Solutions For Separation Anxiety: How To Make “Alone Time” Less Scary

Solutions For Separation Anxiety: How To Make “Alone Time” Less Scary

Welcome back for this week’s follow-up post on separation anxiety!  If you missed my previous post on recognizing some tell-tale signs that should make you suspicious of this problem, you can find it here.

Today, I want to delve a bit deeper into what we can do to help dogs with separation anxiety – including some details on what strategies worked well for our boy Duncan, many years ago.  We will also discuss some ways that you can be proactive and minimize the risk of developing this issue in the first place, especially if you have a new puppy.

So you think you have a problem… what to do first?

All right, let’s get down to business – how do we treat these dogs?  If you suspect (or have recently realized) that your dog is showing signs of separation anxiety, you may be wondering what you can do to help.  The good news is, in most cases we can make dramatic improvements relatively quickly once we realize that there is a problem.

First, a hard truth that may be somewhat controversial.  In my experience, the vast majority of dogs with clinically significant separation anxiety need prescription medication in order to treat their problem successfully.  For this reason, I always recommend involving your veterinarian in your dog’s treatment plan sooner rather than later – all the training in the world won’t make any difference if you can’t cut through the initial panic response that comes with every departure.

This is where meds can be extremely helpful, and even life-saving in some cases.

For most of my SA patients, I recommend starting on a prescription anti-anxiety medication on Day 1, to be used as needed – generally, these are given about an hour before leaving the house.  Most commonly, this would be either trazodone, or a benzodiazepine such as Xanax.

Some dogs may also need a daily “background” medication like an SSRI, particularly if they have other anxiety issues or such severe SA that they are injuring themselves or destroying their homes.  This is a critically important step, because it can be very difficult for any other strategies to be successful if your dog is too worked up to think or show any interest in food.

I know that many owners are initially resistant to using medication for this problem, especially right off the bat, but please – strongly consider it, for your dog’s sake.  It can make a tremendous difference.

All right, then.  Once we have appropriate meds on board, what’s the next step?

Toys, treats, and the 30-minute rule

From a behavior modification standpoint, the single most valuable thing you can do for your SA dog is find some type of tasty, long-lasting treat that they are willing to eat while you’re gone.  This seems deceptively simple, I know – but it’s the cornerstone of successful SA treatment.

Treats in this situation are important for two reasons: 1) they keep your dog busy doing something he enjoys, instead of barking, howling, or destroying your home; and 2) they also teach him to associate good things with being alone in the house.  This is the power of classical conditioning at work, and it’s what actually allows us to “fix the problem” over the long haul, to the extent that it’s possible to fix.

So – what kinds of treats work best?  I’m glad you asked! 🙂  It can actually be quite challenging in some cases to find something that works, so it’s well worth spending some time on this part of the discussion.

Ideally, we want something that will take the dog a decent amount of time to eat.  Studies have shown that the most intense period of distress for most SA dogs occurs during the first 30 minutes after their owner leaves.  Conversely, if you can manage to keep your dog happily occupied with something else during this 30 minute window, he often won’t become overly upset at all.  So this is our goal, in most cases – 30 minutes is the magic number.

HOWEVER… we also need something that is exceptionally exciting and delicious, so that your dog will be willing to eat it while you’re gone.  The challenge here is that most dogs will not eat when they are anxious or upset – in fact, many of my clients have already tried leaving a variety of different treats with their dog, but they come home to find them untouched.

And so, this is really quite a dilemma!  It’s actually quite difficult to find a treat that meets both of these criteria – stinky, delicious treats tend to be eaten very quickly, and longer-lasting chews are often not enticing enough to be useful.

(Incidentally, this is one reason that medication is so helpful in the early stages.  Often, if we can just reduce the dog’s anxiety a bit in the beginning, he suddenly becomes interested in food… and from there, we’re off to the races!)

Listed below are a few of my favorite “go to” options for SA dogs.  These are treats and/or toys that have worked well for my own dogs, as well as many clients’ dogs over the years – so I hope you might find some of them helpful for your own pups as well!

