Dog Separation Anxiety: Doing What Works

Y’all know how I feel about animal rescue. Your new best friend is probably out there waiting for you somewhere, and even adult dogs have lots of love to give. You don’t need a puppy to have the perfect dog for you. The “for you” part is important. Because first: All dogs have issues.And second: If the dog you’re rescuing happened to be perfect, there’s a good chance it wouldn’t be up for grabs in the first place. All dogs have some issue, great or small, and with rescues, it’s probably more likely to be big.

Enter Daisy, who I’m pretty sure I’ve bragged/complained/talked about before. She’s adorable. When I met her, she had this cute, quiet, funny bark and was really laid back and chill. Friends, that’s called kennel cough. Daisy had essentially lost her voice and energy, and when she got her groove back, I found out something horrible. Daisy is LOUD. She is so loud that when she really gets going, her bark echoes throughout the apartment complex and over the cornfields nearby. And she is never so loud as when she is panicked. Because Daisy is not a chill dog.

Daisy has separation anxiety. Note the howling.

(Notice that she looks at the door after howling, like I might come back.)

Of course, I didn’t know it was bad because I wasn’t there. So it took about a month for my neighbors to notify me. And then I started recording her every day when I left, and then I started to cry. I had to get her on track or give her up. I couldn’t stay in a two bedroom apartment with thin walls and a dog who howled for an hour every day before 7 a.m. It’s been five months since I got Daisy, and I am happy to say that for the first time, she has had days when she has not made a single sound when I left.

A small dog sits calmly on the floor.

I scoured the internet for separation anxiety ideas and tried what feels like everything. Here are some ideas, handily in one place for all of you with animals-with-issues:

Limit your pet’s freedom. For many, this means crating. I tried to crate Daisy, but it was a non-starter. She was worse in the crate. For pets who are destructive, it may be the only way to go. Some animals will chew through doors and go through windows to get to you. Daisy just eats my bras and kitchen utensils. Because she jumps ONTO THE COUNTERS. All four paws. Google “Bad Dog Rufus” to see what I mean. Here, I’ll just give you a link to another dog with cat-like reflexes. With Daisy, we tried different rooms in the house, until we had a place that she felt safe, but that also gave her a fairly limited range. I would say that pets with separation anxiety have impulse control issues, so make their decisions easy. Daisy is allowed only in the living room while I’m gone so that she can sleep on the couch or by the door and has easy access to water and her favorite toys. The kitchen is gated with a four foot tall baby gate to stop her from jumping in.

Light and sound. This one is tricky and depends solely on YOUR pet. For some animals, having sounds, especially human voices or a recording of your voice, really helps them feel not alone. So leave the TV on something that’s going to stay quiet most of the day, like local stations that are just going to be the news or daytime talk shows. Some people recommend leaving the lights on so that your pet doesn’t feel alone. For Daisy, turning off all noises and the lights works better. It encourages her to go to sleep. Experiment a couple days each way and see what works.

Make food fun. I am not afraid to say that the Kong saved Daisy’s life. It sounds dramatic, but it’s not. If I had to send her back to the shelter, I don’t know if she would have made it out again. Because most pets with separation anxiety get past it in the first hour they’re alone, giving them a job to focus on for that time can really cut down on the panic they feel. I mix dry and wet food half and half, stuff the Kong with it really tightly, and put it in her safe spot (a tiny gap between the wall and couch) before I leave. It takes her at least 45 minutes to get all the food out, which keeps her focused on something other than, “Oh shit! Mommy’s gone! PANIC!” Using food toys like this takes time. You really have to build your pet’s confidence with it. Start with really easy tasks and work your way up. It’s worth it. We have six Kongs, and Daisy is psyched to see them every time. She no longer really understands why food comes in bowls, however.

Thundershirt. Some people swear by the Thundershirt. Daisy spends hours running into walls trying to get the damn thing off. Give it a try, but buy it from the company. They have a 45 day return policy, so if it doesn’t work for you, you can send it back.

DAP diffusers. These release soothing hormones into your dog’s environment. DAP = Dog Appeasing Pheromone. Some people hate the smell, but I love it. They make my apartment smell like lavender and chamomile, and they work for us. I even keep a spray of it in the car for long trips, to keep Crazy Daisy calm in the backseat. The refills can be obscenely expensive, so this is not always a great option.

