Separation Anxiety in Dog
April 8, 2012 5:46 PM   Subscribe

What can I do about extreme separation anxiety in my very loving dog?

I have a 5 year old lab mix dog that I fostered for a rescue group and subsequently adopted. She was very sick when I got her and I nursed her back to health. When she was well I adopted her and fell in love with her vowing not to give up on her...ever. She's a very loving dog...when I'm home. I work at home but when I have to go out more times than not she destroys things when I'm gone.

She can open cabinet doors, pull books off of shelves and out of baskets, and she's escaped out of her wire crate on three separate occasions. I have another well-behaved senior lab at home so she's not the only dog. She has extreme anxiety when I've put her in the crate so it's no longer an option. I've baby-proofed the house, covered things up, put latches on cabinets, gave her an article of my clothing to keep her company, etc. She still gets into things -- beneath blankets, up onto tables, places where I wouldn't expect her to go. Once she even chewed through a heating pad cord that thankfully wasn't plugged in. I've tried a variety of homeopathic productions including Rescue Remedy and Comfort Zone. None of them have helped at all. I've tried exercise with runs and hikes and it makes no difference. When I do go out she's never alone for more than 2-4 hours at a time.

I have reached the end of my ideas of what to try. The only thing left that I can think to do is to take her to the vet and get her anti-anxiety drugs. Thoughts?
posted by july1baby to Pets & Animals (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I have a friend who use anti-anxiety drugs on a dog who had major separation anxiety. It calmed him down enough to learn that their going away was not the end of the world. He was on it for about a month, I believe.

If you go that route, be sure to use that time to establish good, healthy patterns for you and your dog. Look at it as a training aide, not as the remedy.
posted by Vaike at 5:55 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

What about a Thundershirt?
posted by bolognius maximus at 6:00 PM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

My beast used to have separation anxiety, albeit not as bad as this seems to be. What really helped him was having something around that smelled like me. Granted, I looked like a fool wearing a dog bandana around the house, but putting it on him just before I left calmed him for awhile.
posted by FakePalindrome at 6:06 PM on April 8, 2012

Thanks Vaike, that gives me hope that it's not forever. I'll be calling the vet tomorrow to get her an appt. Regarding the thundershirt -- I've not heard enough good reviews on it. It's worth mentioning that there was a 3 week period whens he was a little angel, right after I purchased a CD and would play it when I went out. It was called Music Dog's Love For While You're Away. I thought she was cured but alas, she's back to her old behavior again.
posted by july1baby at 6:16 PM on April 8, 2012

My dog used to have separation anxiety pretty bad–she broke out of her crate once and would cry constantly while I was gone.

I started playing talk radio at low volume and giving her a well-loved long-lasting treat that she didn't get any other time except when I'm gone (raw marrow bones). She's now fine for up to 3-4 hours at a time, which is the maximum I leave her alone.
posted by muta at 6:20 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, I built up to that time in small increments, leaving her alone for 15 minutes, then 30, etc.
posted by muta at 6:21 PM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

What about getting another dog? Or even a cat?
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 6:23 PM on April 8, 2012

I believe I stated in the post that I have another dog -- an 11 year old lab -- well-behaved.
posted by july1baby at 6:31 PM on April 8, 2012

My dog would bust out of the crate too. So I clamped the wire crate shut along all seams and got a clip for the door. Then she would hop it along the floor and drag stuff in through the little holes and chew it up. You would be amazed what a determined dog can get through a 1'x2" hole. Blankets, cushions... So I moved the crate to the basement where there was nothing to chew. (And gave the airline crate away since it turns out she can open the door easily!). Once the dog knew she couldn't escape from the crate, she was totally fine with being in it. I think being in the basement where it's quiet but there are still windows helped a lot. Eventually she became fine with being left alone not in the crate and now she's generally a good dog.

I did a lot of other stuff to get her over her unreasonable attachment to me, like having random people come over and walk her, letting friends take her on a camping trip or overnight at their house and that kind of thing. Once I was not the Only Good Person in the world, a lot of her anxiety went away.
posted by fshgrl at 6:42 PM on April 8, 2012

One last thing. I read that it was a good idea to mix up the cues you give when you're getting ready to leave–like putting on a coat, getting your keys, picking up a bag. These can ramp up the dog's anticipation and anxiety. So perform these cues, then don't go out, so the association isn't so strong. I did this, but don't know how much it actually contributed to her improvement.