– Kong or Twist-n-Treat, stuffed with something tasty

– Everlasting Treat Ball

– Kibble Nibble or Tug-a-Jug, filled with kibble

– Bully sticks

– Cow or pig ears

– Beef backstrap chews

– Dried beef tracheas

What if your dog is a gulper who’s determined to swallow everything whole?  In that case, you may not want to leave him with bully sticks, cow ears, etc. without supervision, as they could potentially present a choking hazard.  Many dogs do just fine with them, but they may not be safe for every pet – use common sense, and know your dog!  If in doubt, give him one of these items for a test run while you’re home, so that you can observe what he does with it.

If you have concerns, you can always stick to refillable puzzle toys like the Kong or Twist-n-Treat 🙂

Whatever you choose, remember that your goal is 30 minutes of happy, contented chewing.  Again, this is where video recording comes in very handy – I strongly recommend videotaping your dog each day while you’re working on the problem, so that you can see how long your treats are lasting.  You may need to leave multiple toys or treats, or be creative about how you are stuffing your puzzle toys to hit your target time.

A few more helpful hints

Okay – you’ve talked to your vet about medication, and invested in a nice rotating supply of fabulous treats and puzzle toys to entertain your dog while you’re gone.  So what else can you do to make things easier for your SA pup?

Here are a few additional changes that can be helpful, in no particular order:

– Make your arrivals and departures as boring and low-key as possible.  When it’s time to leave, simply step out the door without a fuss – it’s tempting to give lots of kisses and reassurances that everything will be fine, but unfortunately this often makes dogs more anxious.  Same thing when you come home – walk in, put your stuff down, say a nonchalant “hey, there” to your dog, and go about your business.  The less fanfare, the better.

– Increase the amount of exercise your dog is getting each day.  Get up 30 minutes earlier in the morning to take him for a nice long walk, if you can.  A tired dog will have an easier time relaxing than one who’s under-exercised and raring to go.

– It might surprise you to learn that confinement makes things worse for many SA dogs – so if your dog is currently crated or confined to a small room while you’re gone, consider trying to leave him loose in the house if you can.  I realize that this can be very risky at first!  In some cases, it may not be possible until you have some meds on board and things have started to improve – especially if your dog is prone to destroying things while you’re gone.  But ideally, this is a goal that you may want to work towards as part of your long-term plan.

What about more involved training options?

You may have heard or read about some additional behavior modification techniques for separation anxiety in dogs, such as graduated departures, desensitization to departure cues, or “independence training.”  These can certainly be helpful in some cases, if you’re working with a skilled professional who can guide you.  But to be perfectly honest, I rarely use or recommend these techniques for the vast majority of my clients.

The reason is twofold – they are extremely difficult for most owners to execute correctly, and they have the potential of “sensitizing” your dog (meaning, making him MORE anxious instead of less) if not done with great care.  I will include some recommended reading at the end of today’s post that goes into more detail on these techniques, so feel free to do some research if you’re interested!

They can work very well in some cases, so I don’t mean to discourage anyone from considering them.  Just be aware that they are very labor-intensive, and have the potential to do harm unless you are working closely with a veterinary behaviorist or an experienced trainer.

Duncan’s story, revisited

So what ever happened to my first SA dog, Duncan?  (If you missed the first part of his story, check my previous post for details!)  I’m happy to say that his life took a dramatic turn for the better once we realized what was wrong.

Working closely with a behavior consultant at OSU’s vet school, we made some immediate changes to his daily routine – this included transitioning him out of his crate so that he could spend his days loose in the house, as well as lots of trial and error with different treats and puzzle toys to find some options that worked.  He was also started on a few different medications to help manage his anxiety, which made a tremendous difference.

Duncan will be turning 16 years old this spring, and is still puttering around contentedly with my mother in the house I grew up in.  He gets a carefully curated selection of treats scattered around the room every time she leaves the house, as well as a puzzle ball filled with kibble that he will happily work at for an hour or more.  She comes home each day after work to find him sound asleep on the couch – he stretches lazily, shakes off, and wags his tail hello.  A far cry from the days when he would bound out of his crate in a frenzy of hysterical distress as soon as we entered the house, and a very welcome change for all involved 🙂

Does this mean that his separation anxiety is cured?

