On dogs and separation anxiety

Separation anxiety is a contentious topic. Often, what’s described as separation anxiety is simply boredom or bad manners or a combination of both. With Lucas and Emmett, while they both displayed similar behaviors when we left the house, with Emmett is was full-blown separation anxiety. With Lucas it was mostly that he was an ass. But we worked on both, equally!

A bit of a digression: When we first adopted Emmett, the shelter said we could not crate train him, that he freaked out, but that he was totally fine with having a small area to himself – in fact, a shelter worker had left the door open to Emmett’s run by accident one day, and he never tried to leave! When the shelter did our home visit, they suggested that we baby gate him in the kitchen.

Emmett and one of his special toys

The front door to our condo was off of the kitchen. We had a number of incredibly fabulous, patient neighbors who kept us posted: Emmett cried for the full four hours you were gone today, Emmett cried and scratched at the door the whole time you were at the grocery store, Emmett cried and paced when you went to get the mail, and so on. We would leave, he would lie down in front of the door and cry, pace, whine, scratch. When our neighbor Lou finally met Emmett he exclaimed, “THAT is the dog you have in there? I thought you had a teeny puppy!”

All this is to say, I’ve read a handful of pet blogs lately that have been talking about their battles with separation anxiety. And while I would caution anyone to talk to a professional trainer first, I wanted to share what worked for us in case it helps someone who’s dealing with similar issues.

It was all about the routine.

Every single time we left the house (EVERY single time for the first few months, even to run out to get the mail), we performed the same series of steps:

Emmett went into the kitchen, and we latched the baby gate. We turned on the radio to a low volume. We reached into the cupboard and pulled out two or three of his favorite toys that were special toys (they ONLY came out when we left the house. Stuffed Kongs work great, Busy Buddy, etc.). Then, what turned out to be the most important step in the process for our food-motivated Emmett, we pulled a biscuit out of the cupboard, led him to his bed, said “Be good, we’ll be right back” then gave him the biscuit. Then we walked out the door. When we got home, we’d unlatch the baby gate, turn off the radio, pick up his special toys, then give him rubs and hugs and tell him what a good boy he is.

The trick was repetition. We performed this same series of steps 100% of the times we walked out of our front door, even if it was to run to a neighbor’s to borrow a cup of sugar. Every. Single. Time. Yes, it was tedious, but it worked. Within a few weeks, Emmett caught onto the routine, and our neighbors reported a significant decrease in his crying. After several months, when we would get ready to leave, put our shoes and coats on, etc., Emmett would dash to his bed and start licking his lips, awaiting his special biscuit.

When we adopted Lucas, he did bad things when we were away, but even though he was a puppy, he never once had an accident. And once we helped him learn what was appropriate for him to chew (NOT the arms of our furniture), his bad behavior ceased entirely. Even though Lucas didn’t suffer from separation anxiety, I feel confident saying that the routine helped him as well because he was very quickly able to learn what was going on and to assimilate into our specific routine.

Lucas, the first weekend with us!

WHEW! Long post! I hope this helps, and if anyone has any questions about our routine, the steps we took, or whatever, fire away!!

Anyone else faced separation anxiety? Any tips or strategies to help pups overcome their fears?