How We Help Our Vizsla With Her Severe Separation Anxiety

We've tried everything to free our dog Finley from her anxiety, from medication to desensitization, but nothing but time and steady training seems to work -- however slowly.
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May 3 through 9 is National Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week. With warmer temperatures — ideal for dog walking — and more smile-producing daylight hours after a dark and dreary winter, it’s somewhat surprising that the middle of spring comes with such an uneasy association as anxiety.

The mere mention of the A-word immediately makes me think of my dog, Finley, who’s struggled with separation anxiety since day one of her short two-year life. By the time we brought her home from the breeder at seven weeks old, we had read Dogs for Dummies and Versatile Vizsla, in hopes that we had prepared ourselves for whatever we were getting into as puppy parents. We bought a widely recommended crate, stocked up on safe squeaky toys, and developed a training regimen based upon positive reinforcement. In spite of some new parent jitters over bringing a living thing into our home, we were over the moon to have found an adorable pup and felt ready for almost anything.

We were told that such a young puppy might tremble out of fear in a new environment, so we weren’t surprised when Finley shook like a little furry leaf every few minutes during the car ride home. She softly whimpered and looked at us as if to ask, “What’s happening? Where am I going?” She had a nearly permanent crease in her brow for the first few weeks it seemed. It broke our hearts, but we were confident she’d eventually settle in with us, her new family.

The day we picked up Finley from the breeder, her sweet face was stricken with concern during the entire ride home.

That very first night with Finley, we gently placed her in the cozy, blanket-lined crate, turned off the lights, and slid into bed mere inches from where she was. Within seconds, she barked and shrieked and howled as if someone (or something) was torturing her. We told her “shhh!” and reassured her that we were right there, but nothing could soothe this hysterical pup of ours. We probably slept for a total of one hour that night.

From then on, every night was much of the same. Although we did get more sleep and moments of quiet respite little by little, Finley still protested being put in her crate and barked and whined for the first few hours. But we held our ground, all through the night. Giving in would only make the situation worse, and we had learned that crate training was important to establishing rules around safety. Still, we never anticipated how difficult it would become.

Soon, not only was Finley crying in her crate at night, she was complaining all day long when we crated her during work hours. We hired a dog walker to come twice every weekday — once in the morning and again in the afternoon — and those walks were the only time Finley wasn’t making a ruckus, or so our apartment neighbors told us. In fact, a letter from the Department of Health warned us that we needed to cease “disturbing the peace” immediately.

We had no idea what a riot this pup was causing every time we left her in the crate to go to work.

The situation quickly became anxiety producing for us as owners as much as it was for Finley. Despite our best efforts to make Finley love her crate — lavishing her with treats every time she was in it, playing fun crate games, and never using it as punishment — she obviously viewed it as some kind of prison. What were we doing wrong?

I started reading everything I could get my hands on about leaving dogs home alone. Almost every expert recommended the exact approach we were using: plenty of exercise and mental stimulation before leaving, treats and praise upon crating, then walking out the door without making a big deal about it.

On weekday mornings, if we could make it out the door and down the street without hearing Finley’s frantic cries coming from our second-floor apartment, we considered ourselves lucky. But, more often than not, she was wailing before we were even down the front stairs.

On the evening walk back from a nearby subway stop, I would silently say a prayer that all was calm and quiet as I approached the building. About half the time, it was; the other half, I could hear Finley more loudly with each passing step.

Although we couldn’t see any noticeable improvement, we continued this pattern consistently for two months. I was fiercely determined to solve our poor pup’s separation anxiety.

Then Finley broke her leg at the dog park while in our dog walker’s care.

Finley only wore a cast for a few weeks, but her recovery felt like a lifetime.

It’s hard to say whether the cumbersome cast made an already bad situation worse, but it definitely didn’t make it any better. The associated confusion and pain that our four-month-old pooch was likely experiencing was probably enough to cause an even greater avalanche of anxiety every time we left the apartment to go to work.

By the time Finley fully recovered, I was making preparations to leave my office job and try working from home as a freelance writer. Although the decision wasn’t made because of our dog, I’ve stuck with this career choice partly due to her ever-evolving needs. I’m able to spend a portion of my day practicing desensitization training with Finley, getting her used to being alone for longer stretches of time. We began with mere seconds of separation, and have gradually worked up to two hours apart after months and months of tiny successes and small setbacks. Along the way we’ve tried the ThunderShirt, some anti-bark collars that made us very uneasy, and meds like Clomicalm. Nothing has solved the problem, but time and training seem to be working — slowly.

A minor success: Finley hanging out in her crate while wearing her ThunderShirt.

Today, Finley is never left alone. We bring her to doggy day care or hire a dog sitter if nobody is going to be home or she can’t come with us wherever we’re headed. Last summer, she escaped from my in-laws’ house when we were gone for only one hour, and we’re not willing to take our chances again given her severe separation anxiety.

In the meantime, I try to manage my own stress and anxiety by reminding myself that there are much bigger problems that afflict dogs — like aggression and serious health issues — and we should be thankful not to have them.