I wouldn’t say that, because life is not a storybook and behavior problems are rarely “fixed.”  He still has occasional accidents in the house, and will sometimes shred newspapers, magazines, or boxes that are left within his reach.  Like most dogs with SA, he needs a consistent routine to keep his anxiety under control.  Movie nights and dinners out with friends must be carefully planned and coordinated, and trips out of town require a truly impressive level of finesse to pull off successfully.

He’s more challenging to care for than a “normal” dog, but he’s much happier now and we love him.  God knows, none of us are perfect – so I’m not sure we can ask for more than that. <3

A few parting thoughts on prevention

As with so many things in life, it’s far easier to set your dog up for success in the first place vs. dealing with an anxiety problem once it’s already established.  So what can you do with a new puppy (or a newly adopted adult dog) to help them enjoy their “alone time” from the very beginning?

– First and foremost, make use of treats and puzzle toys!  When I have a new puppy, I never, EVER want him to be barking or whining when I leave.  Instead, he should be busily engaged with a toy or some kind of very tasty treat that he only gets when I’m gone.  Don’t wait until you see evidence of a problem to start this – do it from Day 1, so that your pup learns right away to enjoy his quiet time when you’re gone.

– Videotape your dog.  Get into the habit of doing this periodically, just to make sure that everything is going well.  For new puppies, I strongly recommend videotaping them every time you leave for the first week or two – this helps you to spot potential problems right away, so that you can make changes before things get worse.  It’s a good idea to do this once a month or so regardless, even with older dogs who seem fine… SA can develop at any point in life, so don’t assume that things are okay just because they have been in the past.

– Be proactive!  What if you do see some mild whining or pacing on your videotape, or occasionally come home to find your toys and treats untouched?  You may need to make some changes to your current routine – perhaps leaving more attractive snacks to keep your dog busy, or going for a longer walk in the morning to help tire him out before leaving.  Consider trying a DAP pheromone collar, or a natural calming supplement like Zylkene or Composure to see if this helps.

If your efforts don’t seem to be working, please take more definitive action to help your dog before things get worse – make an appointment with your veterinarian, or request referral to a veterinary behaviorist if needed for a more comprehensive treatment plan.

Believe me, both you and your dog will be very glad you did!

If you’re interested in a more detailed discussion of behavior modification strategies that can be used to treat separation anxiety in dogs, here are a couple of great resources that you might find helpful.  In my opinion, they are two of the best books available on this topic – happy reading! 🙂

(Links provided here are Amazon affiliate links, but you can also find them from other online retailers such as, Barnes and Noble, etc.)

I’ll be Home Soon: How to Prevent and Treat Separation Anxiety. by Patricia McConnell, PhD – This is a relatively short “booklet” that nevertheless does an excellent job of covering the basics of recognizing and treating separation anxiety in dogs, including a nice discussion of graduated departures (essentially, staring with very short absences and slowly working your way up to several hours at a time) and how this type of training plan can be helpful.

Don’t Leave Me! Step-by-Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety by Nicole Wilde – For anyone who is really interested in all the nitty-gritty details of behavior modification plans, as well as the role of nutrition, exercise, alternative therapies, etc. in the treatment of separation anxiety, this book is a fantastic resource.  Very detailed and comprehensive.

2 thoughts on “Solutions For Separation Anxiety: How To Make “Alone Time” Less Scary

  1. Appreciate your recommendation to start meds right away with dogs that show signs of serious separation anxiety. Sometimes we forget that mental distress can be as debilitating as physical pain. To add to your list of helpful resources: article re: using Kongs for dogs with SA: Found it helpful for use with dogs who don’t want to eat anything when they’re home alone. Also recently discovered calming collars – not the pheremone kind, but collars filled with calming herbs. Got mine here: My dog doesn’t have SA but she does get very anxious during thunderstorms and her calming collar helps a lot. Another thing that helps with her anxiety is goats milk, which has such strong calming properties that people go to pet stores to buy it for themselves (because in Maryland you can’t legally buy raw goats milk for people). We keep it in the freezer and scrape off a few tablespoons into a bowl – really relaxing. Thanks again for the tips!

    1. Thanks very much for adding those suggestions – it’s always great to have additional resources for people to check out! 🙂 And yes, I very much agree that mental distress is a quality of life issue in much the same way that physical pain is, and should be taken just as seriously.

      Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

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