Meds. My dog is on medication, something the internet made me feel really guilty about. (Dear internet: Sometimes you are a terrible, hateful place.) I guess if I was a better, more patient dog owner, then I wouldn’t need the twice daily doses of amitriptyline. I have been told I am abusive and giving my dog unnecessary medication. To those people, I say this: I agonized over this decision. I was watching my dog every day on video, howling herself into a frenzy for an hour every day, and finally dropping to the floor exhausted and shaking from the terror. If Daisy were a human child, and a doctor told me that medication could help her learn and keep her from being in pain and terror, I would jump at it. While working in elementary schools, I saw too many kids whose parents refused to put them on medication. They were unable to have a normal day, unable to learn the basic skills they needed, and they were spending their days screaming and even self-harming in fear and panic. I would give my child medication, and I love Daisy to distraction, so I’ll give her the meds too. Maybe this is something you don’t want to do, but I did it. And it helped. What would once have sent her spiraling into a 20-minute meltdown can now be managed. She can learn she’s safe. It also gives me time to use positive reinforcement, rather than her just panicking. I hope to start weaning her off the Puppy Prozac in the next couple months.

Time. This all takes a lot of time and practice. Lots of going in and out. I spent Saturdays walking out into my hallway with a timer to stretch out the amount of time Daisy could be alone without losing her mind. I literally had to start with just putting my hand on the doorknob, then walking away and giving Daisy a treat. This was frustrating for me as the human, because I felt like I could never leave and have my own life. I felt I had to devote every day to my dog’s separation anxiety and quickly started to burn out. Remind yourself this: Your dog is a dog. She is happy to see you and sad to see you go. You cannot cure this in a day, and you cannot become a shut-in. See to her immediate safety, work with her as best you can, and then go live your life.

Finally, my best advice is this: Find a way to record your dog. I use my laptop and watch the recordings when I come home. I do this for two reasons. First, to protect myself. I eventually got a notice about Daisy’s behavior from the apartment complex where I live. It turned out that my downstairs neighbors had made false accusations about what was going on upstairs. I had back up and evidence on my side to support that they were lying and she was improving. I got to keep my dog. Second, this recording is going to show you what works, what doesn’t, and what they’re getting into, so that you know if they’re loose, they’re not doing anything dangerous. Try not to let it distress or upset you (but it will) and try to get a good laugh at it. The first time Daisy realized she could get on the dining room table, she looked around like, “How the hell did this happen? WHO PUT ME UP HERE?” It was hilarious. Pets are funny, even when they’re upset, and if you’re diligent, you can help your pet make progress, even if it’s just a very little bit at a time.

By amandamarieg

Amandamarieg is a lawyer who does not work as a lawyer. She once wrote up a plan to take over the world and turned it in as a paper for a college course. She only received an A-, because she forgot that she would need tech geeks to pull off her scheme.

5 replies on “Dog Separation Anxiety: Doing What Works”

This is so helpful and I have to admit, it ENRAGES me when people shame pet owners for using anti-anxiety medications. Why?
1. Some dogs are so profoundly stressed out that without these meds, there is NO possibility of them ever overcoming the problem because they can’t even begin to be trained. On the other hand, I saw a dog with the worst case of thunderstorm anxiety ever get past it through use of Elavil (which was the drug of choice at the time) and desensitization.
2. Some dogs are just wired to be extremely anxious, just like some people.
3. In a world where people treat dogs terribly, you are trying to make your dog happy, and in this case, it involves medication. Anyone who judges you should stuff it. Seriously, what colossal jerks. Tell them they are bad pet owners for wasting valuable time they could have spent with their pets giving you the stinkeye.

On an unrelated note, I haven’t met a lot of people that were helped by the thundershirt.

Daisy is on Elavil, and it’s worked really well. I don’t think medication should be your first go-to, but I don’t think it should be shamed either.

My parents’ dog is terrified of thunderstorms, and the thundershirt helps for short, mild storms (keeps him from climbing on people and drooling) but for really bad storms, they gave to put him on what is more or less Xanax, or he will run around, try to get his 125 pound self on people, chew on his paws, etc.

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