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Canine Separation Anxiety

True Canine Separation Anxiety is an Illness Not a Behavior Problem

I have a 13 month old dog who suffers terribly from separation anxiety.  In doors he follows me from room to room and always stays close.  When I leave the house I am told that he becomes extremely anxious, cries and barks continually even though there are others in the house. Do you have any suggestions to help him get over this? A bark collar has been suggested to me, but I don’t know if this might not be too severe. What do you think?


Dear A.B.

True separation anxiety is an illness as opposed to a behaviour problem. Behaviour modification, and in some cases medication can play a role in providing some relief but true separation anxiety has no known cure.

I used to think I’d “cured” one case of separation anxiety or another but one advantage of having worked with dogs for over 20 years is with enough cases you notice things that otherwise wouldn’t be likely. Eventually I learned there are at least two types of separation anxiety, one that can be cured and one that cannot.

With what I consider to be true separation anxiety, the cause is tied into genetics and critical socialization imprinting. In the “curable” cases it’s a learned behaviour.

In theory the latter are curable cases. The dogs have over time learned that if they behave in a certain way their owners will pay attention to them in a manner that in the short term satisfies the both of them but eventually it gets out of hand. These dogs don’t develop mental brakes and they get conditioned to the drama. In the end their anxiety is as real as that of the true separation anxiety cases. The difference is that the brakes can be installed resulting in a happier dog. In practice though I’ve found it can be harder for the dog owners to change than the dog.

Part of treating these dogs with learned and reinforced anxiety involves the dog owners learning to stop feeding the fire without their dog having a withdrawal meltdown. It’s harder to stop feeding the fire than you might think. Some dog owners on some level like being needed in this way and find they just can’t help themselves.

Another significant hurdle is learning to distinguish between an actual meltdown and a tantrum. The first response of a dog that isn’t getting an expected owner reaction to something like barking is to figure, “How sad, my owner is going deaf. I shall have to bark harder and longer now.” It takes the patience of Job to ignore the bad behaviour so you can reward the good behaviour and that’s why the ultrasonic, nose spray and electronic bark collars are so often turned to.

I wouldn’t reach into that tool bag just yet. In both types of separation anxiety there is enormous value in interrupting symptoms before they avalanche but succeeding in stopping a barking problem may solve your problem without addressing the dog’s problem and other currently less notable symptoms can intensify or new ones develop.

Before you pick a symptom strategy you need to determine what type of anxiety your dog has; hard wired or learned. In order to do that you need to find a trainer that really knows their stuff. When they meet with you they’ll know what to look for and what questions to ask and provide a course of action that won’t make matters worse.


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2 thoughts on “Canine Separation Anxiety”

  1. I came across this article after Googling “incurable separation anxiety in dogs.” I have a 10-year-old beagle/terrier mix who I rescued when she was 2 months old. I have dealt with her SA for a decade now. I’ve been to three dog behaviorists; she has been to countless trainers. I’ve tried walking her in the mornings, on my lunch break from work and after dinner. An old boyfriend of mine broke up with me because her SA symptoms were so frustrating for him and I refused to get rid of her because of them (I still don’t regret choosing her over him). She’s been on countless medications. I’ve changed her diet to only natural food/ingredients. I’ve given her dozens of mental stimulants before leaving. I’ve tried all the vests, scent collars, oils and diffusers. I’ve put my nightshirt on her in the mornings before I leave for work so she has my scent with her. She has broken through more than 12 gates. Her teeth have been broken from trying to chew through metal crates. She has chewed through bedroom doors, trying to escape. She has ruined 4 mattresses, at least 30 rugs and countless square feet of carpeting from urinating on them. I was kicked out of my apartment years ago because of her barking. I’ve tried the indicator-on-the-door thing and leaving for 30 seconds, then one minute, then two minutes and so on, over the course of weeks. I’ve walked around with my car keys, jacket and shoes on to try and normalize what triggers her anxiety. I’ve spent thousands of dollars over the past 10 years and nothing has worked. And even though she’s white in her face now, she still has so much life in her and I can’t give up on her or put her down. The only thing she wants is to be by my side, and unless she is, she isn’t happy. And then I begin to think I’m the one with the problem because I can’t let her go, but I also can’t imagine she has any quality of life. It’s a terrible place to be in, for both of us. I have one of those incurable dogs and don’t know what to do anymore. Sorry for the long rambling; I don’t have any questions, just needed to vent some feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

    1. Canine separation anxiety is for me one of the saddest and most difficult of the behaviour problems. In its extreme form it is extremely hard on both dog and dog owner. The way I try to explain it to clients is by asking them to recall the most anxious and panic stricken they ever have been in their lives and to try to understand that that is how their dog feels every time they are left behind. The irony is that the genetic component that I think contributes to their susceptibility (there’s more to it that genetics), as a rule, also makes them the most biddable and loving of dogs.

      A further irony is that it is completely 100% preventable but because the dog breeding and dog training industry is dominated by amateurs pretending to be professionals it continues to be a common problem. If I were king for a day, I would force every breeder and dog trainer (and most veterinarians for that matter) to read my book Socialize Your Puppy for Everything as what is typically thought and taught about socialization is both far off the mark and a contributing factor.

      I’m sorry that you’ve worked so hard and made so little progress. It has been my experience (and the science supports this) that there is no cure for real separation anxiety. However, there are things that can be done to mitigate symptoms. Real separation anxiety is tied into events between 3 – 12 weeks of age in dogs. Once this period has passed the opportunity for a real cure also passes. However, it should be noted that the symptoms associated with separation anxiety are never as pronounced in the weeks and months following the critical socialization period. Untreated/arrested they develop, evolve and expand over time. As a rule of thumb I find that 80% of the eventual typical symptoms are “drama”. Behaviours that developed because dog owners (often because of the silly advice that dog trainers and veterinarians give them) inadvertently allow them to develop. This is predominantly due the crazy and completely unscientific approach to behaviour modification that is based on being ‘All Positive/Purely Positive/Force-Free’ “best friends forever” approach to dog training and modification, rather than one which is based on nature’s template in which relationships are “parent” based or teacher/student and also incorporate the exercising of the “suck it up muscle” in situations where “I’m not asking, I’m telling”. It’s not a major part of good training but including it does without question help dogs fully develop their ability to exert self control.


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