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As a dog trainer for many years, separation anxiety is one of the more
common behavior problems that we deal with. It can actually sometimes be
created by the owner by accident. It can be extremely frustrating for
dog owners, often taking the forms of irritating and destructive
behaviors from the dog. Don’t panic, with hard work and patience, you
can fix it.
The first thing to understand if your dog has separation
anxiety is that he or she is NOT being spiteful in any way. They are not
destroying your favorite pair of shoes because they are mad at you for
leaving them. Think about it, your favorite pair would be the ones you
wear the most, right? Therefore they will carry your scent more
powerfully than others.
NEVER correct a dog for any destruction or mess they cause while you
are gone. They do not “know what they did.” If you come into your home
and yell at your dog for chewing up the rug, all you are communicating
to the dog is that he is in trouble because you came home, and that rugs
are very, very, bad!
A bunch of people just rolled their eyes and thought,
does so know what he did.”
Trust me he doesn’t. Dogs communicate through eye contact, body language
and tone of voice. I can promise you that if you are coming home to
destruction on a routine basis, you are entering your home with all
three in an aggressive state. If it is the first time, you might have
entered the home relaxed, but upon seeing your home look like a bomb hit
it, you will give of anger in some way.
The slightest stiffening of your body, colorful expletive or quick glare
at the dog will convey strong messages of displeasure.
As for understanding why you are angry, if I started screaming at you in
Russian odds are that you wouldn’t have a clue as to what I was upset
about. You would however, know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was
How do you think you might react to that? Would you cringe? Back up?
Maybe even look for a way to escape from the screaming psycho?
What are symptoms of Separation Anxiety?
Symptoms of separation anxiety take many forms. The most common one we
see is chewing things. They also might bark, whine, eliminate in the
house, salivate excessively or dig holes in carpeting, bedding, couches
etc. Extreme cases might even go through a glass window, or chew a hole
in a door.
As mentioned before, none of these crimes are to be punishable by law.
The dog is making canine decisions in your human den. These decisions
are designed to make himself feel better, not to make you mad. He is
doing so because he was elected pack leader by you.
Chewing temporarily relieves tension in a dog, so naturally it’s the
most common symptom.
I just want to reiterate that none of this destruction is born out of
any malice. Please do not correct the dog when you return home. I know
that it can be very difficult. As a human I can understand how much it’s
going to cost to replace damaged items. I can understand that it’s going
to be a pain to have to clean up the mess after a long day at work. A
dog does not.
Overview of Separation Anxiety
This is a serious issue and as with all dog behaviors, tends to
escalate. If your dog is showing minor symptoms, fix it immediately.
Each day will bring a little bit more anxiety to the dog, and I’ve seen
some pretty severe symptoms develop.
Imagine you are a teacher and you turn from the blackboard to see a
student missing. You are responsible for that student and you lost them.
You turn the school upside down (and probably make one heck of a good
mess doing it) and there find no sign of them. Imagine the anxiety you
would be feeling.
Then several hours later, in walks the missing student. Think of the
gamut of emotions that will be going through you.
Now imagine that happens to you everyday. Your anxiety level will
naturally increase with each day. Maybe this will be the day he doesn’t
come back. Have fun explaining that one to his parents.
This is what the dog goes through on a daily basis. They didn’t “miss
you” while you were gone, they “lost” you. Our humanization of them
tells us that they missed us terribly and are just so happy that we are
home. This is simply not so.
Of the two words in this behavior problem, people often focus on the
wrong one. It seems to be all about “separation,” and not so much about
the “anxiety.” This often leads to the problem being inadvertently
Every single person in this world has experienced anxiety firsthand at
some point in their lifetime. I think we can all agree that it was not a
fun time in our lives. It’s even worse for a dog that lives in a world
where they often don’t have anyone else nearby who speaks their
language. For the ones that do, odds are that dog is just as anxious and
they will feed off of each other. Treating anxiety in a dog is quite
different than in a human.
People will do everything possible to not leave the dog alone. They will
adjust their schedules and cancel appointments. They will allow the dog
to follow them from room to room in the house. Often these poor dogs can
be sound asleep and will pop up immediately if the owner gets up from
the couch. How sad that the poor dog can’t relax and have a nap because
he is always “on duty.” In every single separation anxiety case I’ve
had, the owner told me they couldn’t even go to the bathroom by
They will try harder and harder to make the dog feel “reassured.” They
leave the house with tearful goodbyes, assuring the dog over and over
that they will be back. They return with gusto, telling the dog that
everything is ok now that they are back.
Soft tones and petting equal praise to a dog. So essentially, if you pet
your dog and tell him what a good boy he is while he is anxious, you are
in fact telling him he is good for being anxious. This creates a vicious
circle that is very hard to break out of.
Remember that the as the pack leader, the dog is responsible for his
pack, namely you. If you leave the den, the dog has then lost a pack
member and that is going to make them crazy.
So yes, this anxiety was caused by the separation of a pack member, but
the anxiety is much more of an important focus here.
A significant amount of your dog’s anxiety will be resolved simply by
removing the responsibility of commanding the pack. The rest will come
from teaching him what to do when he is alone.
What causes separation anxiety?
To answer this, we must look at the heart of canine culture. Dogs are
pack animals, and follow a strict hierarchy. They can not and will not
ever deviate from this. When you bring a dog into your home,
You have just converted your human family into a dog pack. And every
pack must have a leader.
If we do not assume the role of pack leader, then the dog will have no
other choice then to ascend to that role himself. That’s where behavior
problems come in, ALL of them.
We are proud of our dog’s good behavior.
“See that? I taught him how to do that!”
On the other hand, bad behavior is the dog’s fault.