Finley’s intolerance for solitude manifests in some frustrating ways, but the love and appreciation we have for this animal is more than enough to deal with her chronic anxiety.

Do you have a dog with separation anxiety? How have you dealt with it. Share your experience in the comments!

Read more about separation anxiety in dogs:

About the author: Whitney C. Harris is a New York-based freelance writer for websites including StrollerTraffic, Birchbox, and WhattoExpect.com. A former book and magazine editor, she enjoys running (with Finley), watching movies (also with Finley), and cooking meatless meals (usually with Finley watching close by).

4 thoughts on “How We Help Our Vizsla With Her Severe Separation Anxiety”

  1. over 80% in the US and 90% in Japan are struggling with social anxiety syndrome.
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    https://youtu.be/YH7ySlLZlPM

  2. Pingback: Stop Dog Separation Anxiety Quickly – Dog Anxiety Symptoms

  3. We have a Vizsla with severe separation anxiety as a pup and even to this day. We hired a professional dog trainer who really helped us get our Vizsla used to her crate as she was destroying everything in the house while we were away at work (she was even clawing and chewing holes in the wall). He told us to get a big, huge juicy bone and leave it in the crate with her. So that was step one. Step two was every time she began to whine and scream by being in her crate, we’d slam a book on top and at the top of our lungs yell, “Quiet!” After a few times, she got the message. Finally, we were able to leave her out of the crate. We do have another dog (German Shepherd) who is 6 months younger than our Vizsla that is at home keeping her company while we’re at work. BUT, before we or anyone leaves her alone, we fill up this kong chew toy with milk bones and yummy treats and give it to her. Then in a low key tone, I tell her I’ll be back and I slip out of the house while she’s focusing on her kong toy. It’s been a life saver. Sometimes she can’t get her treat out so she brings it to us as soon as we get home so we can get the remaining treat out for her. She seems quiet during the day and loves to lounge on our couch (actually, it’s her couch now–LOL). Hope this helps someone.

  4. Devoted Vizsla Mom

    I have a Vizsla. I am very much in love with her as is my little family. She’s always been wonderful with my kids and everyone else’s. We got Fern when she was 3 1/2 months old, my youngest son was only a year. She became obsessed with him, and he is “her” baby. Haha. When we brought Fern home, we crated her in the night for the most part, she wasn’t much of a whiner, and never pottied in her crate. But she was quite vocal if we left. I broke the rules often and allowed her to sleep in the bed with us, her and my youngest like to cuddle and she watches over him as he is sleeping. The problem started when Fern started getting out of her crate every time we would leave. To church you say? No. Not happening. We left our “at the time apartment” to come back home to Fern tangled in the blinds. I was frantic because she was stuck in the front window of my apartment and couldn’t get out. She was crying and had peed on the couch because she couldn’t get out, my dog that never had an accident in the house. Although, that didn’t bother me, the ever growing fear of losing my Fern due to her trying to get to us when we were gone broke my heart. Fast forward some, through multiple blinds torn down, rooms torn up in a fit to get to us, and none of this was without Fern being crated. I was worried she was going to hurt herself chewing through multiple plastic crates and forcing herself through small holes she had eaten through, it’s a wonder my poor dog hadn’t broken her legs in these rampages, fueled by anxiety of her getting hurt, I bought an extremely expensive highly recommended steel welded crate. As I left her in it the first time, (in my RV with the AC so she would stay cool in the heat of a Texas summer, I did feel a little pang of the unknowing and worry upon leaving her to pick my son up from school. When i returned, Fern had bent bars of a STEEL crate and forced her way through. The RV was ransacked. At this time we were living on 3 acres, have goats, and another dog as well as our kids for her to have her “job” and playtime, as well as spending every day with her our own selves, even spending all night cuddling. At this point, we realized we could never put Fern in a crate again, because no matter how many times she gets out of the yard, whether it is chasing butterflies or tracking a scent, she is more of a hazard to her safety inside of a crate than out. Did I mention, my escape artist also will NOT stay in a fence? My husband and I started taking different shifts, he worked nights, so he was home with her all day, and me all night. All though, this did have an effect on our marriage. Do you know how hard it is to never be able to go grocery shopping with your husband and children all together because your dog is to scared to be left alone? We never blamed Fern, we just altered our lives to aid her growth. She spends a good amount of time outside now, we still can’t keep her in. She sleeps in the bed and also barks at the first sign of dark at the creatures that go bump in the night when she is let out. We left her outside in the night a couple times and none of the neighbors or us got any sleep. Truthfully told, I’m worried she will get hurt in some way out there in the night. Don’t underestimate the “Velcro” of this breed. They love to their cores and would die for you which also means they NEVER want to be without you. Fern is now 2 years old, she does laze around inside, if let out in the night she chases shadows in the dark all night, also cannot be left anywhere you are not at outside. Oh? You’re outside of the fence? I am too, says Fern. I do hope in some years that Fern realizes we will never leave her and will always be there to calm her heart and fears so that she can have some rest from her anxiety.

    Sincerely, from a devoted Vizsla mom

    Ps. How is finely these days?

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