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Separation Issues in Dogs

Updated: Mar 19

Separation anxiety and distress are often misused to describe any dog who barks or gets into trouble when their owners are away. However not all dogs who behave this way actually have separation issues. Some dogs just haven’t had proper training for what to do when they are alone. For dogs who do have separation issues the true definition is: a dog who panics when alone.

For those of you who are wondering what separation issues look like and does your dog “fit” into this category, here is what separation issues look like:

A dog who is in panic mode when owners are away are dogs who

- Have extreme destructive behavior – this means they are shredding all of your blankets, your pillows, your couches, they are destroying the doors trying to get out, or they might destroy the blinds so they can see outside.

- Who urinate and defecate when left alone but don’t when someone is around.

- Have excessive vocalization – this means dogs who can not settle down. This is not the dog who vocalizes for a couple minutes after owners leave but can then settle on their own.

- Excessive drooling

- Attempts to escape confinement – so breaking out of kennels or bedroom. *severe cases can even cause injury to pet*

If you have gotten to this point and some boxes are being checked off, you may be asking yourself why is this happening?

There are so many reasons as to why a dog develops separation issues. A common reason is changes in schedule or environment. If a dog is used to their owners constantly being around and then suddenly their owners are not, then that dog is likely to develop separation issues. Or if a dog is used to a busy bustling city where things are loud, and someone is always walking by and then their home is moved to the quiet suburbs they may feel isolated.

Some other reasons include:

- Companion animals passing away – if a dog is used to having a second animal with them, then when that animal passes away and the other pet is now alone, a separation issue can develop.

- Genetics – there are some dog breeds that are predisposed to separation issues. With these breeds the best thing to do is begin working on separation issues right away.

- Poor frustration tolerance

- Unhealthy attachment to owner

- Aging / physical changes

- Pain or illness

- Trauma or noise sensitivity

- Moving – as stated above – sometimes moving to a different environment can throw the dogs for a loop. This is true with newly adopted dogs as well. Suddenly they are in a new home and aren’t sure if things are going to change again or not so separation issues develop.

If more boxes are being checked off and you are now considering training here are some things to begin considering. What influences the outcome from training?

- Intensity of the panic disorder – a dog who has mild separation issues is going to progress through training a lot quicker and sometimes better than a dog who has severe separation issues.

- Resources – If you are able to outsource to dog day camps or regular dog walkers this can help alleviate some of these separation issues, but this is not always available to all owners.

- Ability to safely confine – a dog who can be crated safely is also going to be able to progress through a separation issue. However, training will require more work for a dog who cannot be safely confined.

- Schedule – training depends on consistency. Therefore, if an owner is unable to consistently work on the separation issues their dog has then the issues won’t be able to improve.

- Behavior history – Past history is very influential to a dogs currently behavior. Most often past behavior and history is not known and training needs to keep that in mind. There could be a current situation that is triggering a past response. Therefore, keeping in mind a past response could be surfacing will be beneficial during training.

- Attitude – Attitude is everything! Owners who remain positive and understand that working through separation issues is a long process will have a better prognosis than an owner who doesn’t.

Training is a commitment and dogs with separation issues need 100% commitment. This means not only working with a professional trainer but training yourself when the trainer is gone. This also means understanding that the process of working through separation issues in dogs can take months and it is not something that will be fixed over night or in one training session.

When working through separation issues the following training techniques are often used to assist in the process. These training techniques introduce a dogs trigger to them in a short and safe scenario and then paired with something they find valuable to create a positive response and association with the trigger.

Desensitization: Gradually increasing the intensity of exposure at levels the learner can tolerate

Counter conditioning: Changing the emotional response through pairing a negative stimulus with a positive one

Here is an example of a training plan for a dog with separation issues. This training plan focuses on training impulse control and learning to be calm and settled without the owners actually leaving.

- Daily crating – scheduled {What would a normal schedule be when leaving the home for work? What times would your dog be crated? Would anyone stop by for potty breaks or walks? Think of what a “typical” day would look like and begin introducing crating during those times with breaks as needed}

- Working for meals – This is extra stimulation for lack of enrichment. This looks like a maze bowl which encourages dogs to slow down while eating. This can also look like food stuffed into toys which also encourages dogs to slow down while eating but also encourages the dogs to “hunt” for their food.

- Feed meals when alone (only if pet with readily eat alone) {If your pet is the kind of pet who absolutely will not eat when they are alone that is okay. You can feed when you are nearby}

- Sit to say please – This is a great training tool where before a dog can have their food they must sit and stay. This encourages a dog to remain calm before eating.

- No sleeping in bed – Dogs who sleep in owners beds often develop unhealthy attachment to their owners which will not be healthy or helpful when working through separation issues.

- No access to furniture

- Calm leaving and returning à don’t make a bid deal, should be a non-event

When beginning training there are many things that tell your dog that this is a training session and you will not actually be going anywhere. With separation issues you can use an item that will be known as a Safety Signal. Again, this is something that tells the dog that it’s a practice session and the owner will be returning within a safe time frame.

Safety signals can look like:

- Specific bed / mat during training

- Certain smell

- Specific physical object placed on ground

- Specific music

Separation issues are a challenging behavioral issue to work through. Working with a professional trainer will help set your dog up for success. There can be setbacks during this process and an important thing to remember is to not be discouraged. If you feel like you need a helping hand along the way, don’t hesitate to reach out to your trainer for some guidance!

Below are some myths and then the truths about separation issues. There are lots of opinions about separation issues so do your research and reach out to professional dog trainers for help!

Drop a comment below if a specific course on separation issues that would go through more in depth training and solutions would be something you would enjoy!

Thank you for reading!

Muddy Paws Training & Behavior

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