When speaking about separation anxiety, it's very important to understand what it is and what it isn't. A dog who barks at people or other dogs it sees out the window and stops once the trigger is gone does not have separation anxiety. A dog who vocalizes for extended periods of time, with or without a trigger, may have separation anxiety. Similarly, a dog who likes to get into the garbage, chew your $500 heels, destroy the couch, and pee on the carpet doesn't necessarily have separation anxiety. These are all common destructive behaviors seen in dogs who have been given more freedom than they can handle when left alone. If, however, your dog scratches or chews specifically near doorways that you've exited the house from, as well as windows, these may be signs of separation anxiety. In some of the worst cases, dogs will even try to hurl themselves out of windows and glass doors, and even break teeth and nails trying to get through barriers.
Unfortunately, I have had ten long years of personal experience with separation anxiety. Charlie and I have had a long time to battle it out with his inability to be alone, and I am very happy to say that he is as recovered as he will ever be. I would like to share every avenue I've tried (and I've tried them all!) and really take an in-depth look into how we overcame his SA, and how you might be able to help your own dog. If, however, you believe your dog has separation anxiety, you must seek professional help before moving forward. I didn't at first, and I made his behavior worse for a long time before I reached out to a professional and got the help that we needed.
In this post I want to cover diagnosis. As bad as Charlie's SA was, he certainly wasn't the worst case that I've read about, or really even close to the worst. Charlie's anxiety manifested in extended vocalizations (at his worst he would bark for as long as I was gone, often for more than 8 hours a day) which led to him actually collapsing his own trachea, and for a few months at a time, inappropriate urination. He also did other things like counter surf, which I think he may have found because of his anxiety, but they are also natural dog behaviors that he's retained today, so they don't count..
As far as Charlie's SA, I know exactly how it developed. He came to me as a 3 month old puppy when I was just thirteen years old and we became fast friends. I was an introverted child without many friends (but a lot of stuffed animals!) and Charlie became the focal point for me during that time. We spent every waking moment together, and I would pull him into my loft bed at night. He came to us in April of 2001 at 3 months old. That summer, he came with us to an upstate summer house that my family rented, and we spent the entire summer together. I'm pretty sure it was the following fall when his SA really skyrocketed.
This is how Charlie and I spent the first few years of his life - holed up in my room together.
Every dog that develops SA will do so for various reasons. I found out much later on that Charlie was predisposed to be anxious because his mother was an anxious dog (and even an alleged fear biter). Some dogs who are adopted may develop SA from the shelter experience, other dogs, like Charlie, might have a double whammy, where they're both genetically predisposed, and didn't receive the proper training on how to be alone when they're young.
So let's say that you've gotten complaints from your neighbors about your dog's barking. Maybe they've even gone so far as to call 311 and file a noise complaint (we got more than a few of those), what do you do?
It's important to know why your dog's barking. If you have a young, energetic terrier with a broad, open view of the street that happens to be lined in gorgeous trees with a healthy population of squirrels, there's a good chance that if you simply block your dog's sightline to the street (and the squirrels) most of the barking will stop (in this scenario, your dog would also really need to be given something to do, as well as receive enough exercise, etc.). I never knew the severity of Charlie's affliction until I taped him. First I used just a digital tape recorder, and later I video taped him (I still periodically video tape him - it's just so reinforcing for me to see him calm all day long!). It's important to know what triggers your dog to bark/chew/pace/drool/urinate/etc. as well as how long your dog keeps it up, and what your dog's body language tells you about your dog's emotional state while he's doing those behaviors.
If you get barking complaints, a tape recorder might be enough to gauge if there's a trigger, but not always (for example, you wouldn't be able to see him chasing squirrels by the window), so I highly recommend you set up a video camera. The simplest way to do this is to get an inexpensive plug and play webcam and attach it to your home computer at such an angle that it's able to capture a good portion of the room that your dog spends most of her time in when you're not home.
Most SA dogs, and this certainly applied to Charlie, become anxious even before you leave, and often engage in their anxious behavior as soon as you're gone, so you won't have to wade through hours of tape to see what's going on. If you're unsure whether or not your dog's urination (or barking, or chewing, etc.) is a housebreaking issue or an anxiety issue, this is a great way to find out.
Behaviors to look out for if you're trying to diagnose SA via a video tape:
So please, if your dog is misbehaving in any way when you're not home, I strongly recommend you video tape your dog, especially if you're inclined to believe that your dog may have separation anxiety, or if what you've done to fix your dog's misbehavior hasn't worked.
Once you've decided that your dog probably does have separation anxiety, it's time to call a professional behaviorist. Separation anxiety is very difficult to treat and there is a high likelihood that you will need to seek professional help to even make a dent in your dog's anxiety. All the posts in this series are not meant as a substitute to bringing in a professional to work with you and your dog. There's always a chance that your dog has a medical condition that needs addressing, so please make sure a visit to the veterinarian (preferably a veterinary behaviorist) is your first step. Every dog and every dog's needs will be different, and there's no one right method, or combination of methods, that will work for everyone (human or canine). I will share everything that I tried with Charlie - that which worked, and that which didn't - in the upcoming posts. I will even share strategies that I'm ashamed I tried, so that you won't go that route and can learn from my mistakes.
Charlie is now a healthy, happy adult dog with whom I still spend a lot of time, but one who can also stay home peacefully when I'm away.
If you're battling with separation anxiety right now and there is a certain aspect you would like to see addressed, please leave a comment and I will make sure to get it in. As of right now, I have the following posts planned:
-The role of exercise
-How training can help
-Food toys will save your life!
-A serious decision: medication
-A second dog, best or worst idea ever?
-How much does background noise really help?
-Will a spay or neuter surgery help?
-Wraps, sprays, collars, muzzles: Do any of them really work?
-The other end of the door: How SA affects owners.