Monday, March 5, 2012

Coping with Separation Anxiety

We frequently see dogs come to us with separation anxiety being indicated as at least one of the reasons for relinquishing the dog, so I thought it might be helpful to share some of the things that I have learned in working with my dogs and my current foster.

According to the experts, dogs who experience separation anxiety will act out in the first 30 minutes that they are left alone.  They also say that medication that inhibits separation anxiety does not address the underlying causes.  Consequently, when the medication is stopped, the anxiety will return.  The solution is to re-program the dog so that new learning takes place -- your leaving does not mean that they have been abandoned. 

I am currently fostering a BRAT dog , Bandit, who was identified as having separation anxiety when he came to BRAT.  He was boarded briefly while a foster home was arranged.  During that time, he was so anxious that he would dig at the chain link fence in his run in an attempt to escape.  He was not able to be crated.  He was placed with a foster but lasted only a week before he did damage when he had to be left alone for a short time.  That is when he came to me. 

I searched the internet for specific advice on how to address the behavior.  The consensus seemed to be to desensitize him by leaving for short periods and coming back.  The leaving and coming must occur without any drama -- no long goodbyes, no verbal reassurances, no enthusiastic greetings.  I had tried this with another dog and did not have success.  It was also suggested that music can help calm your dog at home and in the car, aromatherapy can help as can a blend of flower essences.

I approached Bandit's issue armed with a strategy that incorporates the above .  For the first week, I did not leave home but I did a lot of coming and going inside the house.  My 3 dogs stay in the kitchen/family room area which is separated from the rest of the house by a door with a large glass panel.  Bandit stays with them.  No one is crated but there is a crate in the kitchen that Bandit uses as a bed when he is not on the couch.  I started my re-programming of him by first doing what I could to get him calm so that he could process what I was doing (going and returning).  To do this I used an anxiety wrap advocated by Linda Tellington-Jones ( ).
Bandit modeling his anxiety wrap

The wrap is an elastic bandage that you wrap around the dog's body.  You place the bandage under the dog's neck, bring it up over its shoulders crossing it at the base of its neck, then bring it down under its belly, again crossing it and bringing up over its lower back where you tie or pin it.  The band should be pulled snug but not tight.  The theory is that this works with the dog's nervous system to help balance him so that he can be calm and, if he is calm, he can learn.  You can read all about this and other techniques to influence your dog's behavior in positive ways in Getting in TTouch with Your Dog by Linda Tellington-Jones. 

I started my reprogramming of Bandit by going out of and coming back in through the kitchen door for just a minute or two at first.  I gradually extended the time period.  I then did the same thing going outside into the backyard from the kitchen.  He did not seem to be overly concerned with my comings and goings because they became routine.  He would initially wait by the door but as the length of my absences grew, he decided to go into the open crate and wait for me.  He could see the door from there.  At the end of the first week, I started actually leaving the house to run errands.  At first, I was gone for only 15 minutes.  Now, three weeks later, I am able to leave for 3 1/2 hours with no damage being done. 

Because I did not know how quickly he would progress, I made arrangements for him to go to daycare for a half day one day a week when I have a regular commitment that takes me away from home for about 4 hours.  I think his experience at daycare has helped speed his progress.  He realizes that he is left in safe hands and that I come back for him.  Again, my comings and goings are very calm and matter of fact.

Bandit also suffered from anxiety in the car.  When I picked him up, I was told to use the chain link lead to anchor him to the arm of the seat in the car.  I did so and he was nervous, attempted to free himself , tried to climb in my lap and whined the whole way to my house.  The second time I took him in the car, we were going to daycare.  I put the anxiety wrap on him.  I did not tie him to the seat.  He sat on the seat and whimpered every now and then.  The next time, I did not use the wrap.  He sat on the seat and there was no whimpering.  This past week when we went in the car he happily jumped in the car and settled down for the ride.  I think this is amazing progress.

As you all know, dogs are like us in that some days are better than others.  If I sense that Bandit is a little on edge, I give him a dose of Rescue Remedy.  The other thing that I do is spray some lavender oil around the room.  It has a calming effect  on dogs and people and makes things smell great.  I used our time in the car to experiment with the type of music that would have a calming effect.  We tried jazz, oldies, country and classical.  The classical definitely had the most calming effect.  This is probably not surprising to those who attend classical concerts and have observed the number of audience members who enjoy them with their eyes closed. 

Bandit has progressed remarkably well.  Not all dogs will respond as quickly as he has.  I have a Basenji-Collie mix who also suffered from separation, thunderstorm and fireworks/nail gun anxiety.  I did not follow as strict a regimen with her and she suffered with these anxieties for 12 years.  I took her to a holistic vet who has been doing acupuncture to help balance her.  This dog did not respond to Rescue Remedy at all but the vet created a custom formula using flower essences to address her specific issues.  This formula works like magic.  When she begins to stress over an approaching storm or loud noises, all I have to do is put some of this in the palm of my hand.  She licks it up and almost immediately chills out.  I had a Border Collie with severe thunderstorm and fireworks anxiety.  She did respond to Rescue Remedy so well that after a while, I didn't need to give it to her anymore.

The point of this is to not give up on a dog with anxiety issues.  They can be overcome with patience and persistence on your part. 

By the way, Bandit will be available for adoption before too long. He is a special needs dog who has the most wonderful, loving personality.  He is special needs because all of his limbs are deformed to some extent.  He can do everything that my other dogs do, it just takes him a little longer and, of course, he cannot jog but neither can l. 
--B.Ann Hageman


  1. Separation anxiety in dogs is something that has become a big issue for dogs and their owners. This can cause a lot of stress and can be very painful for dogs. We have had a lot of great discussions about dog anxiety on our Facebook page and have received a lot of great tips. We would like to invite you to check out some of the advice on our page or feel free to join in the conversation on our page. Happy reading:)

  2. Try the original patented Anxiety Wrap invented by Susan Sharpe, certified professional dog trainer and T-touch practitioner - so she based the design on what she knew about Tellington touch.

    Susan spoke with Dr. Temple Grandin when she was developing the Anxiety Wrap and is mentioned in Dr. Grandin's book.

    I first used the Anxiety Wrap on my own dog a couple of years ago, and ever since have been recommending to my clients with fearful and anxious dogs.

    To save myself some typing, I'm going to refer you to an article I wrote comparing the original Anxiety Wrap to the Thundershirt:

    Cindy Ludwig, M.A., KPA-CTP
    Owner, Canine Connection LLC
    Dubuque, Iowa