“This is ridiculous! He never listens!”
If we don’t teach the dog what to do, how is he supposed to know? Does
it really seem appropriate to blame the dog?
Rule # 1 of dog training: It is NEVER the dog’s fault.
Good or bad, ALL behaviors come from us. If your dog doesn’t listen to
you, at some point you (inadvertently) told him he didn’t have to.
A canine leader of a human pack will always be a disaster. They do not
understand the human world, and never will be able to. They will make
canine decisions that translate into what we call behavior problems. The
pack leader is responsible for the pack’s survival. For a dog in charge
of his human, it is a position riddled with fear and anxiety.
This concept is not a new one, but is sadly often discarded. We treat
our dogs like children and “humanize” them. Dogs are very clear when
dealing with each other. Behavior is either acceptable or it isn’t, and
at the current moment.
With this in mind, dogs know that humans are not other dogs; however
they do think that we think the same way as they do. This is where we
confuse them. We think in human and forget that they can’t.
Dogs immediately start looking for their place in the pack as soon as we
bring them into our homes. They look for direction as to what is allowed
and what is not. It cannot be ok to jump up on dad when he gets home
from work, but a big no-no to jump on grandma when she comes over for
dinner. This is a mixed message to a dog.
If we do not give them clear directions, they will not see us as leaders
BAM! Instant pack leader, just add anxiety
They have probably have been following you around which you thought was
cute. “Look how much he loves me!”
He might whine or dig at the door when you take out the garbage or go
take a shower. The whining turns to barking and you decide to let the
poor thing in the bathroom with you praising the behavior the entire
way. “It’s ok, good boy! You’re fine, it’s ok”
You decide that the card game you are supposed to go to will happen
again next week. “I’ll just stay home so the dog doesn’t get upset.”
The mistakes are not with the dog’s behavior, but in how we handle them.
You can’t explain to or reason with a dog. If we let undesired behaviors
go unchecked, it is essentially the same as approving of them.
The shadowing should be halted and the dog taught to lie down and stay.
The whining to barking should be ceased and the dog taught to entertain
himself properly. Examples are to go lie down, go get a toy or sit
quietly and relaxed and wait for you to come back.
If you change your schedule as much as possible to remain home with the
dog, you are not teaching him what to do when you have no choice and
must leave him.
Many people also make a mistake by getting a dog while on a vacation or
school break thinking they will be home to train the dog. Then as soon
as they go back to work or school, the dog has a coronary that his pack
is disappearing. This can in effect create separation anxiety.
If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, then you are not the leader
of your pack, and that is the critical first step if you are to
successfully rehabilitate the dog.
How do I fix Separation Anxiety?
Now the part you’ve all been waiting for. Ok, so we have identified the
problem, now how do we fix it? Here’s where the hard work, consistency,
patience, repetition and most importantly, an understanding of canine
communication comes in. You may have to bring in a professional trainer
to help you.
None of this will work if your dog does not see you as leader.
First and foremost, you must put your dog through an obedience training
program. Imagine the commands as “chores” you would give a child. They
need to know that you are in control, and to learn behaviors that will
Obedience training is not to teach the dog to put his butt on the floor.
He’s been doing that since before he could see and hear. It is for the
human to learn and practice how to be the pack leader. It is also to
teach the owner how to communicate with the dog in his own language.
You must exercise a dog throughout the day. And that is not just playing
in the yard. A dog must be walked at LEAST twice a day, but preferably
Whenever I refer to walking a dog, it is to be understood that the walk
must be in a controlled heel, which means the dog is walking next to you
or slightly behind you with a loose leash. A walk should also be at
least thirty minutes.
A pulling dog is leading you and therefore in charge. A tired dog is a
For healthy dogs, we have had much success with homemade agility
exercises. Teach the dog to jump through a hula hoop, or jump over pole
strung across cinder blocks. For small dogs getting two of the little
foam staircases used to get on furniture and placing them back to back
is great too. Have them go up one side and down the other at your pace.
Get creative, this is fun!
Agility builds confidence in a dog, and is fun. The human is also still
in control as you are directing the dog on how to “play.”
Do not make a big deal out of your comings and goings. Remember that the
dog doesn’t understand your words, or have any concept of the future.
(They don’t get it that you’ll be home later.)
If you are feeling sorry for the dog and guilty because you have to
leave, that will come through in your voice, eyes and body language.
Conversely, do not make a big deal out of returning home. Do not speak
to or make eye contact with the dog. If he is carrying on, wait until he
calms down and open the door, clip on a leash and go outside to do his
business. Then take him for a walk. He should be calm by the time you
return home. You can acknowledge the dog after the walk.
Often when this behavior is ongoing, you must also try “mock leaving.”
Watch your dog for cues that trigger the anxiety of you leaving.
Examples are putting on your shoes, picking up your keys, packing a
lunch, picking up a briefcase etc.
Identify these cues and use them to your training advantage. Leave the
house for a few minutes and return home. Do not acknowledge the dog if
he is carrying on. Keep a water gun or shake can nearby. Squirt the dog
or shake the can and say “NO. Quiet.”
When quiet, tell him “good quiet,” in a soft voice. An exuberant “GOOD
QUIET!” will only serve to raise his excitement level which is the
opposite of what we wish to accomplish.
If your dog only shows symptoms when certain family members leave, then
have the others do the praising and correcting when they leave. As
mentioned, you should probably enlist the help of a qualified dog
trainer to make sure this is done properly. The timing of correction and
praise is imperative.
Try and build up to at least one hour of good behavior while you are
out. The majority of cases with separation anxiety will exhibit signs in
the first forty five minutes to one hour. Generally if you can get to
this point the dog should be ok.