How can I help my dog’s severe separation/anxiety

How can I help my dog’s severe separation/anxiety

   Virtually every puppy will prefer your or someone else’s presence rather than being alone. The anxiety of being separated can vary greatly. The normal separation nervousness can be easily addressed as the dog comes to trust that you’ll always return, so do the basics (de-emotionalizing, providing special toys, etc.) should result in problem-free separation.

   The more severe cases will require much more effort. Very severe cases can present diarrhea, regurgitating, self-mutilating, constant howling, and breaking teeth during escape endeavors. For those dogs with severe separation anxiety, other strategies and tools need to be employed. Under more standard circumstances, crating your dog is pretty much a foolproof strategy, but I would not recommend it here. Often, dogs with severe separation anxiety also suffer from barrier frustration, in which case the dog becomes even more crazed at the confinement. A dog with barrier frustration literally can’t handle any type of physical barrier (gate, door, fence, etc.) preventing him from going where he wants to go.

   One of the most difficult cases I encountered was a young adult Yorkie whose chronic bloody footprints were sad evidence of her intense barrier frustration. Whenever left alone, she went to the apartment’s front door and scratched at it until her feet bled. If left in the bedroom with the door closed, she worked at that door continually, sheer exhaustion being the only short respite until she was at it again. If Mom went into the bathroom and closed the door with Yorkie Girl on the outside, it was full-on scratching. She had the same response to a gate, crate, or barrier of any kind.

   There wasn’t a door in the apartment that didn’t need painting, and her feet were always abraded. My first attempt was simple, straightforward, and seemingly foolproof: boots. They didn’t work. They did nothing to stop the behavior as all of them came off after a couple of minutes. After several other unsuccessful attempts, I came up with a brilliant idea, I thought. Eliminate the barrier! I had building maintenance put an eye hook in the ceiling in the middle of the big living room.

   I then attached a somewhat elastic line from the eye hook to the floor where I placed her favorite bed, food and water bowls, and toys. Yorkie Girl then got a harness that was clipped to the elastic line. Now when left alone, she was confined without a barrier to scratch against! She could access her bed, bowls, and toys without a wall in her face to frustrate her. Yorkie Girl’s owners told me I was brilliant as we stepped out of the apartment and waited on the other side of the door to see how it would go.

   Unbelievably, a minute later, we heard her nails on the other side of the door. Somehow, she had pulled herself out of the harness! So, I cinched the harness a lot tighter and we tried again. Long story short, we tried many different harnesses, some of which I had on so tight I was afraid she would pass out from lack of oxygen, but to no avail.

   She was the Houdini of harness escapes. It came down to drugs prescribed by the vet. My so-called brilliance was a depressing failure to me. One idea to consider is a DAP (dog-appeasing pheromone) collar which can be quite relaxing for dogs. Think of this as doggy aromatherapy. My daughter uses one for her dog Kelsey. She can tell when the DAP collar is running low by the change in Kelsey’s behavior. It’s subtle—Kelsey’s ears are cocked and her walk is more stiff-legged—but the signs are there. Her dog is clearly more relaxed with the DAP collar.

   My personal preference is always to try behavior modification before resorting to medicating your dog, but extreme cases require that all routes be explored that can give you and your dog relief from a bad situation, so you shouldn’t hesitate to pursue them with professional input. Any decisions must be made in close consultation with a veterinary expert. For example, Clomicalm was FDA-approved years ago for dogs suffering from separation anxiety.

   In my experience, it doesn’t work for all dogs, and when it does, it takes about six weeks to become therapeutic. More often than not, when drugs are used, it’s not a lifetime deal. Coupled with behavior modification, dosages are often lowered and the dogs are eventually weaned from them altogether. 

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