Oh yeah, and as fshgrl says, letting her spend a lot of quality time with other good people, especially out of the house, helped too.
posted by muta at 6:44 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Rather than trying the crate, can you try her in a series of rooms? Like one highly dog proofed room, she comes back, if it's okay, she gets a little meatball or something. That works okay, maybe try figuring out how to proof another larger space, until the ritual of you returning alleviates the anxiety?

We didn't have this particular problem with our dog, but we had other challenges, and the best remedy we had was a series of small scale positive reinforcements and time.

It was called Music Dog's Love For While You're Away.

Sensory cues are great -- you leave, this comes on, she hangs out, you return after fifteen minutes, she gets a little meatball, etc. etc.

Mindless repetition of events is its own sort of soothing. She's just not sure she'll come back, and she doesn't know what to do with herself when you're not around. She'll get the hang of it, she just needs to figure it out. Which will take a lot of time. But not an infinite amount of time.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:45 PM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think muta's suggestion is a good one. Increase time in small increments and leave her a long lasting treat to work on while you're gone. This special treat should only be given when you leave, not at any other time. I watched an episode of Me or the Dog and she recommended the incremental approach to acclimating your dog to being alone.

My dog has never had separation anxiety but I used to leave him with a kong filled with canned dog food that I'd frozen, i.e. fill kong with dog food then place in freezer. Also my dog likes Animal Planet.
posted by shoesietart at 6:52 PM on April 8, 2012

Patricia McConnell's booklet I'll Be Home Soon has a lot of great tips and advice. She also talks a little about counter conditioning for separation anxiety on her blog
posted by ljesse at 7:14 PM on April 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh man, I really feel for you. Anxiety separation with a dog can be so intense and difficult to deal with. But there is hope!

Anti-anxiety drugs: can be amazing. Our biggest guy is on a low dose now. He sustained a really nasty soft tissue injury going up the stairs and subsequently gained a stair phobia (which we determined after numerous vet appointments and radiographs to rule out physiological problems). We did positive reinforcement with him out the whazoo but we couldn’t get him to do the stairs (problem: we have lots of them in our house). With the addition of the meds we’ve conquered the stair phobia and he’s also just much more relaxed and confident. He’s the same great dog, just less “OH NO OH NO IS SOMETHING BAD HAPPENING? SHOULD I BE CONCERNED? DO YOU NEED HELP?! CAN I HELP? IS THIS AN EMERGENCY?”

Cues: dogs are so big on these! Muta is right on about it ramping up the anxiety level pre-departure. Something really simple you could do is grab your keys and purse, then sit on the couch and just chill.

Tiny time increments: yes! But start even smaller then 15 minutes. Start with five minutes. And only re-enter when she isn’t barking. Even if she stops for a half second, use that half second to bust in with a treat.

Some fantastic resources:

Here is an excellent and readable summary article that talks about the stuff mentioned above (meds and cues) written by a DVM who is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.

I recommend Dr. Sophia Yin like it’s my job (it isn’t), but she’s brilliant, and she's helped me change my dogs' lives.

Seconding Patricia McConnell. Excellent, excellent, excellent stuff over there.

Karen Pryor is also awesome. I’ve had tremendous success with clicker training. This is a link to another excellent overview on managing seperation anxiety.

You can do this! It might take time and perseverance but you can do it. I know you feel like you are at your wit's end, but there is a lot more that you can try. Baby-proofing is great, but it doesn't deal with the behavioral aspects of your dog's behavior.

FWIW, I've never had any real sustained success with things like Rescue Remedy. I think they can be helpful in certain situations but they are NOT a substitution for a behavior modification program (in my experience).
posted by OsoMeaty at 7:39 PM on April 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Nthing leaving on a TV or a radio, an article of clothing that you've worn that smells like you and a kong stuffed with food (I use peanut butter) and frozen to be given to the dog before you leave.

It sounds as though you're doing a lot of the right things, but have you spent any time desensitizing her? Like I would walk out the door and come back one minute later and not make any fuss or anything when I leave or return. Then I would up it to two minutes, then five, etc. A little bit of this every day.

Also, I think basic obedience training can work wonders for a lot of behavior problems. I think it gives the dog some structure and confidence. Have you worked on a good, solid, sit-stay-come? I would also do a little bit of this each day. Animal behaviorist Sophia Yin has a great primer on basic obedience (called Learn to Earn) to teach impulse control, but basically it comes down to a very strong sit-stay-come.

