PPE Pet Supplies offers some great ideas for your pet's separation anxiety.
Treatment for Mild Separation Anxiety:
If your dog has a mild case of separation anxiety, counterconditioning might reduce or resolve the problem. Counterconditioning is a treatment process that changes an animal’s fearful, anxious or aggressive reaction to a pleasant, relaxed one instead. It’s done by associating the sight or presence of a feared or disliked person, animal, place, object or situation with something really good, something the dog loves. Over time, the dog learns that whatever he fears actually predicts good things for him. For dogs with separation anxiety, counterconditioning focuses on developing an association between being alone and good things, like delicious food. To develop this kind of association, every time you leave the house, you can offer your dog a puzzle toy stuffed with food that will take him at least 20 to 30 minutes to finish. For example, try giving your dog a KONG® stuffed with something really tasty, like low-fat cream cheese, Cheez Whiz® or low-fat peanut butter, frozen banana and cottage cheese, or canned dog food and kibble. A KONG can even be frozen so that getting all the food out takes even more of your dog’s time. Be sure to remove these special toys as soon as you return home so that your dog only has access to them and the high-value foods inside when he’s by himself. You can feed your dog all of his daily meals in special toys. For example, you can give your dog a KONG or two stuffed with his breakfast and some tasty treats every morning before going to work. Keep in mind, though, that this approach will only work for mild cases of separation anxiety because highly anxious dogs usually won’t eat when their guardians aren’t home.
Treatment for Moderate to Severe Separation Anxiety:
Moderate or severe cases of separation anxiety require a more complex desensitization and counterconditioning program. In these cases, it’s crucial to gradually accustom a dog to being alone by starting with many short separations that do not produce anxiety and then gradually increasing the duration of the separations over many weeks of daily sessions.
The following steps briefly describe a desensitization and counterconditioning program. Please keep in mind that this is a short, general explanation.
Desensitization and counterconditioning are complex and can be tricky to carry out. Fear must be avoided or the procedure will backfire and the dog will get more frightened. Because treatment must progress and change according to the pet’s reactions, and because these reactions can be difficult to read and interpret, desensitization and counterconditioning require the guidance of a trained and experienced professional. For help designing and carrying out a desensitization and counterconditioning plan, consult a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB). If you can’t find a behaviorist, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), but be sure that the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she or he has education and experience in treating fear with desensitization and counterconditioning, since this kind of expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification.
Step One: Predeparture Cues: As mentioned above, some dogs begin to feel anxious while their guardians get ready to leave. For example, a dog might start to pace, pant and whine when he notices his guardian applying makeup, putting on shoes and a coat, and then picking up a bag or car keys. (If your dog doesn’t show signs of anxiety when you’re preparing to leave him alone, you can just skip to step two below.) Guardians of dogs who become upset during predeparture rituals are unable to leave—even for just few seconds—without triggering their dogs’ extreme anxiety. Your dog may see telltale cues that you’re leaving (like your putting on your coat or picking up your keys) and get so anxious about being left alone that he can’t control himself and forgets that you’ll come back.
One treatment approach to this “predeparture anxiety” is to teach your dog that when you pick up your keys or put on your coat, it doesn’t always mean that you’re leaving. You can do this by exposing your dog to these cues in various orders several times a day—without leaving. For example, put on your boots and coat, and then just watch TV instead of leaving. Or pick up your keys, and then sit down at the kitchen table for awhile. This will reduce your dog’s anxiety because these cues won’t always lead to your departure, and so your dog won’t get so anxious when he sees them. Please be aware, though, that your dog has many years of learning the significance of your departure cues, so in order to learn that the cues no longer predict your long absences, your dog must experience the fake cues many, many times a day for many weeks. After your dog doesn’t become anxious when he sees you getting ready to leave, you can move on to the next step below.
Step Two: Graduated Departures/Absences: If your dog is less anxious before you leave, you can probably skip the predeparture treatment above and start with very short departures. The main rule is to plan your absences to be shorter than the time it takes for your dog to become upset. To get started, train your dog to perform out-of-sight stays by an inside door in the home, such as the bathroom. You can teach your dog to sit or down and stay while you go to the other side of the bathroom door. You can teach your dog to sit or down and stay while you go to the other side of the bathroom door. You can also contact a Certified Professional Dog Trainer for assistance. Gradually increase the length of time you wait on the other side of the door, out of your dog’s sight. You can also work on getting your dog used to predeparture cues as you practice the stay. For example, ask your dog to stay. Then put on your coat, pick up your purse and go into the bathroom while your dog continues to stay.
A Necessary Component of Separation Anxiety Treatment: During desensitization to any type of fear, it is essential to ensure that your dog never experiences the full-blown version of whatever provokes his anxiety or fear. He must experience only a low-intensity version that doesn’t frighten him. Otherwise, he won’t learn to feel calm and comfortable in situations that upset him. This means that during treatment for separation anxiety, your dog cannot be left alone except during your desensitization sessions. Fortunately there are plenty of alternative arrangements:
In addition to your graduated absences exercises, all greetings (hellos and goodbyes) should be conducted in a very calm manner. When saying goodbye, just give your dog a pat on the head, say goodbye and leave. Similarly, when arriving home, say hello to your dog and then don’t pay any more attention to him until he’s calm and relaxed. The amount of time it takes for your dog to relax once you’ve returned home will depend on his level of anxiety and individual temperament. To decrease your dog’s excitement level when you come home, it might help to distract him by asking him to perform some simple behaviors that he’s already learned, such as sit, down or shake.
To Crate or Not to Crate? Crate training can be helpful for some dogs if they learn that the crate is their safe place to go when left alone. However, for other dogs, the crate can cause added stress and anxiety. In order to determine whether or not you should try using a crate, monitor your dog’s behavior during crate training and when he’s left in the crate while you’re home. If he shows signs of distress (heavy panting, excessive salivation, frantic escape attempts, persistent howling or barking), crate confinement isn’t the best option for him. Instead of using a crate, you can try confining your dog to one room behind a baby gate.
Provide Plenty of “Jobs” for Your Dog to Do: Providing lots of physical and mental stimulation is a vital part of treating many behavior problems, especially those involving anxiety. Exercising your dog’s mind and body can greatly enrich his life, decrease stress and provide appropriate outlets for normal dog behaviors. Additionally, a physically and mentally tired dog doesn’t have much excess energy to expend when he’s left alone. To keep your dog busy and happy, try the following suggestions:
Medications Might Help: Always consult with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist before giving your dog any type of medication for a behavior problem.
The use of medications can be very helpful, especially for severe cases of separation anxiety. Some dogs are so distraught by any separation from their pet parents that treatment can’t be implemented without the help of medication. Anti-anxiety medication can help a dog tolerate some level of isolation without experiencing anxiety. It can also make treatment progress more quickly.
On rare occasions, a dog with mild separation anxiety might benefit from drug therapy alone, without accompanying behavior modification. The dog becomes accustomed to being left alone with the help of the drug and retains this new conditioning after he’s gradually weaned off the medication. However, most dogs need a combination of medication and behavior modification.
If you’d like to explore this option, speak with your veterinarian, a veterinary behaviorist or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist who can work closely with your vet.
What NOT to Do: Do not scold or punish your dog. Anxious behaviors are not the result of disobedience or spite. They are distress responses! Your dog displays anxious behaviors when left alone because he’s upset and trying to cope with a great deal of stress. If you punish him, he may become even more upset and the problem could get much worse.