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Ask a Trainer: How Can I Fix My Dog’s Severe Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a complex issue that can be cured, but it requires a commitment to both training and healthcare.

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA  |  Sep 29th 2015


I recently received a question from a reader:

Please help! I’ve just adopted a darling dog I already love so much, but she has severe separation anxiety and has jumped out of windows when left alone, and she destroys my house. She has recently started lunging at dogs on leash, as well. I am worried I will have to return her.

Sarah W., Arlington, VA

Dear Sarah,

You are already one of my favorite humans because you opened your heart and home to a dog in need. In this case, your new housemate has a very big need. Separation anxiety and leash reactivity are complex issues and, as such, not subjects I can advise in a short column how to fix. Entire books have been written about both concerns, which can cause havoc and heartache for both species.

What I can do is share the story of a dog I helped named Baxter. He once was just like your dog. He no longer jumps out of windows or destroys his owner’s home when left alone. Baxter is also snoring right now at my house, peacefully sleeping alongside my three dogs, as he often boards with us. He has stopped lunging on leash, and he now even helps me help other reactive dogs.

My dog Monster, left, with our houseguest Baxter. (Photo by Annie Phenix)

My dog Monster, left, with our houseguest Baxter. (Photo by Annie Phenix)

How did we get him to this happy place? It took time — about a year. And it took good-hearted, patient human beings who guided Baxter into a calmer place. It took my help, and it required the assistance of a veterinarian well-versed in canine behavior issues.

Did you know, Sarah, that most veterinarians never have to take even one course on animal behavior while in vet school? Don’t get me wrong — I adore veterinarians. I respect their abilities, and I often partner with veterinarians, but I want owners to be aware that most veterinarians are not well-trained in behavior modification. You can always ask them about their background in that regard; the good ones won’t be offended by the question.

Back to Baxter. Gosh, he’s a cute little guy. He has the biggest brown eyes, which can melt anyone on the spot. He looks a lot like a miniature Boxer. His owners — Sue and Mike – knew nothing about his prior history when they adopted him from a local shelter as an adult dog. I can see why they chose him because he loves people, and … did I already mention his soulful eyes?

Anyhow, within a day or two of bringing Baxter home, Sue and Mike learned that leaving Baxter alone caused him an enormous amount of stress and anxiety. He started to chew on walls and doorways. One day, he watched them leaving and in his state of worry jumped out of a window that was 6 feet off the ground. Luckily, a neighbor saw this and went to check on him. He wasn’t physically injured. His owners read up on separation anxiety. They got him great chew toys and did everything they knew to do to ease Baxter into being OK alone, including taking him on their daily, very long, straight-up-the-mountains hike.

Baxter, Monster, and another dog in training. (Photo by Annie Phenix)

Baxter, Monster, and another dog in training. (Photo by Annie Phenix)

In a dog wired differently, the long hikes and the chew toys might have solved the issue. It didn’t for Baxter. Soon enough, he started showing leash aggression and got into altercations with other dogs.

Because his owners are responsible people, that meant Baxter must stay leashed for their hikes. This lovely retired couple loves to travel and do something as simple as play golf in the afternoons. What can they do with Baxter when they are away from the house? They tried putting him at a kennel that offered day care. He came home “wired and tired” and even more keyed up. They tried to find an available pet sitter to sit with him, but that quickly became unrealistic, as he could not be left alone at all without panicking and then destroying things or trying to jump through windows.

Sue and Mike were referred to me by a local trainer. We decided to have Baxter go through one of my Growly Dog classes (he ended up going through two). That gave Sue some new protocols that helped him with his leash reactivity. I also forwarded his owners the latest information on separation anxiety and suggested a new book on that topic: Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs by Malena DeMartini-Price, CTC.

Perhaps one of my most important pieces of advice for this dog was that his owners make an appointment with the one veterinarian in town who specializes in canine behavior. I felt that Baxter would greatly benefit from getting on anti-anxiety medication. Think about what we call this condition — the second word in the name is “anxiety.” Baxter’s anxiety was about other dogs as well. His owners did make that appointment, and they checked Baxter’s thyroid levels because I requested that be done.

Baxter is hypothyroid, meaning he has low thyroid. That in and of itself can tip a dog toward reactive behavior, such as being overly worried about other dogs. Check out my Dogster interview with Dr. Jean Dodds, the world’s foremost authority on the impacts being hypothyroid can have on a dog. Baxter now takes thyroid mediation twice a day, and his levels are tested every six months. He was also put on an anti-anxiety medication to allow our behavior modification protocols to be as effective as possible; he has since been weaned off the meds. We also know from scientific study that proper medication plus behavior modification is the fastest way to help troubled dogs.

Baxter helping another dog with anxiety issues. (Photo by Annie Phenix)

Baxter helping another dog with reactivity issues. (Photo by Annie Phenix)

Baxter got very lucky when he was chosen by Sue and Mike. I say that because they sought the help of experts and they listened to our advice. Most importantly — they did the homework with Baxter. It took time and patience, but they did not give up on him. It’s paid off for them and Baxter, as the photos of him playing happily with other dogs attest. He can now safely be left at home for hours. He has returned to hiking off-leash, as his reactivity has decreased to the point of being non-existent.

So, Sarah, my best advice for you to help your new best friend is this:

  1. Visit a veterinarian and rule out any possible medical contributing factors. Discuss anti-anxiety medication with your veterinarian. Be prepared by understanding that you may have to try more than one medication before you find the right drug, as dogs are individuals.
  2. Accept that there is no magic bullet and there is no one thing that will resolve your dog’s anxiety. Several things together will help him – such things as medication and behavior modification, as well as scientific education for you as the owner on how best to help your buddy.
  3. Make sure you have a truly qualified, force-free trainer to assist you. Anyone anywhere can claim to be a trainer or even a behaviorist. Chose wisely. A good place to start looking is through the Pet Professional Guild.

The success of your dog’s future does lie in your hands, head, and heart. You will have to do the heavy lifting for him, as Sue and Mike did for Baxter. However, you are not alone, and there are talented and committed professionals who can assist you on this journey. And, it will be a journey — but one worth the effort, as Sue, Mike, and myself can attest. Dogs such as Baxter challenge you in so many ways. Some will be beyond our reach and will break your heart. Most of them we can help. I wish you every success with your dog.

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About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She takes her highly trained dogs with them everywhere dogs are welcome because of their exceptionally good manners. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.