I have also read somewhere that dogs with separation anxiety shouldn't be crated, though I can't find it right now. Do you have a room that is relatively indestructible that she could be shut in? Like the bathroom (babyproofed) maybe?

Lastly, I would probably pay for a behaviorist or trainer to come over to show you how to best deal with this. They can be expensive, but you could probably do one or two sessions to get ideas from an expert on what you need to do and then implement what you've learned without having to buy further sessions. The cost would very likely be worth it in the longer run.

Here are a few links which may help:

Separation Anxiety (PDF, from Best Friends Animal Society)

Dogs and Separation Anxiety from the American Animal Hospital Association

The Fearful Dogs website has a lot of information on helping fearful dogs as well as a medication guide if you decide to go that route.

Good luck! You sound like a great dog owner. Your pup is lucky to have you.
posted by triggerfinger at 7:41 PM on April 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

My dog had a lot of separation anxiety when we first got him. Crate training was the best solution for us. It kept damage to a minimum. He was reluctant at first. I ended up pushing him in there a few times, because I absolutely had to go somewhere. A kong toy with peanut butter in his crate allowed him to have positive associations when we left. It did take a little while for him to relax, and not be so scared. I would even go so far as to say it took 6 months to a year to develop a really good trusting relationship with him, though he was much better after just a short time. Poor little guy.

We used a rubber band to hold the door shut, because he did get out. You could use zip ties to hold the crate together at crucial points. I will confess that I too was at my wits end at first.

I know someone who has a dog that absolutely freaks out whenever it rains, or in thunderstorms. She tried tranquilizers, crating, anti-anxiety meds, everything. She does two things now. During the rainy season, she puts him in doggy day care. She also has a camera set up so she can check on him from work during the day.
posted by annsunny at 7:43 PM on April 8, 2012

How did crate training go? Did you build up to it over weeks/months? Did you build up by doing extremely short amounts of time (30 seconds) leading up to 10 mins, then 15 mins, etc.?

I would restrict food, then feed it all in a frozen kong. See my previous answers for full explanations.

I'd also talk to your vet. Medication can be super helpful in nutcase rescue dogs (I say this with absolute fondness, I love my nutcases, but seriously, they can be so frustrating sometimes.) The medication is only useful if you combine it with training -- re-starting crate training from the beginning, and doing other separation anxiety training.

Sophia Yin developed this little machine called the Manners Minder. It can be used for a million different things - targeting, training, distracting, door manners, etc. Lots of folks have figured out how to use it for separation anxiety training. There's an entire listserv devoted to it too. I haven't used it for that, but it was a really really useful device because *something other than me* could reward the dog.

But all of this takes time and a serious commitment to training far beyond only training for the separation anxiety.

Can you tell us a bit more about your training skills and history with her?
posted by barnone at 9:41 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

My dog broke off one of his canine teeth trying to get out of his crate. He tore up carpet and ripped a hole in our leather couch. He was also the best lab ever! Totally sweet dog, just super nervous without his people.

What worked was to have him in a larger area -- no kennel. We used our enclosed back porch in spring/summer. We provided him with a comfy bed, food and water and he lounged out there while we were gone. (I work from home too so it wasn't like he was there all day) He would get relaxed enough being alone that by the time it got cold in the fall/winter he could come inside without incident and be left to run around the house by himself. By the time Feb. or March rolled around he'd have cabin fever and his destructive tendencies started again. But soon, the weather would be nice enough that he could hang out on the porch again.

I think that if I didn't have a porch I would have walled off an area in the garage for him. For some reason, being out in the yard made him crazy, too. He needed to be in a room-sized enclosure. Not a yard, not a crate. And not a real room, because he would attack the carpet/furniture. Once he got used to his semi-outdoor "room" however, he could come inside and be left alone and he'd be okay for 3-4 months at a time before the behavior would return.
posted by Ostara at 9:56 PM on April 8, 2012

Yeah, a baby gate won't work for her, but a smaller enclosed space might do the trick. Just be uber careful with temperature in garages - they can get super cold and super hot.
posted by barnone at 10:32 PM on April 8, 2012

Just be uber careful with temperature in garages - they can get super cold and super hot.

Also double-check for anti-freeze, which is apparently tasty, on the garage floor and any other toxins, battery operated equipment, etc. Garages can have a lot of dangerous stuff lying around including stuff people might not see but a dog would.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:23 AM on April 9, 2012

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