are of the select few that are actually adopted, they are most often returned (almost all high volume shelters have a 3 strikes policy in which they will euthanize a dog on the third return, others euthanize all that are returned, and still more euthanize based on the reason for return–SepAnx being one of those big reasons).  It is up to you to either place the dog in a competent home (few homes are available for dogs with SepAnx), treat the behavior problem with the help of a professional, or choose to euthanize your pet.